Historical Happenings
Glendale, Montana

Avalanches Threaten Tranquility

           Towering at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, Lion Mountain’s subsurface treasures provided a life line for many people and a possible danger for those actively carving ore from its core.  The steep terrain of its outer surface was a grave threat to the families living in the glacial amphitheater of the mountain’s shadow.  The potential for a catastrophic avalanche was always in the minds of some of the earliest settlers.

            One of the earliest documented accounts of a snow slide disaster was printed in the Butte Miner on May 7, 1876.  In that article it is mentioned that a small snow slide occurred at the Atlantis Mine which took the stovepipe and part of the roof from the mine’s shaft house.  John Chinaman is mentioned as being in the house at the time and he sought safety under the woodstove.  He survived, but the potential for casualties was diminished as most of the miners using the facility, were inside the mine working.

            In December, 1883, a slide started above the Cleopatra Mine which passed over the shaft and boarding house at the mine’s opening.  Timbers were largely damaged near the opening, but the show shed at the base of the hill was completely demolished.  Damage was estimated at $5,000, but no one was injured.

            Alec Oleson lost his life on January 29, 1886 from the result of sliding snow.  After finishing his shift in the Cleopatra Mine, Oleson began his trek to the bottom of the mountain.  He left the designated path, which was protected from the snow’s movement, and proceeded to pioneer a route which was extremely unsafe.  After his body was uncovered, George Tarbell, the acting Coroner, conducted an inquest and found that the death resulted from the careless act of the deceased.  The jurors also exonerated the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company (HCMC) from all blame.

            Six days later, an agent for the California Mutual Accident Association, was killed by an avalanche at the base of Lion Mountain.  James Steers, originally from England, was conducting business in the area at the time of the mishap.  All of the mine crews were summoned to help with the search.  His lifeless body was found three hours later.

            The potential for mishaps with snow was always in the minds of the area residents.  On August 14, 1886, a statement was published in the Dillon Tribune, which stated, “Hecla would make a very pleasant summer resort, but the winters are long and the snow slides are much dreaded.”

            December 1, 1890 was a day when two devastating snow events were recorded.  At 9 o’clock in the morning, a large mass of snow lost its footing on the mountain.  Andrew Wright and P.H. McGeery lost their lives as a result.  Wright’s body was found two hours later beneath 25 feet of snow.  His body was badly bruised and it was assumed that he died instantly.  Fifteen minutes later McGeery was discovered under two feet of snow.  Mr. McGeery was interred at the Glendale Cemetery and Wright’s remains were returned to the east.

            In the same incident, a pile of wood with an estimated size of 1500 cord, shielded a bunk house with 30 sleeping miners.  Some of the snow was able to creep past and caused some damage to the structure.

            Fourteen hours later, at 11:00 P.M., another slide occurred.  The route for the snow was through the middle of Hecla.  Frank Black and his family were asleep in their cabin.  When the wall of snow hit, it was removed from its foundation and carried 75 feet.  Mr. Black received many cuts in bruises and his wife was found in the snow clutching their baby in her arms.  Many homes were left inhabitable and Hecla’s residents were evacuated to Lion City until the danger subsided.  At the time of these two incidents, a reported four feet of snow was the average depth with drifts as high as 15 feet high present.

            By 1893, the HCMC was working its mines during a time when silver prices had plummeted.  The year was also plagued with severe damage of the avalanches, which added to the financial woes of the company, and a demoralization of the citizens living in the communities beneath the unpredictable Lion Mountain.

            On November 29, 1893 just before midnight,  a wall of snow left its haven on the mountain and came crashing down on the community of Hecla.  Five miners were reported as having been buried in the devastation.  One Chinese boarding house cook was also missing.  Rescuers frantically searched for the men.  Three were found alive, but Burt Rush, W.C. Sparks and Ah Wing became victims of the disaster.  Spark’s body was sent to loved ones in Las Vegas.  Rush’s remains were delivered to Iowa and Wing’s remains was sent to Dillon.  About 30 men took the departed to Melrose to be loaded on the train.

            Three days later a more powerful event occurred which involved Lion City.  Fourteen people were involved in the incident.  The residence belonging to the Bergstrom family was in the direct line of the slide.  Nick Bergstrom and his two children, Mabel, 9 and Earl, 7, lost their lives after their cabin was swept from its foundation.  Mrs. Bergstrom and her youngest were also buried by the snow but were saved by rescuers.  The Nixholm family was renting a house from Ed Harvey and the entire family of seven was buried by the snow, but all found with slight injuries.

            Following the second disaster, all of the residents were ordered to leave the area and find shelter in Glendale.  While the towns of Lion City and Hecla were vacated by all women and children, Sam Barbour, the mine superintendent for the HCMC, was ordered to set off huge explosive charges to remove the unsafe snow cornices from the mountain.  Working meticulously, his team carefully placed the charges in the snow at the base of the slope.  Knowing that HCMC property damage would result, the danger would be eliminated.  The experiment was successful in eliminating the danger, but its result was forecasted.  The tramway to the Cleopatra Mine was destroyed as was the HCMC’s blacksmith shop, and there were no injuries resulting from the experiment. 

            In his 13th Annual Report to the HCMC stockholders, Henry Knippenberg wrote, “The unusually bad weather, beginning early in September and continuing throughout the remainder of the year, the heavy fall of snow, the destructive and fatal snow-slides which occurred early in December, in which six persons lost their lives, and thirteen others were buried, but rescued alive, and which destroyed many homes and much of the Company’s property, all helped to increase expense and to decrease production of ore.”

            Today, one can still see evidence that nature’s wrath is still a present danger near Lion Mountain.  The face of the mountain is nearly absent of any living tree and cabin debris is scattered down the valley.  Avalanches still pose a clear and present danger to the recreation enthusiasts and to those with an interest in the area’s history.  Extreme caution should be heeded when approaching Lion Mountain when any snow is present.  It’s violent past has been vividly documented and one knows that history can repeat itself.

This photo was taken May 13, 1894 in a location about one-half mile downstream from Lion City.  The tracks depicted were referred to as the tram between the mines and the concentrator at Greenwood. 
(Photo courtesy of the Lively family.)

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