Last summer, 33,000 mountain bikers from all over the world rode the Route of the Hiawatha. This summer’s crowds are on track to break that record. The parking area at the East Portal will soon be doubled to handle the throngs.
Do they have any idea they’re pedaling directly into the heart of the 1910 Big Burn?
Actually, they might, if they’re paying any attention at all.
The signs are everywhere – and we mean, actual signs. The Hiawatha is studded with prominent historical markers titled “The 1910 Fires” and the “The Big Blowup,” just to name two. This month, the Forest Service erected additional signs at the East Portal to commemorate the fire’s centennial.
So, those who pause for a little light reading along the way soon understand that the Hiawatha’s main attractions – its tunnels, including the 1.7 mile St. Paul Pass (Taft) Tunnel – saved hundreds of lives during the most ferocious hours of the conflagration.
And most bicyclists surely can’t miss the white, wooden cross, just outside of one tunnel, accompanied by the sign, “A Gandy-Dancer’s Grave?”
This is the spot where an anonymous gandy-dancer (railroad worker) was buried after he leapt in terror from a rescue train bound for the safety of a nearby tunnel. His terror was understandable – the heat was intense enough to blister the paint on the rail cars. Nobody, least of all the engineer, knew if the burning trestle would take the weight of the train.
Still, that gandy-dancer should have stayed on the train. The train made it across the trestle and into the tunnel, and his was the train’s only death. The other passengers later went back, found his body and buried him.
Meanwhile, this route – and the panorama that surrounds it – contains more stories than historical markers can possibly tell.
For instance, this very track – the Milwaukee Road (short for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific) – actually helped cause the Big Burn.
Those old steam locomotives threw out orange cinders like Fourth of July sparklers. The friction of steel wheels on steel rails also struck sparks into trackside brush. The forest rangers out of Wallace acquired a fleet of “speeders” – like bicycles that could be pedaled on railroad tracks – to follow behind the trains and put out small fires. But they couldn’t get them all.
So it may have been no coincidence that the most ferocious fires in the Big Burn were centered right around this new line, completed only a year earlier. But the railroad can’t take all the blame. More fires were started by both lightning and by people burning slash or clearing land. The Big Burn began when thousands of small fires melded together in one giant, wind-driven blowtorch.
The most dramatic stories from 1910 involve the very structures that make the Route of the Hiawatha stand out among mountain bike trails: The tunnels and the trestles.
A number of books describe the Milwaukee Road’s role, including Stephen Pyne’s 2001 “Year of the Fires,” Timothy Egan’s 2009 “The Big Burn,” Ruby El Hult’s 1960 “Northwest Disaster: Avalanche and Fire” and Sandra A. Crowell and David O. Asleson’s “Up the Swiftwater” in 1980. The information in this story comes largely from those books – and from the Hiawatha’s own historical markers. “Up the Swiftwater” does a particularly thorough job of describing the three harrowing rescue runs that locomotives made on the hellish day and night of Aug. 20, 1910.
One engine crew was returning from a routine run that afternoon when a telegraph operator flagged them down and told them that the wild railroad town of Grand Forks had burnt to the ground and the depot at nearby Falcon was about to catch fire, too.
So the engineer hooked up a boxcar and backed six miles to Falcon (a sign on the Hiawatha commemorates the old site of Falcon) and found a panic-stricken crowd. The people barely waited for the train to stop before they piled on, clinging to whatever they could find.
The jammed train chugged out of the depot just before the Falcon platform caught fire.
The 13-mile trip to Avery was the stuff of nightmares. The engineer and his assistant had to stay on their knees to avoid exposure to the blistering heat – except when they had to stop to clear downed trees off the tracks. The most harrowing moment came when they approached a bridge and saw that it was on fire.
“Why, all that you could see of a bridge was a wall of flame, but we crossed it,” said engineer Johnnie Mackedon. “I hooked her up, threw her wide open, and then we lay down on the deck to protect ourselves from the heat.”
The train finally made it to Avery at 2 a.m.
Meanwhile, another train, out on fire duty, also became a rescue train. It picked up about 167 smoke-smudged stragglers from Grand Forks and Falcon and started for Avery. The fire’s heat had grown unbearable. Everyone had to lay flat in the rail cars to keep from being scorched. When the train reached Tunnel 27, only 470 feet long, they had no choice but to stay there. The full fury of the Big Burn was roaring through – they couldn’t even stand at the tunnel entrances without being burned.
They spent a roaring, smoky night in the tunnel and made it down to Avery the next morning.
The third rescue train came out of Taft, Mont. The crew of a work train saw the mountains flash with fire and immediately went on a rescue run up the Montana side of St. Paul Pass. It picked up nearly 400 workers, who were still finishing up work on the Milwaukee Road’s bridges and trestles. The train steamed into the big Taft Tunnel, where they found refuge from the heat and flames. But an engineer and conductor decided to detach an engine and boxcar and look for people west of the tunnel.
They found about 47 more, many of them Hungarian and Montenegrin laborers. By the time they were all on board, the holocaust was in full roar. Bridges and trestles to Avery were gone and the bridges back to the Taft Tunnel had now collapsed. They were trapped. The only hope of refuge was to get to a smaller tunnel, Tunnel 22, but a burning trestle was in the way. The engineer opened the throttle and screamed over the trestle. This, according to lore, is where that lone gandy-dancer jumped. But the trestle held and the train steamed into the tunnel, where everyone rode out the rest of the firestorm.
Many of these same laborers were put right back to work, in the next weeks, to rebuild all of those burned bridges and trestles. The Milwaukee Road was back in business within a month.
The trauma of the Big Burn also contributed to the decision to electrify the entire stretch between Avery and Harlowton, Mont., which eliminated the fire hazards of steam locomotives.
Over the next few decades the Milwaukee Road became one of the premier railroads in the country, and the stretch over the Bitterroots became famous for its scenery – once the trees grew back. Its high-speed train from Chicago to Seattle, inaugurated in 1947, was named the Olympian Hiawatha.
The last Olympian Hiawatha came through in 1961 and the last freight train in 1980, when the route was finally abandoned. The Forest Service opened it as a rails-to-trails route in 1998, and then opened the Taft Tunnel section in 2001. They gave it the name Route of the Hiawatha. It could just as easily been called the Route of the 1910 Holocaust.
Meanwhile, one old-time railroad worker from Avery is responsible for the existence of that gandy-dancer’s white cross. For decades after the fire, this signal worker took it upon himself to maintain that grave – which was then commemorated with a historical marker when the bike trail was developed.
Otherwise, 33,000 mountain bikers would glide past that spot every year, oblivious to what happened on a terrible day in 1910.