Harmon’s Histories: Dread winter travel? Imagine the snowbound peril a century ago

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The headlines, once again, are filled with canceled flights and crowds of stranded passengers at airports. The latest case was Southwest Airlines.

Many of us have experienced delays in the past, so we know firsthand how miserable it can be.

But our modern-day ability to travel wherever and whenever we like is actually pretty amazing – a rather cushy life compared with the late 1800s and early 1900s.

If we want to take a car trip to Coeur d’Alene or Spokane in the winter, we just check the forecast – and go.

Such a venture was not even considered back in the day – until the era of the railroad. Even then, the route following the old Mullan Trail was dicey.

Arthur Stone, the famed western Montana newspaperman and, later, founder of the journalism school in Missoula, wrote a series of articles in 1911 called “Following Old Trails,” recalling early day life in western Montana.

One of those articles, dealing primarily with construction of the Mullan Road, included some rather frightening descriptions of wintertime train travel.

“(T)he railways have learned with the hard knocks of experience that it is no child’s play to combat the snows of these hills when they are good and deep – and they are that almost every winter,” wrote Stone.

Some years the tracks could be kept open, others not. It wasn’t until the invention of the rotary snowplow that the rail line could be cleared with any certainty.

Portrait of Capt. John Mullan by Underwood & Underwood of Washington, D.C., University of Montana Mansfield Library

Even then there were mishaps. Stone recalled, “The rotary was coming east from Wallace and had (made it) successfully over the hill. Coming into the Saltese yard, the rotary left the rails at the old west switch and was shoved along through the snow, which was about 17 feet deep at that point, until it struck the west end of the station platform, more than 10 feet away from the track.

“For several years, the scars which the rotary blades inflicted upon the planking of the station were visible.”

The snow was so deep that year, it was “even with the sills of the second-story windows in the station and the people on the street behind the station had to tunnel through (a) great bank … to get to the railway.”

Stone says train crews reported to work not knowing whether they’d be gone “two days or two weeks,” given the weather.

So every train had a large supply of shovels.

“When a train got stuck,” wrote Stone, “the passengers were expected to help shovel. It was more or less primitive, but it was interesting, especially as there was always a big chest in the car, filled with bread and boiled ham and coffee.”

Dean Arthur L. Stone – photo circa 1915, UM Mansfield Library Archives

One time, he recalled, “the chest was exhausted and the snow looked deeper and more impenetrable than ever. We were between Saltese and DeBorgia and we were also mighty hungry.”

“Two of us struggled through the snow to the section house at DeBorgia, expecting to find supplies there. But the family had left and all we could find when we searched the house was soda crackers and onions. … That was what we had to eat for 17 hours.”

Even at that, Stone managed to put the experience in perspective: It was hard railroading, but it served to emphasize the realization of the difficulties which used to attend the crossing with a pack train. “There have been some perilous crossings of this old pass.”

“(T)the great depth of snow which falls here obliterates almost entirely the landmarks which man has established and restores the summit to its primeval condition. Save for the thin, dark line which the railway makes, there is nothing here in midwinter to indicate that there has been an invasion of this mountain wilderness by man. It is weirdly beautiful and it is so silent that the stillness rings.”

It’s wonderful that Stone could conclude such a story with uplifting terms like “weirdly beautiful” and “so silent that the stillness rings.”

I’m stuck back at those 17 hours with soda crackers and onions!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.