THE OSHKOSH INCIDENT
The winter of 1948-1949 was the worst in the Western United States since 1889. In Northern Nevada, millions of sheep and cattle were stranded in deep snowdrifts without feed, sometimes accompanied by herders and their horses and mules. Ranch houses were snowed in as well. The U.S. Air Force deployed its pilots and cargo planes, C82 “Flying Boxcars” for a project called “Operation Haylift” to drop 525 tons of alfalfa in the first seven days, feeding a million sheep and 100,000 head of cattle in Northern Nevada and Utah. Similar missions were flown in Colorado, Nebraska, and North Dakota. (Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center · Special Collections, University of Nevada)
I was 14 when this piece of Nevada history was lived. Nevertheless, at the time, I had the capacity to watch, listen and speculate the nature of the forthcoming remembrance. Some 20+ years later, while warming a bar stool in Carson City’s Old Globe Saloon, I had the serendipitous good fortune to relive the event with one member of the original cast.
His first name was Elroy. He had retired from the Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles which had, in its more stable period been re-christened as the Highway Department. His last name is now on a brass marker in Carson City’s Lone Mountain Cemetery.
Nevada’s state capital, Carson City, sits 30 miles south of Reno, which was the Silver State’s largest and most populated city at the time. Reno also hosted the airfield runway and railroad station by which prospective divorcees arrived to establish the six-week residency requirement for their “quickie” divorce.
I was a Carson High School freshman living with mother and her third husband. (One annulment and two divorces)
Mom was a typist in the highway department’s vehicle registration office and Ed Beatty, my current stepfather was a heavy equipment driver also employed by the highway department.
The 1950 census would record that Carson City’s population would represent 3,000 of Nevada’s total of 158,000 folks. (The state is now well over 3,000,000.)
I hesitate to guess how that era’s never-ending flood of six-week residents effected Nevada’s census count, but I can with confidence assure that the vast majority of aspiring divorcees were female.
In those days the Virginia-Truckee railroad and US Highway 395 connected Reno and Carson City. Pretty much side by side north-south passages that followed the eastern edge of thei Sierra-Nevada Mountain Range.
Except for the remnants of old Washoe City and Franktown there were virtually no residential or commercial developments between Reno and Carson City.
Travelers chugged or wheeled through pasture lands dotted with occasional ranch structures and pine forests. Washoe Lake offered an expansive view during the middle of the journey.
Mining, gambling and divorcee accommodations supported Nevada’s economy from the great depression until after World War ll. With the somewhat serendipitous mixture of the three the state would give birth to the Hospitality destination that now dominates the Silver State’s economy.
It was inevitable that the bucolic nature of Washoe Valley’s ranches and the habitation requirements of displaced marriage partners would redefine Nevada’s definition of “ranch.”
The construction of more bunk houses and employment of more “buckaroos” provided a pretty-much secluded, yet fantasy filled environment for well-heeled and ex subsidized “temporary citizens.”
Now, back to the winter of 1948-49.
Television had not yet been introduced to Nevada. Carson City had radio station. Reno’s KOH, could be received during daylight hours. Nighttime radio brought sporadic broadcasting from as far away a Clint, Texas, wherever that is. We had no telephone but had access to our neighbor’s shared party line. The storm came at night, unexpected and unannounced.
Most of Carson City’s streets were unpaved with washboard surfaces. Few houses had garages. Residents having a car usually parked their vehicles at roadside. The commercial part of the city had sidewalks. Few residential streets had them.
The magnitude of the snowfall paralyzed vehicles wherever they happened to be. Four-wheel drive was then not an option on passenger cars. We awoke to a silent sunless world of huge falling snowflakes. The wind would come later.
Mom had fired up the coal oil (now named kerosene) heater situated in the living room. I had filled the two-gallon tank the night before. It was comforting to know a 55-gallon barrel of fuel was just outside the back door.
Our cooking stove was wood or coal burning and shared its heat with an attached water heater. We had city water and power backed up by kerosene lamps along with an endless supply of candles. Electrical power outages were common regardless of weather conditions. We also had a radio that worked with regular power or dry cell batteries.
Protocol of the times dictated that we remain sheltered until the storm lifted, and conditions stabilized. Almost no one was expected to show up for work or school.
Stepfather Ed Beatty was an exception. He was a state heavy equipment operator and had storm related responsibilities. He took off from the house well bundled and on foot. His destination was the nearby state motor pool. The whole town was about one square mile.
About an hour after Ed Beatty left, our telephone endowed neighbor trudged over to inform my Mom that Ed had called to report he and another state employee named Elwood would be clearing snow on US 395 between Carson and Reno.
I had visited the state motor pool area several times and Ed Beatty had let me sit at the controls of the motor pool’s only snowplow. It was huge and had “OSHKOSH,” printed above the massive radiator. It dwarfed the dump truck snowplows Ormsby County used to clear Carson City’s streets. (Ormsby County no longer exists, but that’s another story.)
The storm was still raging when nightfall occurred in the snow saturated sky. The upside was that the radio static eventually became understandable words. The reporter advised that Carson City was isolated. All roads were closed including US 395 which Ed Beatty and Elwood were attempting to keep open.
The reporter went on to say that power and phone lines were down throughout Washoe Valley. He further advised that the only access into or out of Reno was US Highway 40 from Fernley, some 40 miles to the East of Reno.
Needless to say, Mom was concerned, but nevertheless optimistic regarding the Oshkosh operators. They doubtlessly had warm clothes and provisions aboard. Our heater had been left burning on low all night, both to provide interior comfort and limit the threat of snow weight on the corrugated metal roof.
The next morning the storm was worse. The great white flakes had been continuous with strong wind eddies forming impassable snowdrifts. We woke to the Nevada sky gradually transitioning from grey leaden to its traditional deep blue. The coal oil stove had burned all its fuel.
My first morning chore was to refill the heater tank.
Both our front and back doors opened inward. Predictably, snow had drifted more than halfway up each door. During the winter months a square blade shovel hung on a nail to the right of the inside of the back-door’s frame. This wasn’t our first bad winter.
There was nothing to do now but get comfortable and wait it out. Nevada snow, often referred to as Sierra cement, having fallen in nation’s driest state, usually self-packs down to a manageable state within 48 hours.
That night the radio reported that United States Air Force cargo planes were dropping hay bales wherever they spotted distressed livestock. The report included road conditions and the fact that a national Guard tracked vehicle had discovered the state’s Oshkosh snow plow abandoned on US 395, about halfway between Reno and Carson City. Now mom was concerned.
Three days after the storm limited traffic was established on most of Carson’s paved roads. US 50 and US 395 reconnected Ormsby County to the rest of the world. The Virginia Truckee railroad once again could puff its way north 30 miles to Reno and south 15 miles to the Minden creamery. Its track ended at those two extremes. The spur leading to the early riches of the Comstock Load surrounding Virginia City had been abandoned in the early 1930’s.
Ed Beatty returned home that day to advise that the driveshaft of the perceived invincible Oshkosh snowplow had snapped. Neither road crews nor law enforcement had mobile radios in those days. The broken drive shaft had whipped against the engine’s huge exhaust pipe disconnecting it from the engine. The exhaust fumes were venting through the engine firewall and floorboard and the engine noise was defining. Ed Beatty and Elwood decided they would have to look elsewhere for body heat and creature comfort.
The plow breakdown had occurred right where the main north/south power pole line extended an eastbound branch toward the Flying ME Ranch. The storm was still raging when they started foot slogging through the waist deep show. Visibility was difficult with ungoggled eyes, but they managed to navigate their way from pole to pole finally kneeing into a snow buried wood rail fence beyond which the shadowy image of a large building appeared.
A door sign under the front porch overhead identified they had reached the residence of the Ranch Foreman. Kerosene lamp lights twinkled from within. Brushing the snow off as well as they could, Ed Beatty knocked.
Up until this point I was a first party listener to the radio and party line phone reports of Ed Beatty’s winter storm odyssey.
According to Elroy’s somewhat dated recollection, warmth gushed outward as the door opened. Before the still panting Ed Beatty or Elroy could say anything their frozen ears strained to hear a softly spoken “Hallelujah!” Followed by, “Damn ladies, it’s a month since Christmas and look what has just been delivered. Where the hell did you two come from?? Get in here!”
The lamplight was dim, but the brightness of the roaring fireplace drew them across the room without initially examining their surroundings.
As the two men turned from the hearth flames simultaneously voicing the distressful situation that brought them there, they became dumbstruck by the surroundings.
They were in a wide-open high ceiling parlor room that appeared suited for entertaining guests. Amenities consisted of several cocktail tables, well upholstered sitting areas, an upright piano and what appeared to be a well-stocked bar. A staircase led to a balcony. The flame fed lighting limited further observation.
Elroy’s memory was three ladies and one man were in the room. He remembers Ed Beatty, assuming the man was the foreman, starting to explain their predicament and being told by the fellow that he was a guest and we should address the lady who had answered the door to explain their unexpected presence.
Conversation determined that she was filling in for the foreman who was temporarily attending to the needs of guests in the ranch’s several other buildings. As she was laying out this information a small handful of other lady guests entered the room from the dimness of the stairway.
Elroy ended his twenty + year recollection by recalling that the man, stepping behind the bar, said, “You boys look like you could handle some fortification,” and how he and Ed Beatty were marooned three snowbound days until a Nevada National Guard tracked vehicle reconnected the flying ME Ranch to US 395.
I pried for more details, but Elroy finished his drink and assured me that what he had just told me was pretty much about it. Our conversation did continue, but it related to other nostalgic memories of old Carson City.
Truth being known, shortly after Ed Beatty was rescued from the ordeal at the Flying ME ranch my Mom had filled me in with the third-party information she had been introduced to shortly after Ed Beatty’s return.
Seems that a somewhat inebriated Elwood, while reporting the event to a table of equally boozed up 49’r Club studs, violated one of the primary unwritten rules of manhood…”If your friend cheats on his woman, you take that shit to your grave.”
The 49’r Club was a neighborhood watering hole owned and operated by a couple named Newt and Alice. It was located on the east side of Carson City’s main drag about 50 yards south of the state capitol grounds. Alice, who happened o be one of my mom’s best drinking buddies, overheard Elwood’s bar talk and felt obligated to relate the un-redacted version of the two snowbound snowplow operator’s ordeal which certainly was much more colorful, and detailed than Ed Beatty’s version.
As previously mentioned, Ed Beatty was Mom’s third husband in a state which dispensed instant divorces to six-week residents. Mom was a redhead with a quick temper and a backhand that I never did see coming. She also satisfied Nevada’s residency requirement.
I have always had the ability to sleep through just about anything.
The last time I saw Ed Beatty was after waking up to a loud knocking at the front door. It was Ormsby County Sheriff Lester Smith and Carson City’s Chief of Police, Howard Hoffman. These two, along with a well-armed citizenry, pretty much comprised local law enforcement
I apparently had slept through a somewhat violent discussion between my Mom and Ed Beatty.
After settling the dispute Mom had gone to the party-line neighbor’s house asking them to call the authorities. She then returned home to await their arrival.
I followed the two law enforcement officers into the kitchen where Mom sat nursing a split lip and what would become a black eye. Ed was laying face down on the linoleum floor. The heavy pewter serving platter, on which each Thanksgiving turkey traveled, was flat beside him. The welt on the back of his neck was a vivid red.
Determining that Ed Beatty was still breathing, the two officers loaded him into the back seat of their car. Carson City had no hospital, but Dr. Thom served as the county physician. We later found that Dr. Thom had Ed Beatty sent to the medical center in Reno. We never saw Ed Beatty again.
Two days later I saw Mom drop another wedding into her jewelry box.
I violate no trust with this great storm of 1948-1949 winter reflection. With my exception, all the players are long gone as are Ormsby County and the V&T Railroad. The entire block of where the 49”r Club and our nearby residence was has terraformed into the Nevada’s State Legislature’s complex. The arterial prominence of US 395 between Carson City and Reno has been overshadowed by Interstate 580. Modern asphalt covers the washboard memories of a younger Carson City.