FOR THE SECOND TIME IN THE LAST FEW WEEKS, I VISITED MY FRIEND BOB in his attic sanctuary for an evening of music, a few cold beers, conversation and laughs. Bob calls his space ‘Mantown’, a private space he only shares with his closest friends. I am saving a full description of this wonderful place for another post, because Mantown is where I have had some of the best moments of my life.
Music is always a key to our experience in Mantown, and the acoustics there are perfect. Seriously, I believe if experts were to test the acoustics in his attic retreat—they would find it to be fault free. Maybe it’s because we sit directly below the pointed, 4-sided top crown of his 100-year old, 2-story house. When there, we sit in two, well-used and beer stained recliners (with foot rests) which make up the center of the room. From this resting point and directly above us is insulation of the pointed roof that has been covered by bed ticking material. My guess is that (by accident) the chairs sit in a perfect sound chamber duplicated only by the finest concert halls. The sound experience… is just…amazing.
I promise to someday reveal the complete story of Mantown to my readers, but today I want to tell you about a song we listened to last night called Cold Missouri Waters, written by James Keelaghan and performed by Richard Shindell. The version we listened to was a live recording of this song, which tells the true story of the disastrous Mann Gulch fire, which occurred 60 years ago this past August 5, (in 1949). Shindell sings this ballad about the smokejumpers in the voice of one of the only survivors of the fire, Wagner “Wag” Dodge. “Wag,” as he called by his friends— was the leader of the firefighters, and died of Hodgkin’s disease just 4 short years after the fire. He lived his remaining years answering questions as to why (as team leader) he survived and so many of the others didn’t. What happened, and the unorthodox thing Dodge did to try and save the group, is forever set in firefighting lore and legend—the story of the Mann Gulch fire.
The following is an account of the fire as told by Eban Lehman. Lehman joined the Forest History Society (FHS) staff in September 2007, following graduate studies and archival experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He works with the digitization and cataloging of the Photograph Collection, manages the FHS Environmental History Bibliography, and processes archival collections. His previous archival work includes several years with the Missouri State Archives.
“After landing on the ground a half-mile from the fire, the 15 smokejumpers were met by James O. Harrison, a fire guard from the nearby Meriwether Canyon Campground, and the group headed down the gulch towards the nearby Missouri River to stake a safer position. The dry conditions and high winds, along with a change in wind direction, caused the fire to suddenly expand. The men’s route was cut off, forcing them back uphill while trying to outrun the swiftly advancing fire. It was later estimated that during this blow-up stage, the fire covered 3,000 acres in 10 minutes.
Realizing the imminent danger, the smokejumper crew’s foreman R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge told his men to drop their heavy tools and run, with the fire at this point less than 100 yards behind them and closing fast. Moving up the hillside, Dodge stopped to set a small escape fire, attempting to create a burned-over area that the fire would bypass. He directed the men towards this safe area, but the rest of the group continued to flee uphill. Two of the smokejumpers, Walter B. Rumsey and Robert W. Sallee, found a crevice in the rock wall at the top of the canyon and climbed inside. The ferocious fire overtook the group. Dodge, Rumsey, and Sallee would be the only survivors.
The events of Mann Gulch forever changed wildland firefighting. The Forest Service would institute new training techniques and improved safety measures for its firefighters and smokejumpers. The agency would also place more emphasis on fire research and the science of fire behavior, resulting in improved firefighting techniques and equipment. These developments, though, will never overshadow the immense tragedy of this day for this group of brave firefighters.”Here are the lyrics to the song, performed in this version by Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Dar Williams in the group Cry Cry Cry in 1999. I could not find a video of the live version I heard last night, so read along with this version, and learn the true story of a 60 year old heroic firefighting disaster.
Cold Missouri Waters
(Words & music James Keelaghan)
My name is Dodge, but then you know that
It’s written on the chart there at the foot end of the bed
They think I’m blind, I can’t read it
I’ve read it every word, and every word it says is death
So, Confession - is that the reason that you came
Get it off my chest before I check out of the game
Since you mention it, well there’s thirteen things I’ll name
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri waters
August ‘Forty-Nine, north Montana
The hottest day on record, the forest tinder dry
Lightning strikes in the mountains
I was crew chief at the jump base, I prepared the boys to fly
Pick the drop zone, C-47 comes in low
Feel the tap upon your leg that tells you go
See the circle of the fire down below
Fifteen of us dropped above the cold Missouri waters
Gauged the fire, I’d seen bigger
So I ordered them to sidehill and we’d fight it from below
We’d have our backs to the river
We’d have it licked by morning even if we took it slow
But the fire crowned, jumped the valley just ahead
There was no way down, headed for the ridge instead
Too big to fight it, we’d have to fight that slope instead
Flames one step behind above the cold Missouri waters
Sky had turned red, smoke was boiling
Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind
I don’t know why I just thought it
I struck a match to waist high grass running out of time
Tried to tell them, Step into this fire I set
We can’t make it, this is the only chance you’ll get
But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead
I lay face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters
And when I rose, like the phoenix
In that world reduced to ashes there were none but two survived
I stayed that night and one day after
Carried bodies to the river, wonder how I stayed alive
Thirteen stations of the cross to mark their fall
I’ve had my say, I’ll confess to nothing more
I’ll join them now, because they left me long before
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri waters
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri shore