My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Snow Memories

This account was written in 1998, published in the March/April 1993 issue of The Montana Journal. Mildred, Alfred, and two babies were stationed on the Northern Pacific railroad section house over a winter.


I bend an ear when people recount their ordeals during the record snows of 1996-97, when roofs caved in, and banks were plowed up higher than their cars, but I hide a smile as I remember a winter some seventy years ago in our railroading days at Lookout Pass. There was no equipment to handle the deluge, and the rugged road was blotted out from Mullan, Idaho, over the mountain to Saltese, Montana, from mid-October to Memorial Day. Four aging railroad buildings squatted there on top of the world, a bunk house for the laborers, a depot for the telegraph operator, a decrepit tool shed and a dwelling for the track foreman and family, if any. No roofs caved in because one of the crew's jobs was to shovel them. And the men brought their shovels into the house at night so they could dig their way out in the morning!

We arrived at our station in December by the Coeur d'Alene "stub," with a skeleton housekeeping outfit and two babies; a two-year-old and one two-months. The two laborers helped shovel through eight feet of snow to get us into the house still adorned with its original coat of railroad gray paint and the effects of a succession of bachelors. It harbored a few essentials: two bedsteads with mattresses, a couple of chairs, a table, a cook stove and a wood heater, all bearing evidence of having known better days. The wall beside the cook stove was caked with the splatters from many frying pans. I scraped it off and washed the area, leaving a light spot that showed how thick the grime and smoke was spread over the rest of the place.

Bed bugs were a fact of life in old railroad houses, and, being experienced in their habits, I soon pulled the beds away from the walls and set the legs in cans of kerosene so the beasties couldn't make it up to the mattress. Not exactly the kind of perfume that anyone would choose to go to bed with. A tunnel-like roof led to the wood shed and the "powder room!" A spring that furnished water for cooking and drinking was nearly dry, so I melted snow in a wash boiler for laundry. Later, with daytime thawing and night time freezing, I could chop down icicles. They made more water, saved me some time and saved wear and tear on the shovel! The windswept slope behind the house was dotted with burned snags still standing from the fires of 1910, but it was nearly impossible for the men to get to them in the ever-deepening white stuff, so we hoarded the wood and hugged the old heater to make our fuel supply last. I sent my grocery orders down to Saltese, and the groceries came up with the mail on the little two-car passenger train. We had a standing order for milk from the dairy at St. Regis. Mr. Fort, the dairy man, obligingly put it on the train. He never missed. The Wallace (local) freight made its way up the four percent grade in two sections. The first half was left waiting on the side track at the top while the engine and train crew went back down the hill to get the other half. During the waiting period, the free passengers ("bums" for short) often came knocking at my door to ask for a handout. They were the only humans from the outside world that I would see for three months and three days.

Then, someone somewhere along the line had a brainstorm, and installed an old hand-cranked telephone connected to the section house at Dorsey, Idaho, six miles down the line, so the crew there could call me to find out where the train was. They dared not take their motor car out in that narrow passage between the snow banks for fear of meeting the freight train with nowhere to get out of the way. Kid-like, it made me feel quite important!

Three months and three days passed. I hadn't seen another human in skirts, but I had to leave the babies with their dad and catch the stub to Wallace overnight because of an excruciating toothache. I had 12 teeth extracted, went across the street to the hotel and left a call for six o'clock, I was back up on the mountain about breakfast time the next morning.

The snow kept coming. One morning, I heard a commotion and a yell: "Gotta fasten the shutters, the rotary's comin'!" I could hear the monster snowplow "breathing," and I cringed, while the chunks of ice and snow pounded the building, waiting for the roof to fall in.

Then, when I thought I knew all about living up there on the mountain, it began to rain. Rain on top of that, now, Ten feet of snow?

A typical winter scene at Saltese on the Montana side of Lookout Pass. Undated photo courtesy Mansfield Library.Word came one morning that snow slides had taken out three railroad bridges between Lookout and Mullan, Idaho. I felt a panic coming on. How would we get food? How would we get milk for the babies? How would we get out if one of them got sick? My fears were unfounded. The railroad sent up a big bridge crew. The house was up on a high bank, and if I stood on the end of the couch and looked out the very top of the window, I could look down on the tops of the extra gang cars. An engine brought up supplies and mail every day. The whole railroad company seemed to know there were babies up there, and the Roadmaster, the signal maintainer and any officials coming our way were carrying milk and supplies for our kids. In three weeks, the bridges were back in place, and life went on as before.

At Easter time, we came down out of the clouds and went home to Arlee. The wind and the elevation sign that marked the Montana-Idaho line had carved a little hollow in eleven feet of snow. It fairly took my breath away to go from that dense white world to bare ground and buttercups.

A few years later, we did a second stint on top of the pass, but the winter was very mild—only five feet of snow. The old buildings are long since gone, and a ski run has taken their place. I know it is nostalgia, but I like to think that the echo of a locomotive, the roar of the rotary snow plow and the jangle of my old handcranked phone still mingle with the wind that bounces off the peaks on top of the world at Lookout Pass.