Weather Window: 1949 Operation Haylift
Few Nevada winters have been as brutal as that of 1948-49, when towering snowdrifts and frigid cold waves shut down the state’s major highways and isolated many rural communities. Sixty years ago, the harsh elements nearly decimated Nevada’s livestock industry as cattle and sheep became helplessly snowbound.
Weather conditions were so severe a small group of ranchers in hard-hit Eastern Nevada devised an unusual plan to reach their starving livestock that were cut off from grazing by deep snow. The ranchers and officials were inspired by the besieged citizens of West Berlin, who were receiving shipments of food and fuel airdropped by U.S. military planes in the Berlin Airlift. The Nevadans organized “Operation Haylift,” a massive relief effort using U.S. Air Force C-82 cargo airplanes, known as Flying Boxcars, to save the starving animals.
Operation Haylift was collaboration on a grand scale, involving brave men and women of the armed forces and National Guard, as well as civilians from Nevada and California who came to the rescue like a modern cavalry.
The drama began when winter weather broadsided the Silver State on Dec. 2, 1948. A vigorous storm system dumped nearly a foot of snow in some places and spawned winds in excess of 70 mph. More storms followed. The relentless snowfall forced some residents in the northern and central parts of the state to build tunnels through 10-foot drifts. Deep snow thwarted grocery deliveries and gasoline was doled out on an emergency basis.
The cattle country near Elko and Ely was smothered by two feet of snow. More than 40 inches of the white stuff buried the noted mining camp Jarbridge, located in the northeast corner of the state. Between storms, the snow cover and clear skies allowed daytime heat to radiate back into the atmosphere, causing nighttime temperatures to plummet. On Christmas Eve the mercury slid to eight below zero in Elko and to 17 below in Ely. Las Vegas residents and tourists had been spared the worst of the snow but still shivered when the airport thermometer nose-dived to 17 degrees.
People stayed home and kept close to their stoves. They didn’t go to the movies or to holiday parties as they usually do. In western Nevada pipes froze and broke in dozens of Carson City homes. In Reno the deepening frost buckled city streets. When the bitter cold froze Virginia City’s water mains, several sections of town were cut off for weeks.
Locals in Boulder City, Nev. didn’t mind the chill or gray skies. Just before Christmas nearly 1,000 of the town’s 5,000 residents elbowed their way into Gil Telford and Harry Rayner’s saloon. The excited crowd was anxious for the free beer promised to all comers if there was ever a sunless day in this arid town near Hoover Dam. As the bartenders poured frothing pitchers of cold beer, Telford and Rayner cheerfully declared that it was the first time in two years that clouds had blocked the bright sunshine over their saloon.
Despite the severe cold, some ranchers were optimistic. The previous winter had been one of the driest in Nevada history (Reno recorded less than one inch of precipitation in 1947-48), and the growing snowpack held promise for abundant water in the spring. Elko County ranchers reported ample hay supplies, but in Nye County feed was reported poor, and most watering holes around Eureka were frozen. Most of the ranchers in trouble were in Eastern and Southeastern Nevada, encompassing an area half as large as Ohio. Comparatively mild winters in the previous decade had led some to risk grazing their animals on the open range instead of rounding them up into home-ranch corrals for the winter. Centered around Ely and Pioche, these stock operators were caught with their herds and flocks in the hills and open range.
While Nevadans had starving cattle in mind, the rest of the world was watching U.S. military planes fly supplies to the citizens of West Berlin. On April 1, 1948, the Soviet Union had begun a land blockade of Berlin’s Allied Sector. During the next 17 months, Britain and the U.S. airlifted 2,343,315 tons of food and coal into the besieged city ” and broke the blockade. Nevada ranchers wondered if a similar airlift could help them too.
George Swallow, an Ely rancher and spokesman for the United Stockmen’s Association of Eastern Nevada, pounced on the idea. “Either the stock will have to be shipped out, or feed is going to have to be shipped in ” quick,” he told the Reno Evening Gazette. “The stock out here simply can’t last much longer under present conditions …there is no doubt that this winter is the worst since the so-called ‘White Ruin’ of 1889-90.”
That terrible winter virtually decimated Nevada’s cattle industry, when deep snow and unrelenting sub-zero temperatures killed 70 percent of the state’s livestock. Fortunately, a delegation of officials happened to be visiting Washington for Harry Truman’s inauguration, and Nevada Governor Vail Pittman was able to alert the president and Congress regarding the ranchers’ desperate situation. President Truman quickly declared the region a disaster area and authorized an emergency $50,000 grant. Almost overnight, county, state and federal agencies joined forces to open highways, distribute feed and haul water. Cargo airplanes would be used to reach the marooned herds of starving cattle and sheep.
Despite the encouraging news from government agencies, ranchers grew anxious as more and more livestock died. Lincoln County Sheriff Jack Fogliani reported finding 20 cattle near Pioche “huddled together in a small draw”all dead on their feet. We are losing some of our snow here but we still have 28 inches on the ground.” In an interview with the United Press, Elko rancher Arthur Carter said, “Snow is so deep the cattle can’t move around any more, and I guess the sheep are really snowed under. I’ve been out with the cowboys every day for a week now trying to take feed to the cattle and to bring them in, but the wind blows so hard that the trails you open blow shut right behind you. Sheep just stand around in bunches and smother under the snow. They won’t do anything to save themselves, and you almost have to force them to eat when they’re like this. The cattle are a little smarter. They’ll eat the hay and the grain if they can get to it.”
General Mark W. Clark from the Navy Fleet Advance Base at Fallon took charge as coordinator of Operation Haylift. He secured 36 Flying Boxcars from the Air Force base at McChord Field near Tacoma, Wash., and ordered a rapid commencement of the emergency airlift. The goal was to save an estimated 35,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep marooned in White Pine, Nye and Lincoln counties. Ranchers had tried to move the animals to neighboring states for grazing, but California was already overstocked with 60,000 head of transplanted cattle, and heavy snowstorms in Arizona and New Mexico had covered grazing lands there. The scale of the potential disaster was huge and it would require an unprecedented, Herculean effort to save 140,000 animals and Nevada’s ranching industry. Stay tuned for the conclusion of Operation Haylift.
” Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books are available at local stores. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.