Written By: Ben Cosgrove

“If any Charter Subscriber is surprised by what turned out to be the first story in this first issue of LIFE,” the magazine’s editors wrote in the Nov. 23, 1936 issue, “he is not nearly so surprised as [we] were. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White had been dispatched to the Northwest to photograph the multimillion dollar projects of the Columbia River Basin. What the editors expected were construction pictures as only Bourke-White can take them. What the editors got was a human document of American frontier life which, to them at least, was a revelation.”

Thus the men and women behind what would become one of the longest-lived experiments—and one of the greatest success stories of 20th-century American publishing—introduced themselves, and their inaugural effort, to the world.

In her riveting 1963 autobiography, Portrait of Myself, Bourke-White recalls the heady experience working for LIFE on the debut issue, and on countless subsequent assignments for what would become one of the indispensable weeklies of the past 100 years:

A few weeks before the beginning, Harry Luce called me up to his office and assigned me to a wonderful story out in the Northwest. Luce was very active editorially in the early days of the magazine, and there was always that extra spark in the air. Harry’s idea was to photograph the enormous chain of dams in the Columbia River basin that was part of the New Deal program. I was to stop off at New Deal, a settlement near Billings, Montana, where I would photograph the construction of Fort Peck, the world’s largest earth-filled dam. Harry told me to watch out for something on a grand scale that might make a cover.

“Hurry back, Maggie,” he said, and off I went. I had never seen a place quite like the town of New Deal, the construction site of Fort Peck Dam. It was a pinpoint in the long, lonely stretches of northern Montana so primitive and so wild that the whole ramshackle town seemed to carry the flavor of the boisterous Gold Rush days. It was stuffed to the seams with construction men, engineers, welders, quack doctors, barmaids, fancy ladies and, as one of my photographs illustrated, the only idle bedsprings in New Deal were the broken ones. People lived in trailers, huts, coops anything they could find and at night they hung over the Bar X bar.

These were the days of LIFE’s youth, and things were very informal. I woke up each morning ready for any surprise the day might bring. I loved the swift pace of the LIFE assignments, the exhilaration of stepping over the threshold into a new land. Everything could be conquered. Nothing was too difficult. And if you had a stiff deadline to meet, all the better. You said yes to the challenge and shaped up the story accordingly, and found joy and a sense of accomplishment in so doing. The world was full of discoveries waiting to be made. I felt very fortunate that I had an outlet, such an exceptional outlet, perhaps the only one of this kind in the world at that time, through which I could share the things I saw and learned.

Long after Margaret Bourke-White’s remarkable photos from the Depression-era wilds of Montana graced the pages of that first issue of LIFE—one of her characteristically monumental “construction pictures” (as the editors put it) served as the cover image for that issue—LIFE.com presents the Fort Peck Dam feature in its entirety, along with a number of Bourke-White photos that did not appear in the original cover story.

Here is a portrait of a community brought together by circumstance, i.e., by FDR’s New Deal, in a barren place, in an unimaginably hard time, for the express purpose of building one of the chief engineering marvels of the age. (Fort Peck Dam is still, today, the highest of all the major dams along the great Missouri River.) Bourke-White’s photos, meanwhile, capture the vast scale of the audacious project and the far more intimate scope of the human capacity for finding joy or, at the very least, a kind of rough pleasure and fellowship wherever one can, whatever the odds.

So, while LIFE’s “charter subscribers” and its editors might have been surprised “by what turned out to be the first story” in the magazine’s history, in retrospect Bourke-White’s tale seems, with its heroic overtones, its astonishing photography and its focus on the human aspect of a superhuman effort, an apt introduction to LIFE’s mission and its method.

Workers on Montana's Fort Peck Dam blow off steam at night, 1936.

Workers on Montana’s Fort Peck Dam blew off steam at night, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

In the Wild West town of Wheeler, near Fort Peck, Montana, Frank Breznik (left) is the law. He used to be a traveling salesman in Atlantic city.

In Wheeler, near Fort Peck, Montana, Frank Breznik (left) was the law. He had previously been a traveling salesman in Atlantic City.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Wheeler, Montana, 1936

Wheeler, Montana, was one of the six frontier towns around Fort Peck.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

The New West's new hotspot is a town called 'New Deal.'

The area’s latest hotspot was a town called New Deal.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

The only idle bedsprings in New Deal are the broken ones.

LIFE’s first issue declared, “The only idle bedsprings in New Deal are the broken ones.”

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Beneath a "No Beer Sold to Indians" sign, a woman tosses back a drink in Montana, 1936.

Beneath a “No Beer Sold to Indians” sign, a woman tossed back a drink.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Life in the cowless cow towns is lush but not cheap.

Life in the cowless cow towns was not cheap for its day.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Lt. Col. T. B. Larkin, head of the dam project, 1936.

Lt. Col. T. B. Larkin was the head of the dam project.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Bar X, Montana, 1936.

Bar X, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Ruby's Place. This is the beer bar. The only drink you can legally sell by the glass in Montana is beer and you mustn't sell that to Indians. For the heavy liquor customers go to another bar behind. It's merely a formality. The back bar is just as open.

The only alcohol that could be sold legally was beer by the glass, but at Ruby’s Place and others like it, liquor was also sold at a back bar.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

One-fourth of the Missouri River will run through this steel 'liner.'

One-fourth of the Missouri River would run through this steel “liner.”

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Major Clark Kittrell, No. 2 man on the Fort Peck Dam project.

Major Clark Kittrell was the No. 2 man on the Fort Peck Dam project.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Drinking in Ed's Place, Montana, 1936.

Ed’s Place, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Ruby, second from the left, is the founder of the town of Wheeler -- and its rich woman. What she learned in the Klondike has turned to good account.

Ruby, second from the left, was the founder of the town of Wheeler—and its richest woman. She had come to Montana with experience in the Klondike.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Drinking at the bar Finis, Montana, 1936.

Drinking at the bar Finis, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Drinking at the bar Finis, Montana, 1936.

Drinking at the bar Finis, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Mrs. Nelson, who washes New Deal, Montana, without running water.

Mrs. Nelson washed New Deal, Montana, without the aid of running water.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Fort Peck, Montana Out-Takes

One of the several frontier towns near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Fort Peck, Montana Out-Takes

Men and women in one of the several frontier towns near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Fort Peck, Montana Out-Takes

A bar in a town near the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Fort Peck, Montana Out-Takes

A bar in one of the several frontier towns near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Fort Peck, Montana Out-Takes

A bar in one of the several frontier towns near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Fort Peck, Montana Out-Takes

Workers in one of the several frontier towns near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Scene from one of the several "frontier towns" near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Wood was for sale in one of the several frontier towns near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Scene from one of the several "frontier towns" near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

A beauty shop near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Scene from one of the several "frontier towns" near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

One of the several frontier towns near the site of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Men worked on the construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

First LIFE cover November 23, 1936.

First LIFE cover November 23, 1936.

Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection

Page spreads from the inaugural, Nov. 23, 1936, issue of LIFE magazine.

LIFE Magazine Nov. 23, 1936

Margaret Bourke-White LIFE Magazine

Page spreads from the inaugural, Nov. 23, 1936, issue of LIFE magazine.

LIFE Magazine Nov. 23, 1936

Margaret Bourke-White LIFE Magazine

Page spreads from the inaugural, Nov. 23, 1936, issue of LIFE magazine.

LIFE Magazine Nov. 23, 1936

Margaret Bourke-White LIFE Magazine

Page spreads from the inaugural, Nov. 23, 1936, issue of LIFE magazine.

LIFE Magazine Nov. 23, 1936

Margaret Bourke-White LIFE Magazine

Page spreads from the inaugural, Nov. 23, 1936, issue of LIFE magazine.

LIFE Magazine Nov. 23, 1936

Margaret Bourke-White LIFE Magazine

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