Sunday, January 23, 2011

1910 FIRE

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Forest fires held the homesteaders captive in 1910. Rain was scarce, leaving the forest tinder dry. With the government beginning to prosecute timber thieves, loggers who'd cut trees illegally found a natural opportunity. Fire left no evidence. Fires cropped up everywhere, it seemed. By early August the air was so smoke laden the sun rose an orange red globe inching across a hazy sky each day, and dropping like a blood red dish behind the mountains each night. The newly organized forest service and settlers alike fought fires throughout the scorching summer.(*USFS 1910 Commemorative.)
Weare shut down his sawmill, taking his crew of men out to fight fire on July 20th. A month later a forest service crew came to relieve them. Weare's men were exhausted, sleeping only by logs on the ground.

On the 20th of August the wind rose to gale force. For two days along a line from north of the Canadian boundary south to the Salmon River it blew, licking hundreds of little fires into big ones. Fire lines that had been held for days were scorched away under the fierce blast that turned the sky a ghastly yellow. At four o'clock it was black dark ahead of the roaring flames.
"You could hear the roar from the fire for days. The ashes floated over Noxon just like snow."1.
The air felt electric, as though the whole world would go up in spontaneous combustion as the heat of the fire and the great masses of flaming gas created tumbling whirlwinds mowing down swathes of trees in advance of the flames. In forty-eight horrendous hours many fires raced unchecked over thirty to fifty miles across mountain ranges and rivers.2.

Nothing could stop it. Nature was on a roaring rampage. Young men and old, some imported from all across the nation, pitted their strength and determination against her relentless forces.

Trainloads of men, most of them untrained in firefighting, debarked the train at Clarks Fork, Noxon and Thompson Falls. Confidently they posed with their bedrolls for pictures on the ferry, at the flagpole, on the porch of Hayes store, wherever, before striking out into the mountains to contain this roaring dragon. For some of them it was their last pose.

Roy Hedley was no longer District Supervisor of the Cabinet Forest. In his stead was Ralph Bushnell, remembered as a "fine old chap, but lacking the punch of Silcox or Hedley."
"We had no such animal as a fire organization in 1910," Ben Saint said. "When the big blow-up came I was at Heron and had some two or three crews out thru the hills. I was running my legs off trying to keep them all going when a big smoke showed up off the southwest. I called Bushnell and told him it was the biggest fire of the season and was throwing ashes miles ahead; they were then dropping in Heron and it was growing dark and the fire appeared to be miles away, somewhere in the Coeur d'Alene Forest.
"O.K. the old man says, 'get back there and see how many men you need to put it out and let us know quick.' I replied that he had better call out the regular Army for a starter at least. I would let him know if I needed more. As I took off for the fire it never occurred to me to be afraid for timber fires had always been so tame. I'd never seen one on a real rampage before."
Forest service donkey and foal in Noxon.
Courtesy Rander Granville 'Granny'
Gordon collection.
Saint got only as far as the head of Jacks Gulch.
"It's a good thing I met it there or I would not be telling the story now. I went up a fairly open mountainside and the fire met me at the top. An old black bear came over just ahead of the fire, passing within fifty feet of me and did not so much as look my way. Lord knows how far he had come but his tongue was hanging out and he was ready to drop." What Saint saw from the top of the ridge left him feeling like a wet towel wrung out of a wringer. "I never want to see as much fire again." His crew never came for that fire and he didn't get back to Heron until the next day.
"There was no communication, either mail or wire, and nobody had any idea when there would be any. Men were scattered and nobody knew whether they were alive or not, however they all came straggling in during the day and all were accounted for. We were all glad to be alive.
"We devoted our efforts to saving as many settlers homes as were possible to save and were more like a bunch of lost sheep than anything else. The big fire came on the 20th of August. Between then and the rains, the 2nd of September, is pretty much a blank. Two passenger trains were stranded at Heron and kept running back and forth between Heron and Noxon just sort of standing by in case they were needed. You could find a case of Hysterics in any direction".3.
Swan Swanson had a fire crew at Trout Creek.
"That's the night I lost my son. My wife was going to have a baby. I had two hundred men. The fire came pretty fast. It was going from top to top not taking the bottom. You see, when fire goes across a canyon it burns the air out down below and you won't survive it, it'll kill you.
"We put my wife on the bed and tried to pack her out. The doctor and the nurse were there but by God they couldn't go fast enough. So we put her on a horse and that upset the child. Two days afterwards the doctor come to me and said, 'Your wife or the boy'. So ... I was burned out. It took everything I had and killed the fish in the creek, too."
When the forest service crew came to relieve Weare and his men they were led by Anderson.
"I told Anderson (it was Bob Anderson's boy) not to let the men get in ahead of the fire. The new man on the forest service told Anderson to go on in and try to build a trail around the fire. They went in," Weare recalled, bitter resentment of the forest service lingering in his tale.
"The fire crowned at 10 a.m. Anderson heard it. He was used to it. These other fellows were from back east. He (Anderson) said, 'C'mon, lets head for the hills.' "These other fellows said, 'Oh, wait 'til we get our coats.'"'No,' Anderson said, 'C'mon. Never mind the coats.' "And they never paid no attention to him. "Five of the men became panic-stricken and left the crew, starting up the mountain out of the slide rock. Anderson was behind, and when the other four were caught by the fire he abandoned the attempt to escape and came back to the crew, badly but not fatally burned.

"The other four men, George Strong, George Fease, E. Williams, and A. G. Bourette, perished when the fire struck them sometime near midnight on August 21.4. Several other members of the crew were more or less burned. All were nearly blind from smoke and heat. At daylight August 22 they made it to the river, and Ranger Kaufman and his crew."

1910 Fire crew breaking camp. Standing, Earl Engle and unknown. Possibly taken in the Swamp Creek area. Courtesy Katie and Earl Engle collection.
Many ranches and the entire town of Tuscor was burned. Ed Donlan lost his mill at Trout Creek, with most of his equipment, including 25 head of horses, the pigs in the pen, and 13 million feet of Whitepine lumber.

Weare had a logging camp on the north side of the Clark's Fork River by Swamp Creek and had been logging the flat where the half moon bridge was between Furlong and Tuscor. A pile of logs was skidded to the riverbank there. The camp cook, Mrs. Baker, and her little boy, Roy stayed behind while the crew, including her husband were out fighting fire.

When Weare left on the day of the big fire, August 20, he told Mrs. Baker that if the fire came to take everything out of the camp and carry it to where there was a sandbar with a little stream that ran around next to the riverbank.

When it looked pretty bad with smoke rolling up at the head of Swamp Creek, Mrs. Baker went to work and took all the blankets, their clothes and everybody's stuff from camp to the sandbar. Next she swept all around the house right to the dirt so the fire wouldn't get to the house. She had a five-gallon can of keresene and set it off aways from the house, where she'd been sweeping.
"I was down pert near across from the mouth of Swamp Creek when I saw the fire coming and thought I'd better get up there," Weare said. "I didn't know what that woman might do. So I took off up the railroad track on the run and got up there and hollered. But the wind was roaring. You couldn't hear nothin'. So I run down to the river, grabbed a couple of old ties laying there and, just straddling them, paddled myself across with a stick.
"I ran up to the house. Nobody there. I couldn't imagine where they were. Great big chunks of moss were coming down everywhere. I could see the stuff down on the sandbar. I hollered around there but nobody answered. I thought they were all burned up," the horror was etched forever into Weare's memory.
"What happened was the wind had kinda died down so she thought she'd go down to Noddinghams at the mouth of Swamp Creek. She'd just come out of the woods when the fire come. if she'd been a minute later she'd have burned to death. Her and her little boy.
"Sparks came down on the sandbar and set everything afire. It all burned up. But the fire swept through so quickly the can of kerosene never got hot enough to explode and burn!"
The fire made little streaks of white ashes of all the poles skidded into the road, ready to haul. Huge tamarack stumps burned out to where you could see the roots of them two feet and more down into the ground, and burned the ties right out of the railroad track.

One woman was burned real bad and nearly blinded at Tuscor. She had a little boy and girl. She got to Noxon on the train and then wanted to go back when the fire was out.5.

Weare's wife, Ethel, took her two little girls, Frieda and Marian and baby Clifford (Buster) and stayed in the slough by Hampton's island in front of Noxon during the days and nights the fire burned near Noxon. Mrs. Arthur Hampton was expecting a baby. (Her son Stewart, was born December 21 unharmed by Fanny's experience.) Along with the other residents of the tiny town, they went over on the sandbar by the river.

The fire came over the hill south of Noxon about 2:30 in the morning. Everybody was out fighting it. The men had cut a fire break along the bench from the forest service grounds, which went up the hill just about where the water pipe comes down, and they torched it into a backfire.6.

As clouds of orange and red flames rushed over the night sky, sweeping along the mountain tops, sped by the fires updraft winds roaring through the canyons, the inhabitants huddled terrified in the slough. In minutes the devouring beast shifted, turned east with the wind whirling it away, thus sparing the community.
"My father-in-law, Old man Baxter was up Pilgrim Creek then in all that fire," Weare said "He was fetching water from the creek and keeping his buildings and everything wet. When he come down to town after the fire was past he was just as black as any nigger you ever seen in your life."
On a mountainside called Steven's Creek, fire fighters on the southside of it weren't so lucky. They lost their lives when they crawled into the creek and the creek boiled dry on them.7.

At the same time leaping, scorching tongues of the fire flashed through the forests of the Bull River valley, burning much of lower valley, Dry Creek and Copper Gulch, but not Napoleon Gulch.

It took only seventeen minutes for the fire to rage from Smead's Bench, jumping the Clark's Fork River, and over Copper Gulch. Andy Crist didn't have a chance.*8. The fire came up over the hill by Dodge's. Andy Crist and John Erickson were at their cabin in Copper Gulch when the fire came dropping down the canyon.
"They run pretty near a half a mile from the house trying to get down to Bull River," Frank Berray said. That's a narrow canyon to get down out of so John wanted to hurry up. Crist wanted to go back and get his suitcase. John kept going and Andy went back.
"They found him (Andy's body) about 300 feet from the cabin. He'd got the suitcase because you could see the iron frame and the ashes shaped from it. He was on his hands and knees. He'd tried to crawl, I guess. The fire just drawed his legs right up."
Doing everything they could to save themselves and their belongings from the fire, the Berrays and all the other settlers in Bull River valley were frantically bucketing water onto their buildings, shoveling fire lines and burying possessions  James and Stella Bauer's had their bedding on the roofs of the buildings wetting them down with water bucketed from Bull River to keep them from burning. Young Clayton Bauer had to sit against the door so his brother, Granville, and George Gardner could not go outside while the rest were fighting the fire. Clayton fell asleep and they had to push him away from the door to get in.8. When Crist's partner, John Erickson staggered into the Bauer ranch on Bull River like a scorched crazy man they hardly recognized him.
"Suspenders broke, but by golly, I 'yust keep on running", he said.
How he got across Bull River no one knew as his clothes were dry, but they saw he had a can of Leader tobacco in his hand.
"We never got in to get Crist for about three days because the fire was hotter than hell," Frank Berray said.
Ira B. 'Strawberry' Bartholomew, tall, lanky, blond, also came to Noxon with a fire crew.9. (He returned after the fire, fell in love with Ethel Greer, married her and stayed in Noxon the rest of his life.)

West of Noxon, Louis Wagner piled everything he could around his wife and baby daughter in their boat. Last he put in the rifle he'd recently bought from the store for $11. Taking a final look at the house and buildings he'd built in the past three years, he rowed out into the river. They watched the fire flash through their place. When they were able to return to the smoldering, smoking ruins all the buildings were gone but their flock of chickens had miraculously survived and came clucking to them.

In DeFaut Gulch, near Cabinet, Idaho, W.E. LaMonte, and his ten-man trail crew were trapped by fire sweeping around the head of Elk Creek. Brashear, the Forest Guard, knowing of a spring in the middle of a clearing, ordered the men to wet their clothes and bedding thoroughly, put their bedding over their heads, lie down near the spring, and wait until the fire had passed.

They'd hardly done this when fire swept got there. Two of them, J. Plant and J. Harris, panicked, jumped up, threw off their bedding, rushed into the fire and burned to death only a few yards from where the rest of the men lay.

The balance of the crew had their eyes and hands badly burned trying to restrain the two men who were killed. A relief party found them the next day "in an unconscious condition."10.
Harry Tallmadge and elk kill. Courtesy Harry
and Sarah Tallmadge collection.

Harry Tallmadge, at eighteen had grown into a six-foot tall man. He lived with his mother on her homestead in Bull River and worked as a packer on the Kootenai National Forest under Ranger Henry Wagner at Silvanite, up the Yaak River. Dor Skeels was the district's supervisor. (Skeels and Wagner were the first to hold supervisor positions on the Kootenai National Forest.) Smoke chasers were required to have a saddle horse. Rangers had to own a saddle horse and a packhorse. A pannier (which was a double sack, one of which rode on either side of the saddle and was sometimes called a rucksack) was used for packing. Smoke chasers were paid $75 a month.11.

Harry was packing into the Loon Lake fire at the head of Seventeen Mile creek. It was so rocky that the horse couldn't make it so the men had to meet him and then pack their food and blankets in on their back. In a short while the fire got away from the sixty-man crew and drove them back down the mountain.

Looking down into the valley, it seemed the whole of it was ablaze. Wagner's home and wife were in the valley at Silvanite. Frantic that she would not be safe, he left the crew in Harry's charge and went down to the creek to see to her safety. The crew started a backfire then got the horses into the creek, soaked their blankets and covered the horses with them. The creek saved them until the next day when they could get out.

The people in the narrow valley were all safe. Using horses and wagons, they'd all gotten out of town. The only thing left of Silvanite was a barrel of whiskey bar owner, Ike Crouse, had saved, and a 20 pound bag of peanut brittle Frank Baggs had saved from his store. At Buckhorn Lodge, below Silvinite, they set two planks on blocks of wood and started up the bar.11.

1910 crew of fire fighters taken at Clarks Fork, Idaho. Courtesy William Finnigan collection.
 At Swamp Creek, east of Noxon, the red sun shone for two weeks over the Ferd and Katherine Hasse homestead located three miles up the creek. There was no telephone, no bridge or ferry across the Clark Fork, and no one had experience with fighting fire. There was no information except what they could see and hear. The smoke became so thick that Ferd finally loaded his family in the wagon and took them to the Nottingham place at the mouth of Swamp Creek where several families had gathered.
"The fire hit in the afternoon. We stood in the middle of Swamp Creek with wet cloths over our faces as the fire came. Tuscor Mountain is across the river from the Nottinghams. The fire came up from behind the mountain, jumped the river and us, and went on up the creek," Katherine Hasse (Kemmerer) recalled. She was 15 years old.
"I remember the tremendous wind and a horrible roar as the fire jumped over us. I was  scared to death. We were all in the creek trying to stay wet, cool and alive. Father had went back to our house to get a load of our things. We didn't see him again until after the fire and had given him up for dead.
"As it turned out, he'd loaded the wagon and had started back to us. There was a large patch of young green timber and he got into that. The fire came right to the edge of that young timber and stopped, so he was saved.
"Actually, there were two big fires and they met and died at the green timber. The other fire had come over the mountain in the Beaver and Whitepine Creek area and swept east to Trout Creek, jumped the river, went over Twenty Odd Mountain, to the green timber. The two fires coming together caused the wind and roar."
The Nottingham place became kind of a base camp. For over a week many of the fire fighters were brought back there for treatment of burns and to be fed and rested.
"I remember my mother using an entire 50-pound bag of flour for bread every other day," Katherine said. Nottinghams had a big garden and an orchard and the Forest Service brought in food. The Red Cross sent in blankets and food, too.
"The day after the fire, father went back to our place and found all our chickens and cows dead. The house and all the buildings were gone. The only thing left was an old sewing machine that had been discarded and was sitting in the yard. Father was standing there surveying the place and remarked out loud about the sewing machine being all that was left. And a voice said, 'And me'.
"A young man, Rotch Fitzpatrick, came up out of our well. He had saved himself by climbing into the well, staying there all night."
The George Button family, above Tuscor, also saved themselves by getting into their well. Several other families waded into the Clark's Fork river to stay while the fire went over.*12. Compton White's sawmill at LaClede, Idaho also burned in the fire. A lot of Noxon timber had been cut in that mill. He later built another mill at Clark's Fork. John Fulk's sawmill at Tuscor burned. He was cutting ties for the Northern Pacific railroad.

Dr. Belmar was coroner of Sanders County. His was a grisly job at best. Finnigan made coffins out of Whitepine boards at Noxon for those who had died on fire crews there. One of the victims was dug up after being buried for 90 days. He'd been writing home every week and when his parents failed to hear from him, they came searching to the town bearing the postmark of his last letter. Pearl Ellis, post-mistress, remembered him and was able to tell his family their son's fate.

In many places on the national forests, owing to the great difficulties of transportation, most of the dead firefighters' bodies were buried where they lay. A great many of them were burned beyond all hope of identification.

The treatment of the injured men immediately after the fire presented many difficulties. Most of injured suffered from eye or lung damage from the smoke, and some of the were terribly burned. A fund of $1,700 was raised by contributions from the Forest Service personnel, and $1,000 was contributed by the Red Cross, which met most immediate needs.13.

More than three million acres of green forest were burned over and seven to eight billion feet of merchantable timber was destroyed. Most of it in those two terrifying days.
"Set an airplane course from Clark Fork, Idaho, south 25 degrees east, approximately along the axis of the Bitterroot Range, and fly on this course 160 miles to Moose Creek on the Selway River. On 70 percent of this flight you would be flying over 1910 burn, with the burned area extending an average of 25 miles on either side of the line. Even then you would have seen only three-quarters of the burned area, and would have to take a vast semi-circle through Montana, up the Big Blackfoot, through the South Fork and the North Fork of the Flathead, and westerly across the Kootenai and Kaniksu Forests to see the rest of the fire-swept area."
The Forest Service lost six or seven strings of pack stock and at least four ranger stations. A large number of horses, cattle, pigs and chickens belonging to homesteaders and lumber companies were burned and as near as is known eighty five people died in the fire.14.

Ben Saint summed up the summer of 1910,
"After the rain came and the smoke and clouds cleared ...we had to pick up what was left of the fire-fighting equipment and map the burn. We just fought fire all summer and were glad when the rain came so we could get a rest. But we were saved some unpleasant fire trespass work, at least, for during the summer we had some flagrant cases of settlers and others starting fires and some of these we had fully intended to take to task for their actions. But the big fire spoiled the evidence and looking back now it seems to me that was about the best way. For we all got a lesson that was lasting in its effect and there was, from that time on, a better understanding between the settler and the Forest Ranger. It would seem that an act of God was responsible."15; 16.
In spite of the terrors of the fire, life in the valley went on, changed, but progressive. The large population of marten disappeared from the area, destroying the fur trapping trade. Mountain lions were gone. Game of all species diminished as the earth began its regeneration.

  1. John Knutson, oral history taped February 5, 1970.
  2. History of 1910 Forest Fires in Idaho and Western Montana, by Elers Koch.
  3. The Forest Service 1907 To 1929, by Ben Saint.
  4. Swan Swanson, tape-recorded oral interview, January 15, 1970.
  5. George Strong, George Fease, E. Williams and A. G. Bourette were buried on the old Oliver place.
  6. Clifford Weare tape-recorded oral history.
  7. Clifford Weare, tape-recorded oral history, March, 20, 1970.
  8. Letter from Velma Bauer, September 1983.
  9. Ira B. "Strawberry" Bartholomew letters, 1970s.
  10. History of 1910 Forest Fires in Idaho and Western Montana, by Elers Koch.
  11. Harry Tallmadge tape-recorded oral history.
  12. Sanders County Ledger, August 8, 1974.
  13. History of 1910 Forest Fires in Idaho and Western Montana, by Elers Koch.
  14. District Rangers 1910: F. E. Brown, E. B. Clark, G. J. Gordon, Rollo Older, Robert Scarlett, M. E. Skillman. C. W. Griffin, Deputy Supervisor. Temporary employees: J. L. Adams, Chas. Ahlm, John Buchek, Thomas DeLano, A. J. Dorris, Wm. Ellis, Neil Eplin, A. R. Ford, L. B. Grimes, W. J. Higgins, H. D. Jackson, G. S. Johnston, Denver Laughlin, W. K. Loughborough, John B. Miller, B. F. Saint, H. J. Wellman, B. R. Young. R. J. Gick was Forest Clerk. Miss Ida Alkire was temporary clerk assistant, Forest Service Journal 1911.
  15. Forest Service Quarterly Report 1911. Of 375,262 acres burned (destroying 770,947 MFBM of timber worth $82,474.30 including ranger and guard labor). 371,000 acres were burned over by the big fire of 1910. 763,000 MFBM of timber was destroyed and $78,044.50 costs to defray the expenses of fighting it. Fires decreased substantially in years succeeding (following) forest service beginnings. Ration list for fire fighting crews of ten men for ten days: 40 lb. ham, 2 lb. cocoa, 40 lb. bacon, 18 cans tomatoes, 10 lb. lard, 10 lb. rolled oats, 25 lb. beans, 3-5 boxes matches, 25 lb. sugar, 1 lb. candles, 10 lb. rice, 3 gallons pickles, 15 lb. dry apples, 200 lb. potatoes, 8 lb. raisens, 10 lb. flour, graham, 5 lb. dry peaches, 96 lb. flour, 4 oz. pepper, 25 lb. onions, 8 lb. salt, 8 oz. lemon extract. 8 oz. vanilla, ¼ lb. allspice, ½ lb. cinnamon, 1 lb. tea, 10 lb. coffee, 3 bottles catsup, 5 bars soap, 5 axes, 5 shovels, 5 mattocks, 2 crosscut saw, 3 brush hooks, 2 2-1/2 gallon water bags.
  16. 1910 fire-killed timber advertised for sale by FS (Noxon District): BLUE CREEK: 730 MFBM, $1.35 per M, Whitepine; 550 MFBM, fifty cents per M, larch; 45 MFBF, fifty cents per M, Douglas fir; 2,180, 10 cents to 50 cents each, cedar poles; 2,000, three cents each, railroad ties. Received only one bid for portion of white pine only and the cedar. PILGRIM CREEK: 340 MFBM, $1.50, Whitepine; 62MFBM, seventy five cents, Douglas fir; 157MFBM, seventy five cents, larch; 140 cords, seventy five cents per cord, shingle bolts; no estimate on amount of cedar poles, 12 cents to $1.00 each. No bid received.


  1. Dear Mona, I would like to point out that the Mama equine with the foal is not a mule, but a donkey...mules are a hybrid and sterile...I do not know if you would like to correct it or not, but felt that you would want to be accurate. Deb and the longears

    1. Dear Deb,

      Thanks for providing the correction! I always want to be accurate, so I will also make the correction in the Kindle edition of Behind These Mountains, Volume I ASAP. I'll also be making additions and corrections to the Kindle edition of Volume II, and plan to do them when the Kindle edition of Volume III is polished and uploaded. Scheduled for January, 2014.

      I enjoyed your website, but when I tried to leave a comment the screen went black and all I saw was each keystrokes moving a white dot across the black screen. ??

      Mona's Author Page,
      "Behind These Mountains," Vols. 1, 2 & 3. Regional Montana history, & (Online: