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News >  Idaho Voices

Rail route tunnels saved lives in big fire

Carl Gidlund

One of the most popular recreation areas in North Idaho is the Route of the Hiawatha, a 15-mile biking and hiking trail on the abandoned roadbed of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. The area is managed by the Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area under a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

In 1935 the railroad began passenger service from Chicago to the West Coast with a series of speedy trains, all named Hiawatha. The trail is named for the most famous of those, the Olympian Hiawatha, which passed over the route daily between 1947 and 1961.

Thousands bike and hike the trail every summer, but few know the story of how heroic trainmen and laborers saved hundreds of people during the 3 million acre forest fire that’s come to be called the Big Burn, the largest fire ever in the United States. We’ll take you on a trip down the trail, noting what happened here those terrifying days of Aug. 19 and 20, 1910.

First, a bit of history: This segment of the line was constructed by the railway company between 1907 and 1909. Small towns and work camps abutted the tracks in 1910, and homesteaders, miners and merchants staked their claims or built their dwellings near them, too, so they could receive supplies and send their products to market.

To access the top portion of the trail, take Interstate 90 to the Taft exit, Montana milepost 5. The town of Taft was built on the flats to your left as you head for the parking lot near the entrance to the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, also called the Taft Tunnel by many locals. Owing to the fire there’s nothing left of the town, but once you get to the parking area you’ll see some foundations of buildings erected later by the railroad.

During the railroad construction and until the fire, Taft was quite the hellhole: When Lolo National Forest Supervisor Elers Koch first saw it, he recounted inTimothy Egan’s book, “The Big Burn: “The bars were lined with hard-faced dance hall girls, and every kind of gambling game going wide open.”

Taft residents had given so much trouble to the Forest Service during construction that the agency had little use for them. In fact, as the fire approached Taft on Saturday, Aug. 20, Ranger Frank Haun suggested to his boss, Koch, that his crew of firefighters light a backfire that would burn toward the town. Most thought it was a good idea, but it was vetoed by Koch.

Haun knocked on saloon and home doors throughout the town, trying to solicit volunteers to defend it. No luck.

According to Haun, “Instead of readying for retreat or defense, instead of digging fire lines or packing clothes and belongings, instead of watering down roofs or gathering shovels and picks, the people of Taft went to work hoarding and then consuming their entire whiskey supply. As Supervisor Koch reported to his superiors, the Taft denizens decided that if they were going to be burned to death in an inferno that engulfed the Bitterroots, they would go down drunk.”

Despite the booze, they all escaped by boarding rescue trains that took them to Missoula, but Taft burned to the ground.

After you pay your fee to walk or ride the Hiawatha, you’ll enter the 1.7-mile St. Paul Pass Tunnel, designated by the railroad as No. 20. During the fire, more than 400 people fled into it and all survived the inferno. Yet only about two miles to the northwest, over the ridge and in the next valley, eight men died at the Bullion Mine, trapped in a small shaft.

Looking down the trail as you emerge from Tunnel No. 21, about three miles from the west portal of the Taft Tunnel, the whole of the country as far as the eye can see was swept by the fire, “so hot that pick handles lying in the open beside the track were utterly consumed,” according to Koch.

As you traverse the trail, you’ll note many earth fills. In 1910, all but two of these, Kelly Creek and Clear Creek, were wooden trestles, afire during those hot August days.

The 1,516-foot Tunnel No. 22 at Moss Creek saved the lives of 47 people. An engine and a boxcar had left Roland, a station at the west portal of the Taft Tunnel, about 3.5 miles back up the track. It couldn’t make it to Falcon, about 11 miles farther, because of those burning trestles, but railroad workers and miners who had been working claims between Tunnels 23 and 24 climbed aboard and the train backed up into Tunnel 22 where passengers and crews waited until the fire swept past them.

Below the Small Creek Trestle is a grave. It’s thought to be of an immigrant track worker, known in those days as a “gandy dancer,” who had leaped from that train in hysterics as it neared a burning trestle. He tumbled down the mountain into the fire’s path. Co-workers later found his charred remains, carried them to the roadbed and buried him beside the tracks, marking his last resting place with a steel cross made in a railroad machine shop. He’s the only railroad casualty of the Big Burn.

Soon you’ll arrive at a small timber bridge crossing Manhattan Creek. During the construction and early operation of the railroad, there was a wild and wooly camp here, called Adair, with saloons and houses of ill repute in addition to living quarters for the railroad crew. All the structures were destroyed in the fire, but no lives were lost. However, in spring 1911, with the hills above it denuded, a major snowslide buried four railroad employees.

Tunnel No. 27 at Clear Creek, 2.5 miles below Adair, although only 470 feet long, saved 168 people. On the night of Aug. 20, engineer John Mackedon arrived at Falcon siding about a mile down the tracks. It was on fire and men, women and children were gathered on the depot’s platform. The moment he stopped everyone tried to get on the engine. Realizing there wasn’t room he hooked onto flat cars at an adjacent siding and loaded them all.

After reaching the tunnel they discovered that Superintendent C.H. Marshall had been left behind. The engineer and a conductor returned to Falcon, found Marshall, and returned to the tunnel.

They later described their trip: The huge timbers of bridges were burning beneath them, but they kept on until they rescued the official. Their return trip to the tunnel was terrible. After crossing burning bridges they had to stop to extinguish the flames that threatened to destroy the caboose. According to engineer Mackedon, also cited by Egan, “Why, all you could see was a wall of flame, but we crossed it. I hooked her up, threw her wide open, and then we lay down on the deck to protect ourselves from the heat. We expected that every minute would be our last on Earth.”

The people remained in the tunnel eight days until the bridges were rebuilt.

The remains of a redwood water tower on the bank above the trail mark Falcon’s location. It served as a construction camp and drop-off point for supplies for nearby settlers and the town of Grand Forks in the valley below that was reached by a steep trail. It burned to the ground.

A railroad worker who was left behind saved his life by scrambling into a 168-foot culvert through fill dirt.

Your trip down the Hiawatha Trail will probably conclude at Pearson, about four miles down the track from Falcon. The Lucky Swede and Pearson Mining Co. used the siding to bring in mining equipment and the siding eventually became known as Pearson.

As you look uphill from here, you’ll see a smaller railroad bed on your left. It’s the Bogle Spur, named for one of the partners who built it, Bogle and Callahan. The short line was used to remove timber killed by the fire.

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