"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Fire & Ice (With apologies to Robert Frost)

By on March 31, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

Massive forest fires and severe winters have been regular events throughout the history of north central Washington. 

With the arrival of white people came a written record of the fires and freezes of the past.

In 1853 Isaac Stevens, first governor of Washington Territory, charged Lt. George McClellan with the job of exploring the Cascades in search of a passage over the mountains suitable for wagons and a railroad. 

In September McClellan and his men were following Indian trails between the Kittitas Valley and the Cascade crest. Surprisingly, he did not find Snoqualmie Pass but did write on the 10th from a camp near Lake Kle-al-lum, “The air is so smoky that we can see nothing of the lake.” The next day he added, “The air is perfectly thick with smoke like a north barrack room in old times. I fear that we will have but little clear air until the rains set in.”

In 1859 Henry Custer and a company of surveyors and assistants were working for the U.S. Boundary Commission on their first trip to locate and establish the U.S./Canadian border along the 49th parallel. They were looking over the land from the top of Middle Peak just inside the northwest corner of, what is now, the North Cascades National Park. He noted in his journal that to the east there was a huge forest fire, “sending up vast columns of smoke several hundred feet high.”

On his second trip that summer, this time to the Skagit River north of the border, Custer wrote, “On this (east) side of the stream we found the whole forest burned by late forest fires ignited by persons lately camped here. Smoke was still arising in all directions.”

For his final trip that year he planned to climb Hozomeen Mountain in the north east corner of North Cascades National Park. He was disappointed to find he could not make the climb because, “The whole country is covered with clouds and smoke.”

Jack Splawn was a Central Washington cattleman. In 1868 he rode on a drive of 200 cattle across Naches Pass. He recalled, “When the cattle started on that drive it was so smoky from forest fires that it was impossible to see the lead cattle more than 200 yards away.”

In September of 1883 Lt. George Washington Goethals and his men were in the Methow Valley looking for routes over the north Cascades. The Lieutenant noted that they were in heavy forest fire smoke from early in the trip and could barely make out the land around them. On Sept. 10, a hard rain cleared the air and Goethals wrote that he was, “thankful as we had been passing through smoke ever since we left the head of the north fork of the Twotsp. (Twisp)”

Most of the old fires, as is the case today, were lightning caused. Others were human caused and may have been products of “controlled burns” set by native people to keep huckleberry meadows clear. Whatever the cause, fires devastated forests. 

The hard winters, however, killed stock. A truly “Hard Winter” was one where severe weather continued for three months or more with temperatures down to 30 below zero, constant harsh blizzards, deep snow, and brief warming followed by deep freeze again to form a hard crust over the surface of the earth. The winter of 1861/62 was like that.

When early April broke the winter’s grip, “Dead cattle by the thousands were piled up all over the hills.” Some 80 percent of the stock on the eastern range of Oregon and Washington perished.

The winter of 1880/81 was at least as bad. Jack Splawn recalled that in the fall of 1880 the Yakima Valley was home to 150,000 cattle. Only 50,000 survived the winter. In the Okanogan 10,000 head were wintering. The winter killed 8,500 and bankrupted even the largest cattle companies.

The story of the “Heart Breaking Winter” of 1889/90 has been recalled by many settlers. Benedict Gubser spent the winter at his homestead ranch in Spring Coulee near Conconully. He followed the winter in his diary.


31 – More than a foot of snow fell in December.


1 – Cold and windy all day. Storming and snowing tonight.

2 – Temperature away below zero. High wind blowing from the north. 

 Heaven and earth filled with sifting snow as fine as dust makes it the most disagreeable weather I have yet seen in the country.

7 – No mail has come in for days on account of a severe snow storm having blocked the roads. 

11- Rumor has it that (Northern Pacific) trains have been snowbound for 10 days.

12 – Came on home. Everything that could freeze in the room was frozen. 25 below zero in Ruby.

13 – One man near the Okanogan has already lost a hundred cattle.

15 – Has been snowing without intermission for the last twenty eight hours. Makes the snow, at present, about 30 inches deep.

17 – Quite a brisk wind blew last night and today. Has turned cold again.

21 – The day was raw and cold, the sun not shining. Snowed a trifle.

22 – Snowed 2 or 3 inches last night

23 – Snowed about all day so I could not do anything.

25 – Was terrible laborious wading through the snow, which in places, is 2 1/2 feet deep and packed.


1 – Snowing all forenoon. The snow is 3 feet deep at Funks. He has lost one of his best brood mares.

3 – Rained, snowed, snowed and rained most of the day. Many snow slides occurred today. The snow at the head of Homestake Basin is 3 1/2 feet deep.

7 – Helped one of the Provos boys make him a pair of snowshoes so he could go home.

12 – A mare died of starvation last night at the lower end of Fish Lake.

13 – Last night was the coldest for a couple weeks past.

14 – Tended the horses and shoveled snow for them. (To get to grass.)

15 – The day has been one of the worst of the winter. A strong wind has been blowing from the north ever since last night. Driving snow.

16 – Blew and snowed from the north nearly all day. Cold as a blizzard.

17 – Last night was among the coldest and windiest of the winter. 

 Snowed for 30 hours.

20 – Windy and cold. I suffered more today from cold than any other day this winter. 

24 – Day was clear and wind roaring from the north.

25 – Heard George Smith was losing about 25 head of cattle daily.

 A couple weeks ago he had lost 400.

27 – A man living in the Lime Belt has lost over 100 horses, has only about 50 left.


2 – Shoveled snow a while for my colt. It looks bad.

5 – Took a feed of oats up to the colt. It looked to be in a precarious condition.

6 – Went to take care of my colt, but my fears were realized. Forced off the trail, it had slid down the steep hillside stopping with its head bent around under it so it had died in that position without struggle.

 Froze considerable last night.

8 – Rained most of the night. Snow is melting down unusually fast.

20 – Still six inches to a foot of snow over the bottomland.

22 – Funk says he has lost half his horses. He said Chapel has 13 horses left out of over a hundred. Snowed a little last night.

24 – Heard the first Meadowlark whistle today.

25 – Saw a chipmunk and a young grasshopper today.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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