19 February 2010

When Fuel Famine and Flood Harassed Old Fort Benton

A Woman’s Perspective of Life on the Frontier: The Fort Benton Years of Martha Edgerton Rolfe--Part III
By Ken Robison

This continues the series of frontier historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

Mrs. Martha Edgerton Rolfe, daughter of first territorial Governor Sidney Edgerton and wife of adventurous Herbert Percy or H. P. Rolfe, left a remarkable account about life Fort Benton in its transition years from lawless whiskey trading post of the early 1870s to transportation hub by the end of that decade. In Part I, published in The River Press, Mattie, as her family called her, wrote about the hazardous trip the Rolfes made by stage from Helena to Fort Benton arriving December 8, 1879. Part II presented Mattie’s observations as she and her family spent their first year at the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Mattie now continues her narrative of life in Fort Benton:

The winter of 1880-81 in Montana was one of unparalleled severity. The cold weather set in about the first of November and continued until the first of February except for an all to brief chinook during the first week in December, which preceded a heavy fall of snow that isolated Fort Benton, where I was then living, from the rest of the world.

By November 17, according to the River Press of that day, the Shonkin was frozen solid, and a week later it notes the Missouri river was also frozen, and that the “cold snap froze up the printing office.” During this extreme cold the government thermometers registered at one time 59 degrees below zero.

The snowfall, like the cold, was unprecedented. It continued until the ground was covered from three to seven feet in depth. Cattle, deer, antelope, and other unsheltered animals were frozen to death or perished from starvation. Travel became impossible.

W[orden] P. Wren, who was then in charge of Murphy-Neal Co., in Fort Benton, had occasion to go in January to Sun River on business. On his return journey by “jerky” as the two-seat coach running between Helena and Fort Benton, and sometimes on other stage routes, was called, the driver lost his way, and for two days and a night wandered through the snow after leaving Reinecke’s place [on the Sun River], before he reached Fort Benton with his hungry and half-frozen passengers, they having had but one meal during that time. From Reinecke’s to Fort Benton was ordinarily a journey of less than ten hours by coach.

It was not alone travelers who were sufferers because of the heavy snowfall; the citizens of Fort Benton found their fuel supply rapidly decreasing. Wood rose to $12 and $13 a cord, and soon could not be purchased at any price.

The situation was the more alarming because of the intense cold that showed no signs of modifying. Those who had laid in enough fuel to last through an ordinary Montana winter were the most fortunate, although it was evident, unless there came a change in the weather, they, too, would have to utilize whatever would burn and keep them warm, as others were already doing.

Wherever possible, several families went in together and pooled their fuel supply. Our own small roof during this period sheltered three families. The cold being almost unendurable, the men were compelled to do most of the cooking for our household, as they were more warmly dressed than the women. But even they could stay but a few minutes at a time in the kitchen that was built of boards, lined with paper, and impossible to comfortably heat in such weather.

Finally our wood gave out, and we began to tear down our fence. Others had long before resorted to all sorts of experiments to keep warm. When everything without doors had been used, including fences, and small buildings, furniture was then broken up and burned. Murphy-Neal Co. burned a large quantity of rancid bacon they fortunately had on hand. how the other large firms managed to tide over this period is not a matter of record.

Fort Benton was then a military post, with Colonel [Edward] Moale, brother-in-law of General Gibbon, in command. In their extremity, the citizens of Fort Benton turned to him for relief, which he was only too glad to give if it lay within his power to do so. He telegraphed to Washington, explaining the situation, and from there received permission to share the large amount of wood at the post with the needy inhabitants --that is to say, with everyone living in Fort Benton, for all were fuel paupers.

Scarcely was there a prospect of the fuel famine being ended, when the residents of this sorely tried town ere called upon to face another danger, that threatened its very existence. A wind came out of the southwest, and within a few hours the thermometer indicated increased warmth of over 60 degrees. The River Press of Feb. 2, 1881, says: “Benton is swimming, water running in the streets and ditches being cut to drain it into the river.” The chinook had arrived and brought with it real summer weather. The snow did not disappear gradually, but suddenly melting, poured down the hillsides surrounding Fort Benton in torrents of muddy water, covering the sidewalks, and making the town look as if it were a part of the river, which it soon threatened to become.

What effect the thaw had upon the roads leading into town can readily be imagined. They were afloat, and it would be some weeks before they would be in a condition for travel. Less wood was needed now the weather was milder, but the tock at the post could not last indefinitely, even if the money was available to buy it at twenty-five dollars a cord, to which price it had risen. Meanwhile the chinook blew and blew.

The streets dried and became passable, when it was noticed the ice in the river gave signs of weakening, and it soon became dangerous to cross it, and communication with the other side was cut off. At length the ice began to break up, and it was hoped the river would be clear enough to permit the ferry to operated before many days.

Then came the startling news near nightfall of a lovely spring-like day, that the valleys of the Teton and Marias rivers were flooded, and an ice gorge had formed in the Missouri above the town. The business section of Fort Benton, and many of its homes were situated on low ground, but little above the river at high water. if the gorge did not give way, this part of the town would certainly be washed away.

Had we been saved from freezing, now to be drowned? It certainly looked like it. My own home would be in the direct course of the flood that was imminent if the gorge resisted much longer the hammering of the great blocks of ice that swept down against it. These, arrested in their progress, piled up and helped strengthen the dam.

Many, who like ourselves lived in the lowlands, fled to higher ground for safety. Among these was Colonel James Stanford, his wife and infant son. We foolishly remained. Again we numbered three families, who decided to brave the flood together, as we had formerly endured the cold. But we did not sleep--only the children slept, happily unconscious of the danger--while we waited calmly whatever fate had in store for us, not because we were courageous; it was the thought of how cold and uncomfortable it must be out there on the hills, and we had been cold so long.

We sat about the fire indulging in gloomy suggestions of what might happen. As our house was at the upper end of town, it was near the gorge. Every few minutes one of the men left our circle to go to the narrow place between the hills where the gorge had formed, looked it over, and returned to give us his opinion of the situation.

But our men were not the only ones who were anxiously watching the rising water. Those others, whose wives and children were in safety on the hillsides, knew if the flood came it would sweep away their homes and all they contained. As for our group by the fireside, it never occurred to us that should the gorge break, it would be impossible for any one to warn us in time to permit of our escaping. We thoroughly enjoyed the bliss of ignorance, which in this case meant comport, and a roof over our heads other than the sky.

Some time after midnight the latest visitor to the gorge hastened back with the joyful news that the ice had given way; the river running free, and all danger was over. On hearing this, the refugees on the hills went back to their homes and for a few hours until morning came, the weary citizens of Fort Benton slept peacefully after their long vigil.

[Sources: “When Fuel Famine and Flood Harrassed Old Fort Benton in Montana Newspaper Association 10 March 1924 by Martha Edgerton (Rolfe) Plassmann; Memories of a Long Life by Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassman]