The Big Blowup
Chapter Nine "Aftermath" pages 191 - 198
In 1910 the Milwaukee Lumber Company, St. Maries, Idaho, was building a railroad line up Big Creek to facilitate logging operations. Six camps, with approximately five hundred men, were located in the Big Creek area. Little has been told of how these men met the flames. The following quote is a letter written August 25, 1910, by Mr. Arthur Hogue, associated with the Milwaukee Lumber Company, to his mother in Michigan. On March 23, 1949, Mr. Hogue, now deceased, sent this sketch to Mr. Phillip LaSota, Metaline Falls, Washington. Mr. LaSota, well known throughout Washington and Idaho as a mining and timber specialist, was the camp cook mentioned in the letter. Permission to use this sketch has been granted by Mr. LaSota.
BIG CREEK, IDAHO
Monday night of August 15, 1910, Roy
left the Milwaukee Lumber Company Camp One, at the mouth of Big Creek, for St.
Maries and the coast, while I stayed there waiting to go to the "firing line"
some seven miles farther up the creek.
At 4 a.m. Mr. Barnum and I left Camp One for Camp Six, and then up the mountain to where they had 200 men working on the firing line. At Camp Four, which is about four miles from Camp One, we got breakfast and arrived at Camp Six, about two miles farther, just as the men started to work. Mr. Barnum, who is woods boss, rounded up all the stragglers and we took to the hill.
Some idea of the climb can be had when you find that from camp, at the beginning of the trail, to the summit was 1800 feet, while the distance according to land lines was one mile. That is, in going a mile you had to climb 1800 feet up. You may be sure that I was nearly winded when we reached the top, though we had rested several times in making the climb.
On the summit of the divide, for it was only a divide between two creeks, we struck the fire trail. In making a fire trail they work in as close to the fire as possible and always try to make the stop just after it has crossed the crest of a ridge, since it is almost impossible to check a fire running up hill. First a gang of ax men go along and cut all brush and small trees to a width of about 20 feet. They are followed by sawyers who fall all big trees that may touch branches across this trail, also any logs that may be down across it. They, in turn, are followed by shovel men who rake all leaves, leaf mold, grass, or dead wood to the opposite side of the trail from the fire. Thus a strip of bare ground about 16 feet wide, that under ordinary circumstances fire would not pass. If it does happen to cross, they cut a similar trail from the main trail, around the fire to join it to the main fire trail. This is called a "shoo fly."
About a mile from the summit we came up with a gang of Hungarian shovelmen, "herded" by a man by the name of Evanson. I was left here to help him handle the gang as they knew little about such work, though they had always worked with a shovel, and besides they knew little of the "American language." At noon hour lunch was packed to us by men from Camp Six. In the afternoon Evanson and I were transferred to a gang of Italians, about 50 in number, with whom we stayed the remainder of the time we were fighting fire.
At 4:30 all stopped and returned to the camp at the foot of the hill, or Camp Six. I bunked at Camp Four, where about 50 "white men" mostly axmen and sawyers stayed. All the foreigners were at Camp Six. At four a.m. the flunky to the cook walked out among the tents calling "Roll out. Roll out." Fifteen minutes later the breakfast whistle blows. At 4:30 or 5:00 at least, every man is supposed to be off for the fire line.
The second night they camped Evanson and myself with 60 Italians, at a spring up the divide just beyond where the fire trail had been built to, so we could get in more work and earlier and avoid the climb up the hill which took nearly two hours from Camp Four.
At 2:30 .the next morning we were aroused by the roaring of burning trees close at hand. We called all hands and in an hour our camp was safe again, but sleep was out of the question for Evanson and myself, for the rest of that night.
Things moved on about the same until Friday when a fire broke over our trail in many places. We then had about five miles of fire trail and it took nearly the entire gang to make "shoo flies." I was working about a mile from our camp with a part of the Italians and Evanson was farther on. At 4:30 we started for our camp but met the cook about a quarter from there with the information that all was burned by a fire that had broken over the trail.
Evanson's and my pack sacks, containing our blankets and tent, had been saved by another foreman who had been trying to hold the fire line. The Italian's blankets had been put on a rocky point so they were safe. We just had to hike into Camp Six for the night.
As reports came from the different crews, we learned that the fire had broken over in so many places that a new fire trail would have to be cut farther down the mountain side. As the men had been working hard it was decided to rest Saturday and begin early Sunday morning on a new trail.
Since the best cook was at Camp Four, I passed on down there after breakfast the next morning. Here let me add a word of praise for Felix, the cook at Camp Four. He had 75 men to cook for and he fed them well, too. One day they called on him for bread for lunches at one of the other camps, and besides doing all his own work for the 75 men, he baked 175 loaves of bread extra. . . . He certainly did a days work that day and didn't seem to hurry either.
About 4 p.m. on Saturday smoke began to show on the hilltops below the camp where there had been none before. At five it looked so serious we started to bury the camp supplies and tents to leave for Camp One. Before we got them buried, men came running in saying that the fire had crossed the valley below and we were cut off from Camp One and a way out. That it was coming up the valley our way almost as fast as a man could run. All thought of saving the camp was abandoned. Evanson and I jumped on some pack horses and galloped off down the creek to see if the report were true. About 300 yards from the camp we met the fire. It filled the whole valley and flames looked as though they arose 300 feet high. We wheeled our horses and raced back to camp where we met about 75 Italians, so frightened they were running every which way and crying out in their native tongue. We rode among them and they turned and went with us. Soon the road became so thick with men that we jumped from our horses, just as we crossed the creek, trusting that they would stay near the water and perhaps be saved. The bottom of the creek is very stony and many fell, rolling over and over in the water and being tramped on by the men behind. As soon as the Italians realized that they were caught they flocked to Evanson and me, as we had been their foremen and followed us now in a mob. About 200 yards above our camp we met Guy Rogers and the men from Camp Six, who told us that the fire had come in on them from above and was now coming down the valley almost on their heels.
So there we were, 140 men caught in a valley not 50 yards wide with sides arising about 500 feet on an angle of 45 degrees, and covered with a thick growth of timber, and the bottoms covered with cedar trees that burn almost like tinder. As there had been no rain here for many months, all was dry as powder. Looking down the valley one could see the fire coming on with a rush and a roar that once seen and heard can never be forgotten, and the flames leaping 300 feet high met in an arch extending from one hill top to the other. A fierce gust of wind would strike the summit and flames would leap clear across from one summit to the other in one continuous stream of fire for a distance of over a half mile. It would have been a most beautiful sight had one not realized that in the next moment you might be caught in its fiery folds and know no more.
When we met Rogers and found out that we were caught from both ways and could see fire on one hill side and knew from the direction that it was coming and that it was on the other also, we realized that it was all over as far as getting out was concerned. Evanson and I agreed to stand by each other for mutual protection and if possible to find shelter rocks in the creek by which to stay when the flames came in on us. The Italians were running here and there, crying and moaning, and some even begging us to shoot them. Just where we met Rogers was a big rock right at the water's edge and running nearly straight up for some 30 feet with no large timber standing on its top. Here we decided to make our last stand, as we could get into the water as a protection from the fire and the rock would protect us from falling trees. But before going into the creek we ran back some 50 yards and began to set fires to the opposite side of this rock. The Italians followed us and as soon as we would light a fire they would cry "firey" "firey" and try to put it out. So it was stand over your fire until it got started and fight them off. I had an automatic in my pocket and at one time came near using it, but by a liberal use of "Irish" which seemed more effective than anything else, I got several fires started, making a line across the place where we were going into the water. Everything was so dry that the minute we threw a lighted match down a blaze started at once. The Italians put out two fires by carrying water in their hats but they could not put them all out as fast as we started them, so stopped.
The fire was now closing in and we went into the creek with the rock to our backs to gain protection that it might give from falling trees. Blankets were wet to put over our heads when the smoke got too thick and the fire too hot.
There we stood, knee deep in water, our backs against the sheltered rock awaiting we could not tell what. . . . Many of the Italians were crying and taking on as only an excitable Italian can. There were some mighty white and drawn faces in that crowd and one could not help but admire the man who stood up and faced what he did not know but might be death and never flinch. Some were even joking as the flames came racing up the valley toward us. Always if a man should ask if we thought there was a chance of our getting out alive we would say, "Of course we are going to get out," but I cannot say that I was always thinking that way. . . .
Our backfire was our salvation, for it got a good start before the fire reached us, and by the time that it came in behind us we could move to the other side where the fiercest was over. The rocks on the other side were too warm for comfortable sitting on, so we would stand until it got too bad, then we would lie down close to the water until the heat wave and smoke had passed. We were in the creek about two hours, and of that time perhaps not more than a half hour of the time was spent under a wet blanket. At times the smoke and heat would settle and it seemed as though one could not breathe. Then a little breeze would come down the creek and we could breathe more freely again. For perhaps fifteen minutes, during the worst, there was not a word spoken, only the roar and crackling of the flames to be heard. As it would pass some one was heard to remark, "Well, we didn't go that time.”
By 9: 30 the worst seemed to be passed and it began to look darker down the creek. . . seven of us, including Evanson, Rogers and myself, decided to try getting to Camp One and the railroad by wading down the creek to its mouth. We feared if the Italians knew that we were leaving they would try to follow, and they were safer there, except for falling trees, until morning when they would be following us in the trip out. We left one by one, meeting farther down and they didn't see us go. At Camp Four we found all the supper sitting on the big camp range in big covered pots. Boiled ham, cabbage, beans and potatoes were still hot and not reached by the fire, though the tent and all burnable material was gone. We stopped for a lunch then took to the creek again for our five mile journey to Camp One. That is if it too had not burned.
About a mile below camp we began to strike down timber and travel was very slow, for in many places logs were on fire and all had been burned and some were black and hot. Often times we left the creek and cut off a bend on the tote road, and there we found some hot places. Also there were the standing burning trees to be watched for as they were falling over every few minutes. In one place we had to wet our handkerchiefs and put them over our mouths and make a rush over a hundred yards to the hot roadway with burning on either side. Some were staggering when they came out, and my throat felt as dry as a board clear down to my lungs.
In about two hours all got through safely, and within about a mile of Camp One we came to the end of the burning where we met Barnum with a rescue party waiting for the flames to subside so they might get to us. . . . A few words to Barnum to tell that all were safe and I made for Camp One and the telephone....
On Wednesday, following the Saturday of the fire, Mr. Barnum, Guy Rogers, Lewis Waggner and myself went back to Big Creek and into the woods to see what damage had been done to the timber. We found that it all had been burned over and in the very best section it had been blown flat by the wind as well as burned. Places where it was so brushy that one could hardly pass before the fire, one could find no brush at all, only ashes several inches deep. . . .
On Sunday following the fire of Saturday, Camp One burned, cleaning out our six camps on Big Creek. We lost besides our camps two big work teams and two pack horses, all burned in the Saturday fire. But we did not lose a man. At one time I had thought we had lost ten or fifteen, as that many started up the hill from camp just as the fire closed in. They must have returned as all called for their pay the week following.
All is quiet now, for all danger of fire is past, as the country is all burned over. Just what we will do here is not yet decided. The smoke is still too thick to tell all the damage done to the timber, as one cannot see a hundred yards in the woods. However, we are pushing work on the mill and waiting what the U. S. Forestry Department will do in regard to the burned over tracts.
I did not have as close a call as many, but I am content, for this year at least, with no special desire to have the experience at any time in the future. . . .
- from Betty Goodwin Spencer, The Big Blowup © 1956
by permission of Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho.
Excerpts from the oral history interview of Felix and Winnifred LaSota of April 24, 1974 offer an interesting side note, Felix was the camp cook mentioned in the above account -
. . . I was quite a cook. I learned that in Wisconsin. I got a job at the
Davenport Hotel . . . Finally, I wanted more money, and I expanded into the
woods. I was a good baker and good all-around cook. I got to working in logging
and construction camps cooking. Where the ordinary labor was a dollar a day, my
job was seventy-five dollars a month, and that was big money.
. . .
Interviewer: You were cooking . . . building a railroad for logging.
LaSota: We were up about four and a half miles.
Interviewer: That was the fire of 1910?
LaSota: The fire of 1910, yes. . . . The Walker Company had around two hundred men of their own on the fire, and it totaled around four hundred men on the fire. I think at this main climax point, there was only about around two hundred men . . . At the time, I was cooking for the fire line. I had about seven men in our camp cooking for them right along three meals a day on the fire line. I cooked all the bread and meals.
Interviewer: How many helpers did you have?
LaSota: Oh, I had six or seven. In them days, they gave me all the help I needed, and I cooked around two hundred loaves of bread a day, and that was a lot of bread. I [had] two big ranges, and they was full of bread all the time. I mixed my bread up in tubs, and I developed a pretty good arm kneading that dough. I had bread in the oven all the time and other things cooking on the stove, black beans and ham and beets and other things.
Interviewer: Did you lose any men in the fire, any of those men that you mentioned?
. . . I had mostly all foreigners working on this railroad, building this
railroad. Of course, it was easy for me to get on construction because I
could speak several languages and write them. I was sort of a go-between between
the foreigners and the bosses, too, at the time that I was cooking. I picked one
young chap that was a water boy on the line there. I wanted another helper in
the kitchen . . . I asked him what his name was. He said, “My name is Guy
Montenucci.” I had to keep his time, too. He was Italian. . . . I says to Guy,
“You'll have a hell of a time with that name of yours. I'm going to put you down
as Guy Monte. From now on, that's your name. When you call for your check, it's
Guy Monte . . .”
. . .
Interviewer: You were to tell about the fire of 1910.
LaSota: Well, they'd come in with pack horses to take my bread to go up. Now, these horses was in the camp that evening, and it was around six o'clock when the fire broke loose. You could hear it coming down from St. Joe up the St. Joe River. Pickwick [Herrick?] is about five miles from St. Joe, and we were about four or five miles up, . . . and she was coming. I tell you, even when the fire was several miles away, you could feel the ground thunder. There was trees falling and things like that. It was a cyclone was what it was. By golly, at that time, the bosses was worried. There was three or four of them. They jumped on pack hoses to see if they could get the crew out down to Pickwick. By gosh, they didn't come back. The fire was getting closer and closer all the time. Finally, there was one young chap of eighteen who was trying to calm them all, but it was pretty hard to do when the fire was getting closer. These foreigners would all get excited, and they would start climbing the mountains and things like that.
What I was going to tell you, this Guy Monte was one of the men that I got into the kitchen, as they were peeling potatoes this morning, they got off on religion. One fellow says, “There's nothing like a religion that saves us. That's nothing but a pig-in-a-poke. There's no god. You can't make any one that thinks well think that there is.” These boys were all religious, and that just about broke their hearts.
When this fire came, one lad, he was only about twenty-four or five years old, he says, “Fellows, I know a place up here. I've got a homestead up here. I know a place where we can all go and be safe. Now, this fire is coming.” We were in the canyon where the biggest danger was from things breaking loose up above and falling down through the canyon down to where we were. There was trees that would come down top first, and the rocks would roll down there, and great rocks would come down, and they would roll around. Some people got hurt all right.
This boy finally got these fellows from getting up on the mountain. He says, “We go up the creek here. I know where there is a good place.” They went up there maybe two or three hundred yards from where they were. He says, “Now, what we do now, we light fires.” This was something these boys didn't know anything about it. That fire, the fire that he started, was known as firing. They would just carry water in their hats trying to get them [out], but there was enough fires so that we got a pretty good fire going every where all around, through for about a hundred and fifty feet or more, and they had a pretty good fire going, and it was pretty hot when we had to go into it.
He says, “Now, the big crown comes, that was the main one.” That crown fire gets through, set the fire for two or three hundred feet, and make a row like it will come down and get the bark. It just keeps rolling like that. That's the way a crown fire works. He says, “Now, we are going to get hurt from these windfalls. Get behind a big rock or a windfall and stay there. Get all of your sudens wet.” We called our blankets sudens then. We all carried blankets. “Get them wet.” There's a little creek about that wide there . . . “get them all wet and wrap yourselves up in them and dig a hole, a hole in the ground through these ashes that you burned, right down to the wet, and stick your nose in it when that big fire comes through. Look out once in a while to see that nothing is, but if you breathe, breathe that.”
- from Felix and Winnifred LaSota interview OH—017-A EWSHS—Oral History 24 April 1974
Transcribed by John C. Ellingson 26 September 1988
Filed at the Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane, Washington