Knowing as I have learned that on St. Patrick’s Day, the entire readership wears green and expects to see the tales of the Wreaths & Shamrocks and of the Smilin’ Irishman, Harry O’Brien. I aim to please; the links to both are herewith, click away! (The posts open in a new window; use your back-browser to get back here…)
At the crack of four ayem in Fort McDermitt near the Oregon border all the kids are roused from the arms of Morpheus to dress, dine and dash to the waiting school buses. But the bleary-eyed parents meet little resistance – these kids are off to the circus! A similar scene is being played out on this August Saturday morning in four Nevada counties, and tykes from ages six to 14 are hitting the decks – in Humboldt House, Tungsten, Paradise Valley, Battle Mountain, Valmy, Unionville, Getchell Mine and Imlay. By car and school bus they’ll make their drowsy way to Winnemucca, and board the Western Pacific passenger train, destination Mackay Stadium, because the Shrine Circus is in town – all aboard!
They’ll find on the train a bunch of clowns, played out by Shrine members and Western Pacific employees and led by the head clown for the day, who in real life resembled the late District Judge Merwyn H. Brown of Winnemucca. Brown was a popular and celebrated Nevadan, and former Shrine Potentate. He was instrumental in putting this day together in 1949 and shepherding it along for the six years that it lasted. In an August 19, 1953 interview for the Nevada State Journal he cited the tremendous cooperation that the Shrine received from the Western Pacific Railroad. Who else would virtually donate a 24-car train and help the Shriners stock the center two baggage cars with box lunches, milk, ice cream, soda pop, peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack and other goodies? (Four thousand bottles of soft drinks, all donated by local businesses, were consumed on the 1953 run.)
And who would dress up one railroad and one Winnemucca doctor and a contingent of nurses like clowns to help out with the 1,200 kids who would eventually board, as the train chugs out of Winnemucca with stops along the way picking up even more kids in Sulphur, Jungo and Gerlach in Nevada, and (over the California border briefly) Herlong? Who? And here’s a fun one: who would buy special water-based paint so that Winnemucca children, and those along the way, could “decorate” the Pullman cars with graffiti telling the world about their adventure? And, on the side of safety, place men with “stop” signs along the train’s route to forestall a vehicle collision in rural Nevada… who?
The Western Pacific Railroad, that’s who – the Feather River Route guys. OK – we’re rolling into Reno, how will we get to the circus in the old Mackay Stadium, which was closer to Virginia Street than the present one? (Somewhere on campus there’s a plaque marking the center of that old classic’s football 50-yard line.) Well, let’s take the train, since all 1,200 of us are already on one. We’ll use the same tracks that the circus and the elephants and tigers and the Big Top arrived on – the tracks that run down Evans Avenue behind the campus. That way we won’t have too far to walk. And how do we stay together? Aha – Judge/Clown Brown and his band of merry men have a rope, a rope long enough for 1,200 kids to hang on to, walking side-by-side from the train to the stadium (where the clowns secured the gates just to prevent one of the older, bolder passengers from walking down to the Wigwam for some hot apple pie.)
The clowns had fun, but safety was paramount for the day. Those who let go of the rope would be fed to the tigers. It was that simple, a harsh word was never uttered, it was great fun for all, and best of all, they never lost a kid in six years. And all saw a real-deal first-line Ringling Brothers circus; the Shriners had brought it to Reno initially in 1947, appearing then on South Virginia Street on the former site of the El Reno Apartments (later to be Washoe Market and now an antique store.) It would move to Mackay the next year. And our excited kids from outlying Nevada joined us locals, to see Victor Julian and his 21 (count ’em) trained dogs with two rhesus monkeys; to see Brigit Hadnig, direct from Munich, who wisely changed her name to Lalage the Unicyclist; to see Amielo and Elvira Sciplini’s six world-renowned chimps, and the Flying Palacios – Lola, Raul, Jose and Lalo, and from a careful perusal of the program’s photo I would surmise that it would take all three of the brothers plus a couple chimps to catch the Flying Lola once she let go of the trapeze – a ballerina she wasn’t.
But heck, it was a great time and most of the kids got to pet an elephant and have a tiger shriek at them. Rumor has it that they slept like little logs on the long choo-choo ride home. They had indeed been to the circus – on a day that they’d never forget, thank you Winnemucca Shrine Club and Western Pacific Railway.
Times have changed; no tracks go near the Livestock Events Center where the Shrine Circus performs now. And few of the excited children of all ages under that Big Top came to Reno by train, having left Winnemucca at this morning’s sunrise, nor clung to a rope to stay with their buddies all the way to the show, but let’s hope that all will have as much fun as these 1,200 children did, some of whom are probably reading this column and taking their grandchildren to the circus. If their memories of this great time in local history reach me by e-mail, well, we might all just read them right here on some otherwise-slow day!
Credit where due on this one goes to Mike Maher at the Nevada Historical Society, now retired. I knew this story existed, but while I was poring over railroad, circus and Shrine files, Mike went right to a Nevada Highways & Parks magazine. He’s a pro… (The photos are courtesy of that magazine.)
If you rode the train, lemme know at kfbreckenridgelive.com ; release your text and name so I can post it here…..
And here’s one now from Mike Mentaberry (at right): “We came from the Mentaberry family’s Washburn Creek Ranch outside McDermitt the weekend prior to the trip to the depot in Winnemucca to paint the cars.
Broker Salesman/Property Manager
There was a time in this great land when a function that was vital to the populace would find itself on the ropes, financially, possibly, and rather than boo-hooing to state legislatures or Facebook and selling out to the federal system, or hyping up a shaky stock offering or pruning down their loyal employees’ wages, they would roll up their sleeves and do something about it – with dignity, honor, and a little bit of fun.
And that’s the way it was in the late 1940s at a little business down at the corner of Mill and Kirman Streets – the original brick building built in 1904 can still be seen amid the sprawl. The Washoe County Hospital has roots back to 1876, when 40 acres of the Hatch ranch were purchased for a hospital and a poor farm. At mid-century its fiscal pulse, respiration and temperature were approaching Code Blue – the (three, then) County Commissioners were noodling with the eventuality of closing the whole thing down.
A knight in shining scrubs rode into town from Arizona – his name was Clyde Fox – and he took over as the hospital’s administrator. One of his first acts was to create a body that had been successful for him in other hospitals: an auxiliary, composed of community ladies and doctors’ wives. His auxiliary rapidly grew to 500 members and old newspaper clips include the movers-and-shakers of our towns. I was surprised to see my own grandmother in a newsclip, shaking her ancient booty in some hen party at the Twentieth Century Club, all in support of the Washoe Hospital Ladies Auxiliary.
“We shall raise money,” they decreed, and in the year fuzzily identified as 1951 they gathered on a sunny Saturday in Pickett Park across from the hospital, and held a rummage sale. The name was “Tombola Day” – I’ve references to tombola as some sort of salsa bingo game, and/or a Central American fiesta. Tents were set up for the merchandise, the hospital brought some grub over and they had a few booths for kiddies – a “Wheel of Fortune” sort of thing, a Fortune Teller and a Wishing Well. They went all day, sold out, made a few bucks for the hospital and had a ball.
Well, next year, it’s going to be a little different, someone said, and it was. The rummage had a little greater variety, the children’s games were expanded a bit, and a school and a church were brought in to provide a few tunes. Someone brought a barbecue, and recall if you will an outdoor grill was not an amenity in everyone’s home in the early 1950s – most were homemade from 55-gallon drums with little ostentation. But – they had hot food. And here I’ll run a few years together from newspaper accounts: Each year brought a little more entertainment – for the kids and the adults. At some point a barbecued lamb became a fixture at the event and remained so for many years – the late John Iratcabal arriving the night before, digging a pit and starting the little creature’s journey to between two slices of bread the following afternoon (the lambs on several occasions, maybe more, were courtesy of John Ascuaga or Bill Harrah.) And, the piece de resistance of every Tombola Day was a raffle for a little house, an A-Frame of about 10 by 10 feet square and 10 feet to the roof peak, complete with plumbing and electricity, ready to be occupied as a hunting cabin or backyard playhouse. Washoe Med’s (its later name) maintenance crew, headed by superintendent Edin Sontag built the little houses and they’re still collectors’ items seen occasionally around town.
Tombola Day grew, few in town didn’t visit it, and what a show – great parking, food, entertainment from schools, churches, the University, Tink’s Municipal Band, an early Day with Lash Larue and the Singin’ Cherokees, later whoever was playing downtown in an impromptu visit (a youthful Bill Cosby sticks out in my mind, I’d guess this in the early ‘70s, and no kid went home without a snapshot of him or herself and the Cos, often on his shoulders – what a terrific friend he is to kids of all ages.) A couple of Harrah’s museum cars showed up one year including a fire truck with a Dixieland band; not to be outdone by all that was John Ascuaga, who dispatched Bertha & Tina, hoisting a few Nugget showgirls and some bolder volunteer celebrants with their trunks. Reno Fire Department parked a couple of engines for the kids to climb all over, and Bill and Moya Lear, who were among the strongest supporters of the hospital and the League, delighted all by landing a LearAvia medivac helicopter for ground tours. (This in 1974, a joint venture with Reno’s Aids Ambulance. The semipublic Careflight air-evac service would come seven years later.) Some thought the helicopter looked a lot like a French Alouette III, but Bill Lear liked to put his own name on things.
Tombola was Reno’s big summer show, akin to the Harrah Swap Meet with many similar attractions – both bespoke a great time in our town, when kids were safe riding bikes on their own to Pickett Park and none, rich or poor, went without a hot dog, coke, and cotton candy; a tour of a fire truck, touching the snoot of one of the Nevada White Hat riding team’s palominos, ringing the bell at the Strongman Hammer booth and leaving with a Hartford Insurance fireman’s helmet – local businesses’ participation grew steadily over the years.
And for the adults? Lash Larue and the Singin’ Cherokees, can’t beat that. A fashion show from Eve-Lynn’s bevy of beauties. Great food and company; a late-afternoon hoedown, I think a cold brew or two might have found its way onto City property, and a sense of getting something done for the community.
Tombola Day went away about 1984. It was a point of municipal pride for three decades. Could we carry off another one in theses times? Maybe.
This note cannot go unpublished: On July the second of 1974, a bold step was taken at Washoe Med: Smoking was banned on the entire fourth floor, staff, visitors and patients alike, no exceptions, said Maida Pringlr.
Fire truck photo © Harrah’s
‘Tis said that when an aviator simultaneously runs out of airspeed, altitude and bright ideas that something will go bump in the night, and that’s exactly what happened at four minutes past the hour of one o’clock on the Monday morning of January 21, 1985.
[NOTE: Take the following two paragraphs with a grain of salt, as the lone survivor of the crash, George Lamson Jr., remembers it differently from these accounts I developed 28 years ago from official records – which – in the confusion, could be aberrated. I’ll yield to George’s recollection, which follows in italics. Karl, Jan. 15, 2020]
Galaxy Airlines, a charter carrier, transported 71 souls – crew and passengers – from Minneapolis westward early on a Super Bowl weekend. Some flew to San Francisco and then motored by bus to nearby Stanford, the site of the 1985 Super Bowl. The remainder stayed aboard to Reno for bus travel to a casino in Stateline. The airplane, a Lockheed Electra propjet, reportedly made several other flights during that weekend carrying passengers unrelated to the Minneapolis junket.
Following the game the Stanford contingent traveled by bus to Reno, and a number of them elected to stay at the Hilton, (then MGM) [now Grand Sierra Resort], for a time. They were the lucky ones. The others rejoined the Stateline group at the airport for passage home.
[OK; that’s how the newspaper text compiled from eyewitness accounts and the after-action report read many years ago. George Lamson recalls that all flew together to SLT, and departed together from RNO, save for two who stayed on at Caesar’s at Stateline. We respect George’s recollection.]
There were 65 passengers and a crew of six aboard the Electra when it was cleared for southbound takeoff on runway one-six at 1:02 a.m. It is known that at 1:03 the co-pilot reported a severe vibration in the aircraft to RNO tower, requesting expedited clearance to land with emergency equipment standing by. Per the flight recorder on the plane he pulled power to reduce the vibration, causing the plane to stall below the airspeed needed to maintain control. And it is speculative that he then looked for a “black hole” – an absence of ground lights – to aim the doomed aircraft toward for an “unplanned landing” – the FAA euphemism for a crash – without effecting danger to those on the ground. That hole, if in fact he was in control, was in the area of Del Monte Shopping Center on South Virginia Street.
The plane, now heading west, initially hit the ground near the old V&T railroad right-of-way, then caromed into a ditch and broke in half, coming to rest in a motor home sales lot adjoining the then-Normark Furniture Store with some debris spilling across South Virginia. The plane and seven motor homes became instantly involved in a conflagration fed by 12,000 pounds of fuel in the wings.
Sixteen fire engines – firemen, cops and robbers
The emergency response was immediate and massive; records show 16 units from the Airport Authority (who were alerted by the tower with the initial MayDay), Reno Fire Department, and Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District arriving at the scene in short order. Two sheriff’s deputies investigating a burglary at a store a long block from the crash were virtual eyewitnesses to it, and relayed that this was not a light-plane incident, as one radio transmission had indicated, but a large-scale disaster. They were soon joined by a hundred more deputies, Reno Police and highway patrol officers. Crowd control became paramount. South Virginia Street was closed and traffic rerouted to then-rural, two-lane Longley Lane, as it would be for another day to follow.
The three fire departments protected the furniture store, extinguished the aircraft fire and a number of spot fires in the fields surrounding the site. Some Sparks Fire Department apparatus were relocated to Reno stations to back up the committed Reno engines; off-duty Reno firefighters manned older reserve equipment and Nevada Air National Guard units covered the Airport Authority’s duties at the airport. Most the agencies were released by 4:28 a.m. Truckee Meadows FPD (which would years later to merge with Reno Fire) would remain on the scene for days to follow and later took primary responsibility for the victim recovery. Trustees from the county jail were employed to place opaque masking along South Virginia Street to prevent the slow-down-and-gawk syndrome that impeded traffic when the street was reopened on Tuesday.
Three passengers initially survived the crash – one was transported by helicopter to St. Mary’s Hospital, which had established the medical administrative command post. Of those three only one, a then-17-year-old boy [George Lamson] with relatively minor lacerations, would survive. The victims were removed to a temporary facility at the Washoe County Fairgrounds for identification by a team headed by an FBI unit assisted by local medical and dental professionals. Washoe Med, St. Mary’s and numerous local social services performed family notifications and inventorying of the victims’ personal property in the days to come.
In all, 40 governmental agencies participated in the tragedy, some in the minutes, others in the weeks, following the crash. A grim reminder remained for many years out on Highway 40 West just past the Mayberry intersection: a half-dozen carcasses of burned-out motor homes, relocated there from the site for salvage.
And the vibration that started the whole sequence down this fatal path? Speculative on all investigators’ parts, but generally attributed to the airstart-port door – where compressed air is forced into one of the four Allison turboprop engines to get it spinning to then pressurized to start the other – being left open prior to takeoff. I give attribution to archival Reno Fire Department and RGJ accounts, resources in the Nevada Historical Society and the excellent 46-page post-incident report signed off by Sheriff Vince Swinney, a copy of the NTSB report, Coroner Vern McCarty and Truckee Meadows FPD Chief Gene Leblanc, that night’s incident commander.
And we’ll explore all this in greater detail in the next chapter. (Use the back-arrow on your browser to return to these links)
One family’s tribute to the passengers, and a photo of the plaque they placed, here
• • •
The Herculean effort to save livestock pinned down by snowstorms in the Rockies this week refreshed a vivid memory held by many of my contemporaries, of the incredible snowstorms of 1948 that closed schools and businesses from the Sierra eastward to the Rockies and even dropped 6 inches of snow in Las Vegas. The earliest bellwether of what lay ahead for ranchers might have been a blurb in the Jan.27, 1949 Reno Evening Gazette about two C-46s dispatched to Arizona from Luke Field in Riverside, Cal. to search for 50 ranch hands lost in the back country. As kids we caught a lift to Reno’s Hubbard Field to watch some arriving 1942-vintage Air Force C-82 (later re-designated C-119) Flying Boxcars (pictured above), twin-engine planes with huge clamshell cargo bay doors that could be operated in flight. The planes were staging in Fallon from all over the nation, some from nearby McClellan Field in Sacramento and many more from the 316th Air Carrier Wing in South Carolina. The initial plan was to airlift hay to Ely and Elko, from where Nevada and Utah National Guard trucks would deliver it to the isolated livestock. But eastern Nevada airports and roads were useless due to being snowed in, so the Air Force pilots suggested dropping the hay from the planes directly into the herds and bands of livestock.
Hubbard Field saw incidental haylift activity for the next month, as the majority of the airlift centered at Minden’s and the Navy’s Fallon airstrips. We recall our friends’ fathers, many relatively fresh out of WWII service, departing Reno for two or three weeks with the Nevada National Guard’s heavy trucks, and, if memory serves, a couple of Isbell Construction’s low-boys with drivers. Reno restaurants and food provisioners were pressed into service providing meals around the clock; and merchants kicked in to provide a few creature comforts to the legion of personnel amassing for the airlift. By the first day of February it had become a major federal project directed by no less than Harry S Truman, with the Nevada effort repeating itself all over Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. The Feb. 4, 1948 Gazette relates that a pattern had become established, of five to six tons of hay being loaded into each C-119 for the 220-plus-mile one-way trip to the ravaged areas. The hay arrived by commercial trucks from California’s Central Valley where it was handed off to 48 National Guard and army trucks shuttling between Reno, Minden and Fallon. The Feb. 5 Gazette reported that the storm had increased, temperatures had dropped below zero and that the S.P.’s City of San Francisco passenger train had become marooned in Wells.
Each plane carried an Air Force pilot and co-pilot, a flight engineer and a loadmaster, who were joined by two civilian volunteers. Over the drop area the two civilians pushed four 75-pound hay bales aft toward the open clamshell doors where the FE and the loadmaster then kicked the bales out to the animals below (all four crewmen in the cargo bay were tethered to the plane.) My youthful recollection was that volunteers lined up five-deep to get to be one of the two civilians aboard each sortie. A contingent of ranchers and hands who knew their own topography rode along to assist the pilots in navigating to drop points where their own cattle and sheep were likely to be found.
One can only speculate of the thrill experienced by a Basque herder getting his very first airplane ride while the plane dove down a box canyon at 150 knots with a 30-knot wind bouncing it around and 15-below-zero air screaming through a hole as big as a garage door in the back of the plane. Over the deafening roar one can almost hear him utter “Well, son-of-a-gun!” in Euskara Basque, Spanish and English. Nevada writer Beltran Paris, a Basque sheepman who’s made this column before, wrote an excellent account of his terrifying ride over his own ranch. A Nevada Guardsman who flew as a volunteer on two flights from Minden related to me that they often needed to make multiple passes over a herd or band, and after a first drop the pilot made a sharp turn down a walled canyon to start his second run. The remaining load of hay slid, pinning another Guardsman under a half a dozen bales and confronting the pilot with a ton of weight suddenly shifting his center-of-gravity while already holding a steep bank.
These guys were good.
On Feb. 27 the Journal carried a photo of a sort-of victory celebration with a bunch of guys at the Elko airport; visible are Elko rancher and hotelman Newt Crumley and local ad icon Gene Evans, then editor of the Elko Free-Press. Why the celebration? The 27 reciprocating-engine aircraft had logged 1,600 flight hours on 26 out of 28 days under Arctic conditions, with some 330 take-off-and-landing cycles in high winds on icy runways and dropped 1,800 tons of hay (they lost two days to weather or unavailability of hay.) Save for one errant hay bale entering a rancher’s shed at a high rate of speed in Little Cherry Creek and demolishing his wife’s brand-new-fangled washing machine, nary a glitch was reported. And the sun had come out…
Eastern Nevada’s Operation Hay Lift was a success – when the snow melted off in the spring, the ranchers determined that 80 to 85 per cent of their livestock – cattle and sheep – had been saved, and this was typical throughout the western states where similar endeavors had been ongoing.
Now anticipating a couple of e-mails: Yes – there was a second Operation Hay Lift, in March of 1952, and yes, the City of San Francisco was marooned once again, that time on Donner Summit. I thank James A. Young of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the Nevada Historical Society and Phil Earl for their past research.
The stranding of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s City of San Francisco premier passenger train a few miles west of Norden on the Donner Summit on January 13, 1952 with 226 souls on board always generates a great deal of ink. And I’m as guilty as any writer in beating it to death; after all it put little Reno in the national spotlight for the five days it took to get them off the hill.
Many years ago, making contact with or visiting the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, SP Railroad’s headquarters at One Market Street in San Francisco and raiding the morgues at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner, the Call-Bulletin, the Sacramento Bee and the Truckee Sierra Sun, I amassed a lot of stuff about the event. And I give attribution to John Kelly’s excellent book about it, Stranded Streamliner. (Upon the sale of the Mighty SP to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996, the SP’s archives were split among the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the Stanford University library, and the California State Railroad Museum.)
Long story short, it’s that time of year again, and this year rather than strugging to rewrite an old column, I’m dusting of a few pictures you may enjoy…
All images subject to copyrights as shown. All image captions and the website in its entirety are © Karl Breckenridge 2020
School’s out this Saturday morning in Reno so I bundled up and rode my bike downtown to see what was going on in this cold winter – coldest I’ve seen since we moved back here in 1945; not above 20º so far this year and that’s starting to take its toll. And it’s snowing a lot too and sticking!
Out by my buddies Gordy, Willy and David Chism’s house on West Second Street I saw people ice skating on the Truckee River and the Idlewild ponds. And a snowplow train went behind their house – a push-plow [below left somewhere] being pushed by a heavy “Mallet” steam engine [right] with the cab in the rear, that SP uses east of Sparks. Don’t see them much this side of Sparks. The guys say the plow train has been running for three days, back-and-forth from Reno to Truckee, trying to keep that section of track clear. And I saw the three steam rotary snowplows [left] that are usually in the Sparks yard being towed by a pair of diesel-electric locos toward Truckee.
As it happens, the Dean of the University’s Electrical Engineering College is my neighbor, on University Terrace across from the tennis courts at Whitaker Park. His name is Dr. Palmer, but us kids are supposed to just call him Stanley. He has a big model railroad layout in the basement of his home, and took his grandson Jim Ceander, me and our friend Jimmy Doll up to Norden a few weeks ago where we got to see the SP’s turntable inside a snow shed and a bunch of trains go through. There’s a lot of stuff on that summit of the railroad’s, and PG&E power company, that you can’t see from Highway 40.
There are quite a few buildings in Reno with no heat – and Southside Elementary School on Liberty Street east of Center Street is one of them. The kids who go there have been out of school since Wednesday. Colleen Morgan wrote in “Southside School wasn’t heated?!!! Our house on Humboldt Street had (and still has) an oil-fueled furnace. Our next-door neighbor’s house was a bit older and they were still burning coal. Every few weeks the coal truck would park out in the alley to deliver a load of coal to the bin in their dug-out basement. My brothers and I used to borrow pieces of coal to write on the sidewalk. Never got any in our Christmas stockings though… Thanks, Colleen!
There are a couple guys who are, well, homeless I guess is the word, who are sleeping in Reno High’s gym on West Street along with anyone else who needs a warm place to sleep because they are out of oil or coal. And Sierra Pacific Power is sending its grey trucks to customers whose water pipes are frozen hooking one end of a welding cable to the water bibb on the house and the other to the street valve, to warm up the water main enough to let water flow to the house. They’ve been doing that for days now. Mary S. Doten School’s janitor, Mr. Minetto, is leaving the boiler room in the school’s basement open so that we can put our gloves and galoshes in there to dry out.
The main highway (US40) has been closed by snow for a week and the grocery stores are getting low on stuff. Reno and Sparks just got a gas plant out east of town on Alameda Street but with the road closed they can’t get the stuff in to make gas with so the houses north of the Truckee River with gas heat are becoming concerned. Mr. Madsen told Dad he has tons of coal at his plant, which is what heats most houses, so he’s not worried. Reader and lifelong buddy Mike Robinson wrote in Karl, Your column reminded me of one time when I delivered Presto-Logs from that yard on Ralston. They were six to a bundle bound by baling wire, and heavy. I went down steps to a lot of basements in the old Northwest. The fellow at the yard loaded up the pickup truck with Presto logs. I had a good pair of gloves and a list of addresses with numbers of bundles to be delivered. I went down into a lot of basements in old Northwest Reno and saw lots of coal chutes that I didn’t know existed. I was just filling in for someone who had this route and I never did it again.
But Mr. Jacsick, who owns the Presto-Log factory on Ralston Street, is sweating it out as people are buying logs quicker than he can make them. (What I didn’t know, nor did anyone else, was that Reno’s Presto-Log factory on Ralston Street would burn a day later on January 11, 1952, in a blaze one could see from Elko. That fire put the already-cold town in a bind… Mr. Jacsick was able to restore his inventory from his Boise factory after a long week.)
On my ride downtown I saw a number of sleighs – many of which I’d seen stored at Mr. Baker’s ranch. My Dad and Mr. Baker – Ted – were friends and a bunch of kids were always out at his livery stable south of Reno in the swimming pool during the summer, and the sleighs that belonged to his customers were stored in a barn by the pool. When there was enough snow in town, as there had been since Christmas, the sleighs and some pretty high-stepping ponies would hit the street. I heard that there had been a Nevada White Hat party at the Stirrup Cup out west of town on the Lincoln Highway last night and the sleighs were all there with their kerosene lamps burning. As I rode this morning a few were just parked by the Q-ne-Q and Hilp’s Drug Store, their bells still dinging as the horses jostled around.
I thought of our Mary S. Doten School classmates, stranded atop Peavine Peak, their dad an engineer with the telephone company at the new relay station atop Peavine. We hadn’t seen them for a week. We sent them notes and stuff from school that was supposed to be dropped in to them by a helicopter from Reno Air Base, but we wondered if that if ever happened. (It did!)
But the trains – they kept rolling. I feared that one would get marooned atop Donner Summit, but they kept rolling. After Christmas a few troop trains went through town westward, carrying soldiers to San Francisco where they’d ship out to Korea, where an ugly war was being waged. The troop trains were distinctive – grey government Pullman cars being towed by SP diesel electric locomotives, with a steam-cab forward tied on in Truckee, as much for the additional steam to heat the cars as for its tractive effort. They would turn south at Oakland and circle San Francisco Bay, so that they could arrive in The City then traverse its Embarcadero non-stop to Fort Mason, where a troopship would await.
A passenger train stuck, in this cold weather, atop the summit would be unthinkable…
Yet – I worried, even as a little kid – someday a passenger train is going to become stuck atop Donner Summit. (click here to read about it…)
And the cold and the falling snow continued.
Snowbound locomotive photo at right © Ken McLaughlin San Francico Chronicle – used with permission
And here, a confession: I used the railroad term “Mallet” to designate a heavy locomotive. The Mallet valve process, developed by Swiss engineer Anatole Mallet for management of steam in large locomotives in the 1920s, proved cumbersome and was removed from most locomotives – SP records indicate the last Mallet-type cab-forward locomotive rolled through Reno in 1929. But the designation stuck around and is still in use…
Having just had my ass chewed royally by two of the best for bailing out on all seventeen of my readers, this column is in the throes of a rebirth which should last until my departure from this rock or my next temper tantrum, whichever comes first…
Come back in a day or two and we’ll see what’s up around our town
As the story goes, Nicholas D. Jackson penned this verse on a cocktail napkin and passed it on to KOH radio’s “Cactus” Tom Cafferty, who read it on air each Christmas. Were we all to tune the ol’ Philco tabletop radio to KOH AM-630 seventy years ago this Christmas morning, we’d probably hear the mellifluous voice of Cactus Tom, who ruled the early morning airwaves in early postwar Reno. Tom Cafferty worked as a Reno casino card dealer in the mid-1930s, but broke into broadcasting a few years later at WGN in Chicago. After World War II, he managed an advertising agency in Los Angeles and played bit parts in Western movies and worked as a disc jockey. He became the morning disc jockey at Reno’s KOH in the 1950s, and began appearing also on KOLO-TV in 1961.
Cactus Tom (left), while at KOH in their magnificent old Queen Anne house-turned-studio on the past site of the Greyhound station by the Truckee, recited the following poem annually, thereby giving birth to a local Christmas tradition. To the best of my research, it’s not copyright-protected save for a couple of publications I placed in the RGJ over the years. But if we save it or pass it around to our friends let’s give a little attribution to Tom and to Nicholas D. Jackson, a popular, enduring and nocturnal habitué of Reno’s late-night downtown watering holes, where, legend has it, he wrote the verse on a cocktail napkin and offered it to Tom:
Twas the night before Christmas, an’ ol’ Smokey Joe lay a’shiverin’ deep in his sack.
While a coyote wailed, kinda mournful and low, an’ the wind drifted snow ‘round his shack,
An’ the moon played roulette with the cold starry sky; ‘til the clouds piled like chips on the black.
And ’Ol’ Smokey Joe kept a wonderin’ why Fate had placed him alone in this shack.
Then Ol’ Smokey Joe, with a questioning look felt around for his boots on the floor,
And from one took a sock which he hung on a hook attached to the worn cabin door.
Then shiverin’ a bit he walked back to his bed, and he slipped to his knees for a prayer,
An’ the kerosene lamp that hung o’erhead etched a silvery halo there.
Then Ol’ Smokey Joe reached up for the light that hung on a nail overhead,
An’ he glanced to see if this stocking hung right, and then nestled deep in his bed.
And just before he fell sound asleep, he heard the noise of hooves on the flat,
An’ he knew that the cattle would soon bed down in the sheltered lee of his shack.
The night wore on and a little gray mouse sneaked down from the eaves for a look,
A timid l’il soul without a home – ‘til he spotted the sock on the hook.
A tiny ol’ hole he chewed in the heel, a window where he could watch Joe
Then he spent the whole night a‘packin’ in straw, and at dawn fell asleep in the toe.
And a cow gave birth to a calf that night between the shack and a drift;
And it nuzzled the calf to the cabin door, Ol’ Smokey Joe’s Christmas gift.
Next mornin’ the sun came a’streamin’ through, lit the cabin’s every nook,
Smokey Joe waked up, kinda cautious-like, and gave that ol’ sock a look.
Then a smile lit up his worn, kind face, he gave out with a mirthful squeal,
Threw a crust of bread to the little gray mouse, who peeked through the hole in the heel.
With the mouse tucked away in the crook of his arm, he opened the cabin door;
His heart started dancing and he felt a warmth like he’d never quite felt before.
For there starin’ at him on his wobbly ol’ legs stood a calf, kinda shakey and worn;
Just waitin’ for Joe and a pail of hot milk, an’ a spot by the stove to keep warm.
And that night with the mouse sound asleep in the sock, and the calf cuddled up in the grate,
Ol’ Joe knew the answer of why he lived there, with the gray mouse, the calf, and Fate.
- • • •
Robert Service, in his epic Cremation of Sam McGee, couldn’t have written that yarn any better. Reno history is silent on the fate of poet and raconteur Nicholas D. Jackson; Tom Cafferty passed away on Dec. 11, 1993 in Reno. This will be our last chance to visit before the prancing and pawing of each little hoof on our rooftop – I wish you all my best, and send thanks for your wonderful letters and calls over the year – those cherished presents that arrive weekly and won’t fit under my tree.
And, we’ll amend our usual closing slightly and defer to Tiny Tim Cratchett, who said it best: “God bless us, everyone!”
Norman Rockwell painting “Four Freedoms – Freedom from Want” from the web, © (released) Life Magazine – other photos, who knows?