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This town was initially named Grovont, an Anglicized spelling for the nearby Gros Ventre River. Another post office had already used the name, however, so they had to change it in 1909. The new name honored Bill Kelly, local sawmill owner and rancher.

A landslide shook the little ranching community in 1925, when the end of Sheep Mountain crumbled in just three minutes and dammed the Gros Ventre River, creating Slide Lake. Some 50 million tons of rock, soil, and other debris, including some ancient trees, made up the dam. Some thought it would hold indefinitely, but in 1927, the dam gave way. Kelly residents had only a few minutes to get to higher ground and watch the fifteen foot wall of water sweep their town away, leaving only the church and the schoolhouse behind. Six people lost their lives in the flood

C.E. Dibble, a forest ranger, became a hero that day, when he recognized a hayrack that had been floating on the lake coming downstream. He raced in his Model T ahead of the river, cutting fences to free livestock and warning the town of the coming disaster.

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