LIFE AND DEATH
Author: Mark McLaughlin
Lee Prettyman feared the worst as his plane circled over the frozen desert, searching for the car carrying his wife and friends. suddenly, he saw it: his snowbound Packard, surrounded by shovels and several sets of footsteps leading off into the Arctic landscape. Prettyman's wife and friends were victims of the brutal Nevada winter of 1936-37, when several blizzards blasted the state, transforming the arid desert into a frigid and lethal white wasteland.
A Desperate Drama
Christmas Day 1936 dawned pleasantly for the residents of the Silver State, but the skies then turned gray, and a blustery southwest wind signaled a fast-approaching storm. With surprising force, a blizzard soon swept across the state.
At the Nevada-Maryland silver mine, 110 miles northwest of Las Vegas near Groom Lake, heavy snow trapped five people in their cabin. The group included Prettyman's wife, (identified in newspaper accounts only as Mrs. Lee Prettyman), her younger brother James Ross Poe, his wife (first name also unknown), prospector Fred Miller, and Doris Dunn, a cook.
Lee Prettyman, the mine operator, had left for Las Vegas on Christmas Eve arriving there just ahead of the storm.
The people left behind were not so lucky. A series of storms dropped snow for seven straight days, and the camp was soon buried under snowdrifts ten feet deep. Despite heroic efforts by Nevada highway crews, all roads into the area were impassable, and the people in the cabin were totally isolated.
Meanwhile, temperatures near -30 [degrees]F fueled Lee Prettyman's fears the stranded party would not survive. As soon as weather permitted, he hired an airplane and flew over the cabins at the mountainous mining site. There was no sign of life, but Prettyman noticed his car was missing. He and the pilot figured the group had attempted a desperate escape during the storm. They dropped 50 pounds of food into the camp and returned home to alert authorities.
Within two days nearly 200 Civilian Conservation Corps youths with tractors, trucks, and shovels joined the battle to open the roads. Prettyman was back in the air the next day, but this time he told the pilot to head south, and they soon spotted his half-buried Packard sedan.
His wife and friends' situation became desperate soon after he left. Despite the relative safety of the cabin, they attempted to drive to Las Vegas on the 27th. After shoveling out the large drifts near the cabin, the five piled themselves, two cats, and a dog into Prettyman's sedan and plowed down the snow-covered road. Before long, however, the car bogged down in deep drifts. After shoveling for hours, they managed to dig the car out and proceed, but then ran out of gasoline about three miles from Groom Lake. And another storm was brewing over the dark mountains.
Life or Death
This time, despite James Poe's and Fred Miller's constant shoveling, the relentless wind buried the car with snow blown from the dry lake bed. The passengers huddled under blankets for three days before deciding it was certain suicide to just sit there without heat and food. So, on December 30, Fred Miller, the only unmarried member of the party, volunteered to brave the elements and seek help. Bill and Alice Smith had a year-round cabin at the Kelly Mine, about 20 miles to the south. It was a mission of life or death.
Another blizzard savaged the desert only hours after Miller set out. All night long the wind shrieked and pelted the car with ice. As the snow deepened around them, the four companions feared Miller could not survive out in the open. Two days slowly passed, but despite their prayers, Miller never returned.
By previous agreement James Poe went next. With only a can of corned beef for food, Poe solemnly left the shelter of the car and ventured into the cold. He could not fail; the lives of three women, one his wife and one his sister depended on his success.
In his heroic effort to get help, Poe battled wind chill temperatures of -30 [degrees]F and snow three feet deep. After walking for 11 hours, he found the body of Fred Miller face-down in a snowbank, frozen to death. The horrible discovery only strengthened Poe's determination to push on. Along the way, he set fires to Joshua trees to keep warm and to signal distress - but no one came. Every hour or so he ate a morsel of corned beef to maintain his strength.
At one point Poe stopped between two rocks to rest, but he knew if he lay down to sleep, he would never get up again. So he sat there, slowly smoking a cigarette and waiting for his strength to return. The constant cold soon reminded him of the desperate nature of his mission, however, and it wasn't long before he resumed walking.
All told, Poe stumbled through the snow for 22 hours. Delirious from cold, hunger, and fatigue, he finally reached the Kelly Mine. He stunned the Smiths when he burst into their cabin holding a half-filled can of corned beef and crying, "Kitty; Kitty, Kitty." Crazed and incoherent, Poe thought he was back at the stranded car. The Smiths gave Poe bread, water, and whiskey and tried to calm him down.
Despite Poe's mental disorientation and frozen feet, he and Smith took off immediately in Smith's 1929 Model A Ford truck to rescue the others. But Poe was no help to Smith, and they wasted two days before they found the buried car.
Meanwhile, the three women calmly awaited the end. "This being the third day of January," Mrs. Prettyman had written in her diary, "it makes here eight days. We have lived on three cans of corned beef and a half loaf of bread. Miller took half a loaf of bread and one can of corned beef with him. For water we have eaten snow, also snow for food for the last three days....Had we not had our blankets with us, we would have frozen to death before now.
The women were weak and fading fast when they heard Smith's truck laboring toward them. Smith quickly loaded the women and the animals onto the truck and rushed back to the cabin for first aid. Mrs. Prettyman, James and Mrs. Poe, and Doris Dunn all had painful frost-bite on their feet, which were so swollen Smith had to cut their boots off. Mrs. Prettyman was also suffering from mental fatigue and severe gallstone attacks. She had hardly slept since leaving the mine.
Another eight days passed as the Smiths tended to the needs of the survivors. Meanwhile, an impenetrable barrier of snow had now cut them off from the outside world.
There was a small radio at the cabin, and on January 12 the bedridden James Poe heard a garbled broadcast describing the massive rescue effort in progress. Bulldozers were opening snow-choked roads while hundreds of men were hacking away at the enormous snowdrifts. Meanwhile, planes were out looking for signs of life, but the searchers feared the members of the Prettyman party were lost and quite possibly dead.
Knowing a rescue effort was under way, the Smiths scrawled a message on a bedsheet and fastened it to the roof of the small shack. It read, "Help. One dead. Three sick. Prettyman party here."
Two hours later Lee Prettyman flew over the cabin and saw the message. A day and a half later, a large tractor-plow was chugging toward the victims. Prettyman, two policemen, and a doctor followed the plow in a car.
The four men were gung-ho but poorly prepared, and their car soon ran out of gas, leaving them stranded. The tractor pushed on, leaving the four behind in the frigid darkness of night. Without blankets, the would-be rescuers shivered helplessly and waited for the snowplow's return. Their only food was a container of potato salad and sandwiches too frozen to eat.
The tractor plowed ahead another 20 miles before it too ran low on fuel. Heading back to base camp, the crew came upon Lee Prettyman and company ten hours after their car had run out of gas. The four men were suffering from frostbite and needed medical attention.
Finally, as darkness neared and ominous clouds again gathered, snowplows and trucks finally broke through to the Kelly Mine. The exhausted rescue crews waited until daylight before evacuating the survivors. Fortunately, the weather held, and the next day (the 16th) the convoy began a slow crawl to safety.
The ordeal should have ended there, but fate seemed to demand more from the weather-weary group. When the convoy reached Indian Springs, the cars carrying the victims continued on unescorted. This decision proved overly optimistic, as the makeshift ambulances were soon mired in slush and snow, and everyone was forced to spend yet another night in the desert. To Mrs. Prettyman and her companions it seemed their punishment would never end. Finally, however, late the next day, a tractor arri ved to drag the autos onto the cleared Tonopah-Las Vegas Highway. The four survivors were admitted to a Las Vegas hospital on January 18, a total of 22 days after their ordeal began. The Prettymans were happily reunited, and doctors said everyone in the party should recover completely. In the end, all three women were fine, but James Poe lost parts of two toes.
Fred Miller, the prospector who lost his gallant battle with the elements, was remembered for his valiant effort.
"When Miller set out, he was determined to get help... but his strength failed, and he sacrificed his life," reported the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal on January 19, 1937. "But for the heroic efforts of Poe, whose stamina and determination carried him through indescribable hours, the entire party would have perished in the snowbound wastes."
Poe wrote a first-hand account for the newspaper describing his grueling trek through the snow. Likely echoing the feelings of his companions, he concluded, "I've been through hell and I don't want to go back."
NewsBank Public Library Collection
Copyright 1997 Weatherwise
Record Number: 012530CEC5C7457F5382A
Volume 49, Issue 6, December 1996/January 1997
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