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Next: 11. BennettvilleContentsPrevious: 9. Machinery

Ghost Mines of Yosemite (1958) by Douglass Hubbard


SADDLEBAGS LAKE, FROZEN, MOUNT DANA IN DISTANCE
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SADDLEBAGS LAKE, FROZEN, MOUNT DANA IN DISTANCE
LUNDY IN WINTER, MOUNT SCOWDEN RISES IN THE BACKGROUND
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LUNDY IN WINTER, MOUNT SCOWDEN RISES IN THE BACKGROUND

10. AVALANCHE

AVALANCHE is a word which chills the hearts of those who know its meaning. At exactly the same hour, 11 p.m. on the night of March 15; 1882, six of these near-silent messengers of death raced down far-separated Sierran slopes, taking lives, causing innumerable injuries, and burying the machinery being pulled up Lake Canyon en route to the Great Sierra Tunnel.

Some old timers believed that an earthquake jolt started the avalanches on their race of destruction. John Ginn of the Index was of the opinion that the heavy storm which preceded the avalanches was “the most extraordinary and phenominal” witnessed in the Sierra Nevada since their settlement by white man. His coverage from Lundy of the tragic event is an example of excellent reporting:

Neither language nor the painter’s art can convey to the mind of the most imaginative anything like a true conception of the appalling scenes the inhabitants of these vast mountains witnessed during the days and nights of terror through which they passed last week. On March 9 and 10 sixteen inches of snow fell; the 11th was a clear day; from the morning of the 17th snow fell incessantly and heavily and again on the morning of the 18th snow began to fall and continued until noon of the 19th . . . Heavy winds prevailed most of the time. By Wednesday noon, 15th instant, 6 feet of snow had fallen in Mill Creek Canyon, and seven to eight feet in the higher mountains . . .

About 11 p.m. a cry of distress was heard penetrating the storm from the opposite side of the canyon. . . . Men rushed to the sidewalk, listened, and replied. . . . Directly the voice was recognized as that of one of the Bagby boys who occupied a strong log cabin near the center of the grove in the flat.

A large number of men with lanterns and shovels started at once, but were half an hour making their way to the spot—a distance of only 300 yards— sinking in the soft snow up to their shoulders, and being compelled to breast their way through the mass by main strength. The strongest man could not break the trail for more than 20 feet before becoming completely exhausted, the fury of the storm being as difficult to contend with as the depth of the snow. Another but smaller party of men started from the postoffice, up town, and attempted to break their way straight across to the scene of distress, but after a most exhausting struggle of nearly an hour, was compelled to give it up and retrace their steps. The avalanche which wrecked the Bagby cabin had broken loose below the upper line of the Lake Canyon grade, ran down about 700 feet, turned sharply to the right and leaped into the air. Crashing through timber expended its force soon after demolishing the cabin and burying its occupants. John and Ab Bagby were occupying together an upper berth in the end of the cabin opposite the approach of the avalanche, and E. F. Isbell was sleeping in a berth beneath them. Just as the crash came, Ab Bagby woke and raised suddenly in bed, when he was dashed up against the heavy log roof, while his brother was crushed down toward the floor and caught under a cupboard which had been nailed against the wall at the opposite end of the room. Neither of the brothers were seriously injuried and soon got together up against the roof.*

*Ab’s son Everett Bagby of Mariposa, California tells us that his father was reading “East Lynne” at the moment the avalanche struck. Addicted to strong language, Ab was particularly profane as the brothers were attempting to dig to freedom. Chided by John, Ab replied: “Why the Lord himself would cuss if he was in a fix like this!”

But nothing could be heard of Isbell. The brothers lighted a match, got a piece of board and began digging. They soon succeeded in digging a small hole up to the surface, allowing the snow from above to fall down through a small aperture between two of the heavy logs of the roof. But their progress was checked, as with their united strength they could not shake one of the logs. From this prison they began calling up through the hole. The relief party soon extricated the Bagbys, but dug nearly an hour and a half before Isbell was found. The cabin had been shoved 16 feet from the original site, and when found, Isbell was lying in his bed, not having moved an inch, while the snow was packed about and for several feet above him was almost as hard as ice— and a little kitten was crouched beside his face, purring. Neither was injured. Bagby’s dog, sleeping inthe cabin at the time of the wreck, also escaped. Five days afterward another cat was dug out alive . . .

About 11 o’clock on the night of the 15th (the hour at which most avalanches of Mill Creek and Lake Canyon and Tioga occurred) an immense body of snow dropped from the cliff above, crushing another cabin and burying the four occupants—William Miller, James.McCallum, Joseph Plant, and Judge Harry P. Medlicott. The first two named were buried near the same spot by the avalance of one year ago. They were also the first to dig their way out this year, which they succeeded in doing about 2 o’clock next morning. They at once set about digging out their companions and rescued them at 6 a.m. Plant had rested easily during his confinement; but Medlicott was painfully injured about the chest and one thigh and suffered great agony—so much that at one time despairing of release, he begged his fellow prisoner to cut his throat. After his release, however, he made his way to town. . . .

At about the same hour as the other avalanches occurred a thunderbolt of snow struck the Trumble House, near the foot of the May Lundy tramway in

NEAR FOOT OF MAY LUNDY TRAMWAY
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NEAR FOOT OF MAY LUNDY TRAMWAY
Lake Canyon, carrying away the building and scattering the wreck for a distance of 200 feet across the canyon There were sleeping in the house at the time, Robert J. Trumble, Alex McKeon, D. B. Grant, Henry Schumaker, Christian Hablitzel and Steve Trumble. The first four named were either killed outright or were subsequently asphyxiated under the snow.

Steve Trumble got out, barefooted and with nothing but his underclothing on, and through the deep snow and bitter cold storm attempted to make Pat Regan’s cabin, some 300 feet distant. After wallowing in the snow for a while, sometimes sinking over his head, and finding that his feet were freezing, he procured two of the blankets in which he had been sleeping, and by spreading first one and then the other on the snow in front and crawling on his hands and knees, he was finally enabled to approach near enough to the cabin to alarm Regan’s dog. Regan took him in, rubbed his feet with snow until he brought the frost to the surface, and then visited the scene of the disaster with a lantern. Nothing could be seen save the great ridge of compact snow and here and there a fragment of the building, and nothing could be heard save the thunder of the storm.

Next morning, amidst the still-raging storm, Pat Regan mounted his snow shoes and came to town for assistance. A party of 11 was organized and started at once for the scene of the disaster . . . six being on snow shoes and the other five on foot, but all provided with shovels

The attempt to ascend the steep and lofty mountain facing the storm, in such a storm as was then raging, and with millions of tons of loose snow hanging from every cliff and slope, ready to start at the slightest touch and sweep the whole party into eternity, was as heroic an act as history records; and every eye in the whole town was rivited upon the silent procession as it filed up the steep acclivity, and every heart beat quicker as the men were seen to approach and pass the more dangerous places. . . . Those who had snow shoes kept on, but the others were compelled to return; so great was the depth of snow in the upper canyon that they could not make 300 feet per hour.

Immediately on the return of the shoeless party, J. C. Kemp, manager for the Great Sierra Company of Tioga (three of his men engaged in snaking the machinery up the Sierra being among the buried) set about having snow shoes made for all who would volunteer to go.

In the meantime the first party reached the scene and recovered three of the dead. As they were about to leave for the night a moan was heard beneath the snow and after digging down eight feet they came upon Hablitzel, wrapped in his blankets and bedding, still alive, but nearly exhausted. He still believes that he could not have lived one minute longer but for his release. . . .

Amidst tragedy and death there was still room for humor:

Andy Nelson was sleeping in the toll house at the mouth of Lake Canyon when the procession of avalanches moved A huge snowslide started from the top of Mount Gilcrest, rushing across the canyon struck Mount Scowden, turned down Lake Canyon and ran to within 200 feet of Mill Creek, a total distance of one mile and a half. In its course it swept away a strong stable at the toll house, a bale of hay, some barley, and an old gray horse that had been employed on the capstan drawing up the machinery for the Great Sierra tunnel at Tioga. Next morning Nelson went out to feed the horse, but could not find either horse or feed. Procuring a long pole he commenced prospecting, and kept it up until a relief party going up Lake Canyon Creek late that afternoon heard the old horse breathing under the snow. Digging in, they found him in an upright position, like a soldier, with the feed by his side and two logs from the stable resting across his nose. He was uninjured, barring a crick in his neck which keeps his head turned toward one shoulder - just fitting him for circular work, such as that required in turning a capstan. A stall was excavated in the snow, feed was put before him, and the old horse is there yet. . . .

Death stalked the men at Tioga, some 10 miles from Lundy:

At the usual hour, 11 o’clock on the night of the 15th, 21 men were buried in the Great Sierra tunnel lodging house at Bennett City, by a huge avalanche from Tioga Hill Several smaller snow slides had coursed down the hill during the day, covering the portal of the tunnel with their wings, and hence work had been suspended and all the men were in the lodging house a structure of huge logs two to three feet in diamenter, with a partition wall of similar material, the whole being half buried on the side next to the mountain. The house stood on elevated ground 400 or 500 feet from the base of the mountain, with the deep ravine of Slate Creek between the base and the building; and yet the avalanche swept across the creek, up the ridge, demolished the building and plunged through the heavy timber and along the side of the ridge for a distance of 1,000 feet or more.

R. W. Woolard (Secretary) and Dr. F. Kemp (San Francisco dentist, brother of J. C. Kemp) were occupying a small frame office at the end of the main building, and were just preparing to retire when the crash came. The frame building was crushed to the earth, Woolard was pinned across the hot stove and nails projecting through the roof nailed his head to the floor. Dr. Kemp was fastened against and behind the stove—and their lighted lamp was broken and their bed set on fire! A rafter from above and a

BROKEN STOVE, TIOGA HILL AND TUNNEL IN DISTANCE
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BROKEN STOVE, TIOGA HILL AND TUNNEL IN DISTANCE
plank shelf below closed tightly against Woolard’s neck, while his body rested across Dr. Kemp’s hip. Dr. Kemp could have worked his way out, but the moment he removed his support from Woolard’s body the latter would be left hanging by the neck.

The log house had been struck between “wind and water” as it were, the upper portion carried away, and the men left lying in their bunks with eight or ten feet of soft snow above them. Jack Hammond was the first to dig his way out, and realizing from the situation that the other men in the log building were not in danger, he went to the rescue of Woolard and Kemp. With bare feet and hands he dug down through the snow to the base of the building, and crawled in between the roof and floor on his belly. A strong table had been overturned and was supporting the roof, and the legs of this table obstructed Hammond’s passage. Tearing off one of the legs ne continued crawling until he reached the men. He had carried a hatchet in with him, and with this he cut the rafter away and released Woolard’s neck, broke the stove and released his legs, and dragged both men out. The smoldering fire was not extinguished until the next day. . . . Woolard sustained two long cuts on his head, made by the nails, and a severe burn on the front portion of the left thigh On the 24th he was placed upon a sled and drawn across the mountains to Lundy. . . . 29

RUINS OF BOARDINGHOUSE BARN AT RIGHT
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RUINS OF BOARDINGHOUSE BARN AT RIGHT


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