The following was originally published in the 2019, Issue-3, of the Retiree Guardian, newsletter of the CenturyLink Retirees, and is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.
Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’
Heroes: the blizzard of ’49, Vail medals — and the “snow buggy”
For this story, you need some background. First, let me tell you about Vail medals, which were awarded for outstanding service. And let me quote from the Cambridge Library, which tracked all medals awarded from 1920 on:
The Vail Medal awards were made as a memorial to Theodore X. Vail, an early president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, who was recognized as one of the world’s great business leaders because of his leadership in the expansion of the Bell System and the development of the art of telephony. Vail medals, bronze, silver and gold, were awarded to members of the Bell telephone organization throughout the United States, for acts of services which conspicuously illustrated ideals of public service. The Vail medals were not awarded merely for acts of heroism or spectacular deeds, although noteworthy heroism often characterized the service performed, nor as a reward for faithfulness in the prurience of daily tasks, but rather as special recognition of a few of the most conspicuous examples of noteworthy service that were daily challenges among telephone employees who perform the characteristics of the spirit of service throughout the Bell Telephone System.
Now let me tell you about three men who were awarded Vail medals because of their outstanding acts, aka ‘heroism,’ in the blizzard of 1949 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Back in the ’40s, millions of people settled down in their living rooms at 7:00 p.m. each Monday night to listen to the popular Bell Telephone Hour, a national NBC radio program dedicated to live classical music. It usually started with a monologue advertising telephone service. On February 21, 1949, however, the program’s unusual opening started as follows:
Announcer: “Down from the North it screamed … one of the worst blizzards in the history of the West … tons of snow across roads and highways … residents of Cheyenne, Wyoming, were warned to stay in their homes. Calls of distress flooded the telephone lines.”
Woman (anxiously): “… Operator, our little Michael is awfully sick. We can’t bring our baby to town. What are we going to do?”
Announcer: “For four days and nights a telephone crew took their snow buggy through the wilderness of snow, cold and howling wind—over fields and fences …” to the rescue of neighbors and strangers who needed help.
That legendary blizzard started Sunday afternoon, January 2, 1949. The Wyoming Eagle, on January 5 headlined: “GIANT RESCUE BEGUN FOR 2,000 MAROONED,” and went on to state “the howling storm lasted for over 60 hours.” The front page featured a photo that showed a drift over 10 feet deep in downtown Cheyenne, and stated that some drifts outside of town reached over 20 feet deep.
The same day, The Wyoming Tribune, the other Cheyenne newspaper, reported that 14 intercontinental trains had stalled in the deep snow in eastern Wyoming with passengers on board.
On February 6, The Wyoming Tribune ran an article headlined: “BLIZZARD UNABLE TO STOP SNOW BUGGY IN RESCUE MISSIONS.” Four men, three telephone company employees and their supervisor, were singled out for their heroic efforts. The article highlighted the virtues of the snow buggy, the telephone company’s machine with a cab mounted on tracks and two skis in front, designed to carry two passengers over the snow.
The snow buggy was indeed critical to the rescues performed, but the real story is about the men—our heroes—who made it all happen. Their amazing exploits were detailed in a memorandum written by J. H. Christensen, Wyoming Plant Superintendent.
The following story was put together from Christensen’s memorandum, the Cheyenne newspapers mentioned above and several issues of The Monitor, a monthly magazine published for employees by Mountain States Telephone Company back in the ’40s and ’50s.
Our heroes’ story starts on a Monday, January 3, 1949, when the snow descended and the wind raged on in Cheyenne and the plains to the East. Hotel rooms, lobbies and depots filled with stranded travelers. Employees couldn’t get to work, and once there, couldn’t get home.
The next day, Tuesday, was no better as howling winds and blinding, heavy snow continued. Enter the telephone company snow buggy into our story. It was used to ease some of the ‘stranded-people’ problems, but frequently stalled because the drifts were overwhelming.
When Keith Hough, a combinationman, got ready to leave for work, he saw that there was no way his car could make it. But, he was needed to help with the snow buggy, so he donned his winter gear and set out on foot, pushing through the snow for 15 blocks to the company garage.
Hough’s partner, Bill Edmunds, a cable splicer, lived in the same area. But found he couldn’t budge any of the doors of his home. He found a window he could open and clear the snow. He scrambled through, dropped into the drift and began his long slog to work.
Once Hough and Edmunds got to the garage, the snow buggy refused to start. They set about cleaning the carburetor, the gas line, and gas tank. They had just finished putting it together when the garage phone rang. It was the Wyoming State Patrol. An expectant mother needed to get to the hospital immediately.
They had to leave the regular streets and drive the snow buggy through back yards to get to the address. They loaded Mr. and Mrs. Hansen into the cab with them, a cozy fit in the small cab (and not the last time they’d need to overload the snow buggy).
The four of them, jammed together, started off to the hospital. The storm intensified reducing visibility. They couldn’t tell where the streets were. They drove to one side far enough to see a house, tree or buried car then veer back the opposite way, using this method, they zigzagged their way to the hospital. Mrs. Hansen gave birth to a boy. Rescue successful!
On the way back, the engine on the snow buggy started coughing and sputtering. They nursed it into a Firestone filling station and garage—the only one open in the city. They had to remove the drive shaft, clean the carburetor, gas tank and gas line again, then put it all back together. It is easy to believe as they had taken off their heavy coats, had tools and parts scattered all over the floor, that their descriptions of the snow buggy would not have been printable in either The Tribune or The Eagle.
They got the snow buggy running again, and it was used heavily until 11:00 that night. The Wire Chief at the phone company, C. B. Webb, made an arrangement with the local Cheyenne Fire Chief to house the snow buggy in the fire station to keep it ready for possible night-time emergencies. Hough and Edmunds stayed in a local hotel.
At 2:00 a.m., Hough’s phone woke him up. The Red Cross was on the line. A Mrs. Merrill, expecting a baby, was in need of hospitalization. She lived more than six miles east of town.
When Hough reached the fire station, he found that Edmunds hadn’t been called and was not there. A local Cheyenne Fireman volunteered to join Hough. The wind was driving at 50 to 70 miles-per-hour; the temperature was recorded at five below-zero.
The driven snow, amplified by the lights of the snow buggy, made it nearly impossible to see the way ahead. They found that by looking up they could make slow progress by following the street lights. Hough used the zigzagging method he’d discovered earlier.
At the edge of town, they ran out of street lights and could not see their way forward at all. They could barely make out the telephone line above them, and they tried following it into the darkness. It was too dangerous, so they turned back.
The Fire Chief told Hough he should get some sleep and showed him to a bed in the Fire House. It was around 3:30 a.m. Hough had barely laid his head on the pillow, when a tow truck pulled up outside. Along with the driver were Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblum.
The tow truck was the only vehicle that could get to her house, but could not make it to the hospital. Mrs. Rosenblum was in labor.
Hough loaded the two into the snow buggy and zigzagged his way to the hospital. Thirty-two minutes later their baby was born.
When Hough got back to the Fire Station, William Payne, another combination-man was there to assist replacing the local fireman.
By now, it was light enough to try again to get out to Merrill place.
On the way, they encountered stalled vehicles, many stalled vehicles. In one of the stalled vehicles they found Richard Bivens. Bivens excitedly explained that his wife and family were trapped inside their home about four miles east of town, and they had no heat. He was desperate to get back and help them. Biven’s place was on the snow buggy route to the Merrills, so they loaded Bivens in with them. The highway east of town was a hodgepodge of scattered, stuck vehicles. Trying to get around a large stranded truck, the snow buggy fell into a barrow pit, taking a half hour to dig out.
Arriving at the Bivens’ ranch, they found that only the snow-covered roof was visible. Bivens struggled around the house through the snow, frantically searching for a way in, when he finally found the top of a window still exposed. He yelled to raise his family. They were okay. Another ‘rescue’ for the snow buggy.
They left Bivens and pushed on, still seeking a path to the Merrills. The ground blizzard was a fierce white-out, hampering visibility. Following the power line across country away from the highway took the snow buggy right over fences and whatever else was buried beneath the snow. They finally reached the Merrill Ranch. To take Mrs. Merrill to the hospital in Cheyenne, which was their mission, they first had to take the Merrill’s three-year-old daughter to her grandfather’s ranch about another mile and a half further to the east. With the little girl on board, they travelled along the highway, this time discovering more and more abandoned cars.
One vehicle was in a precarious position, teetering over the edge of a ditch and half-filled with snow. As the snow buggy approached, two young men climbed awkwardly out the door with their faces hidden because their shirts were buttoned over their heads and their hands were covered with several pairs of socks. Words of gratitude tumbled out of them as they told their story that they were University of Colorado students heading back to school. They had been trapped in the car for 62 hours. They had emptied their suitcases, and put on all the clothes they could find. Pants on pants, shirts on shirts and so on. They were helped into the snow buggy, and went along on to Grandfather Merrill’s ranch.
After getting a hot meal at the ranch, the two students (Sams and Kissick) rode back to pick up Mrs. Merrill and take her to the hospital. At the Merrills, the snow buggy now contained Hough, Sams, Kissick and a very pregnant Mrs. Merrill, all heading into a more than six-mile blizzard. The journey was slow and treacherous. Within about a mile and a half of town, the snow buggy lurched into a hole. The crunching sound they heard could only mean a broken ski. When they got out and inspected, both skis had broken, disabling the snow buggy, which carried only one spare ski.
After carrying Mrs. Merrill for about two blocks, the men found a filling station called the Dutch Mill. Leaving Mrs. Merrill and the college students at the Dutch Mill and knowing that a spare ski for the snow buggy was stored in the telephone company garage, they called and Edmunds answered. He put the spare ski in a company truck and made it to within a mile of the Dutch Mill before being halted by impassably deep snow.
No other means, but for Edmunds to get out of the truck, push through the snow and drag the spare ski behind him. He made it. But no one thought about tools. Probably for the first time, a snow buggy ski was replaced using a hand axe—plus pure grit and determination.
The two students were left in the safety of the Dutch Mill to await later rescue. Mrs. Merrill was taken in the repaired snow buggy and transferred into the company truck with Edmunds taking her to get her much-needed medical attention.
Hough, Payne and the snow buggy were not done yet. In Cheyenne, they rescued a man who’d injured his back and couldn’t walk. He was taken to the Veterans’ Hospital.
Then they headed out to a ranch seven miles east of town to find a man with frozen feet and another man and his dog, both suffering from exhaustion. The dog thanked Payne for his efforts by biting him on the hand, but the dog was so weak, it did no damage.
Remember the little boy, Michael from the Telephone Hour lead-in at the beginning? The next day the snow buggy went about two miles from town to rescue a little guy named Michael who needed medical help. He and his parents rode in the snow buggy to the doctor.
The Wyoming manager, Christensen, in the summary of his memorandum said: “Many times during these trips, blowing snow, and zero temperatures seemed to be almost more than one could stand, and due to the poor visibility, the success of each trip was doubtful and the job hazardous.” He went on to point out that at the time of his writing 11 people in the Cheyenne area had been found frozen to death.
The July 1950 issue of The Monitor reported that Mountain States Telephone Company President, F. P, Ogden, in a formal presentation, to the applause of their fellow employees, awarded three silver Vail Medals and $500 each to Keith Hough, William Payne, and William Edmunds—our true heroes of the blizzard of 1949.
More on the Vail Medal…
From the Telecommunications History Group, Heroes in Telecom History — https://www.telcomhistory.org/resources/online-exhibits/heroes-in-telecom-history/theodore-n-vail/
From AT&T, Celebrating 100 years of heroes, Action! Suspense! And Vail Heroes! — https://about.att.com/newsroom/2021/vail_award.html
Categories: Don Warsavage - Person to Person