Visiting Mann Gulch 60 Years Later

By James Lewis on July 10, 2009

I just returned from a trip to Montana, where I conducted an oral history interview with the 15th chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Dale Bosworth. While there, I took the opportunity to visit Mann Gulch, site of the first smokejumper tragedy. There, sixty years ago next month, 13 firefighters (12 were smokejumpers, 1 a fire watch guard) were killed when a fire they were dispatched to fight trapped and then overwhelmed them. Three men survived—one by doing the then-unthinkable and setting an escape fire and two others by miraculously outrunning the fire in what has to be one of the most difficult runs in recorded history. What happened at Mann Gulch forever changed wildland firefighting—new training techniques were developed based on what was learned and the Forest Service began studying fire behavior as part of an effort to improve safety. It also changed those 13 families and the lives of the three survivors.

Getting to Mann Gulch requires going over rough terrain, both physically and emotionally. Years ago, I had read Norman Maclean’s flawed take on the incident, Young Men and Fire, and then refamiliarized myself with the incident in 2004 while doing research for The Forest Service and The Greatest Good. The night before going, I read the U.S. Forest Service fire research report generated as a result of Maclean’s pressing the agency for help in reconstructing the events of August 5, 1949. His book and the report both focused on the fire more than the men. I thought I understood what they faced that day, but even some of the best writing and best research describing what happened does not do the setting justice.

Before the trip I had also finished Mark Matthew’s new book, A Great Day to Fight Fire, which drew on personal interviews conducted in 1999 with the survivors and the victims’ families. To learn about each of the men and then read of their deaths, how each died—and then to see where each man died—made the visit more difficult than I had anticipated. To stand where they fell is overwhelming, sobering, and mystifying. To see the distance and steep incline Bob Sallee and Walt Rumsey scrambled up to survive struck me dumb and humbled. To look upon where Wag Dodge set his escape fire and see just how close so many of the others were to him surprised me. To gaze at their names etched in stone twice—each site has two markers, with a second one having been placed there in 1997—is a stark reminder of what was lost that day. To see some of the markers in desperate need of repair saddened me.

Leonard Piper’s cross lies in ruins. All that remains in place is the rebar that once held the cross. The Forest Service decided in the 1990s not to rebuild them and opted to place the granite columns there instead. (All photos are property of the author.)

While standing at the bottom of the deep gulch, looking up at the steep sides I had just hiked down with some difficulty, I tried to envision running full tilt up a nearly vertical wall of loose rocks and slick grass with a wild fire coming at me. I could think of only two things: “Those poor guys didn’t stand a chance” and “How the hell did Sallee and Rumsey make it out of here alive?”

The view from where Stanley Reba died, looking up toward where Sallee and Rumsey went through the rocks to safety.

Located in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area in the Helena National Forest, Mann Gulch is reachable only by boat from the Missouri River or by horseback. A tour boat will drop you at Meriwether Canyon, the same place from where Forest Service fire guard James Harrison started his hike to meet the smokejumpers sixty years ago. At the top, you’ll find this interpretive sign and can look across Mann Gulch.

The view from the ridge opposite of where the smokejumpers were killed. Click on the photo to read the interpretive sign showing the timeline of events at Mann Gulch.

Click on the photo to read the interpretive sign showing the timeline of events and their locations at Mann Gulch.

The hike along the ridge and around and down to the markers takes another hour or so. In all, it’s a six or seven mile hike roundtrip that took nearly six hours. A most difficult but rewarding six hours that will be with me for a long time to come.

As I looked back over the sight before heading down for the boat, I had one final thought: I hope the interpretive sign overlooking Mann Gulch is right—that those 13 men did not die in vain.

The Mann Gulch memorial, installed in 1999 and located at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon. You can see this before starting the hike up and over to Mann Gulch.

0 responses to “Visiting Mann Gulch 60 Years Later”

  1. John Monczka says:

    Just finished Young Men and Fire and it has weighed on me for a number of days. Came across a copy in a used book store in Chicago that actually had a “Fire” section. I had never heard about the tragedy but was spellbound by Maclean’s account. I have read A River Runs Through It a number of times and consider it my favourite short story.

    I am interested in your comment – “Maclean’s flawed take on the incident”. I am digging up everything I can on the Internet and have so far found very little contrary to his research.

    I would love to be able to hike the gulch some day, however the rattlesnakes sound a little discouraging – can you get leggings that are bite-proof?

    Thanks for your blog.

  2. Susan Schroedel says:

    I have had the superb opportunity to meet the only living survivor of Mann Gulch, Bob Sallee. My husband is a former smokejumper out of MSO. Bob Sallee is a gentle, humble individual who defied the odds that hot August day.

    Sadly, he will NOT be in attendance at the 60th anniversary of the tragedy. We spoke with him just two days ago and his wife will be having surgery on the day before the anniversary.

    My husband and many other fellow jumpers will be in attendance at the anniversary. I know full well that my husband’s heart will be with those who lost their lives on that day.

  3. Win says:

    Great blog entry – just finished Young Men and Fire…had read it in the early 90s and decided to read it again in light of the 60th anniversary. Good to hear that Sallee’s still alive. I’ll check out Mark Matthews’s book based on your recommendation.

    Thanks especially for posting the photos of Mann Gulch – I’ve always wanted to visit myself, and it’s hard to imagine how it looks when viewing small, black-and-white photos…your color shots make it much easier to imagine.

  4. Leo MacNeil says:

    Earl Cooley’s recent death has re-focused my attention on Mann Gulch.

    I certainly plan to read Mark Matthews’ book, but to hear Young Men and Fire described as “a flawed take” terribly disappoints me because I believe you fail to understand the significance of this great book.

    For full-disclosure, I have read MacLean’s work as well as A River Runs Through It numerous times, far to many to count. Each time I have been further enriched by their value.

    I will try my best to respond. Norman MacLean was a highly praised professor of Literature at U Chicago for many years. One of his specialties was the tragic form and the meaning and significance of tragedy as literature affecting our aesthetic and moral lives.

    Norman MacLean was not a journalist or an historian, nor, to my knowledge, did he ever make any claim to being either one.

    “A River Runs Through It” is fictionalized biography about his family. His brother, Paul, is the tragic hero of the story, one with the most admirable (“beautiful”) characteristics but one with great failings that his family tried desperately to address but failed, and Paul died “tragically” in the classical sense of that word. I recommended the book to a reading group years ago, and many present could not fathom Paul. They were angry at his self-destructive immature behavior and said they knew what they would do to change it. As if they could tell Prince Hamlet what to do about his dilemma! And even if they were successful in either case, our world would be the far lesser for it.

    Young Men and Fire is MacLean’s tragedy of a far greater magnitude, all the more so as he died before he could complete it. It was his highly noble effort to take what many would call so often these TV infatuated days “catastrophe”,a Greek word, describing significantly terrible loss of numerous lives (i.e. The Challenger, 9/11, Fort Hood) and convert it into “tragedy”(i.e. lasting moral significance) by giving value and meaning to the individual lives that were lost that day (and subsequently if you include Dodge’s later death). Through art, not journalism nor history, MacLean accomplished this extraordinarily well.

    To his lasting tribute, MacLean succeeded. In doing so, he created art in its highest form, tragedy in its Greek and Shakespearean sense. His historical and personal facts may be subject to question (as assuredly would those of Homer’s Iliad, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Henry IV, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, Miller’s The Crucible, whatever), but who for a moment would ever give up those depictions and the moral imperative they describe and diminish them as “flawed takes” because they do not accurately portray the facts?

    All the subsequent books and commemorations of August 1949 Mann Gulch, which that horribly tragic event richly deserves, would lack the degree of attention they are given if it weren’t for MacLean’s effort. We will never know what great literature will survive to continue to enlighten readers centuries from now as the Greeks and Shakespeare do, but I certainly pray that Young Men and Fire does. It is far, far too valuable to be lost.

    I am also very troubled and angered by the terrible condition of the memorials in Mann Gulch given the elevating, almost religious, concluding sentence of Young Men and Fire.

    • nicholas says:

      I was tempted to respond in kind, but find that Leo MacNeil’s response has beat me to it and expressed it all better than I can. “Young Men and Fire” is much more than an account of a fire. It is an attempt to express tragedy in a broad sense, and in a manner that resonates with any one of us, if we are attempting to understand our own lives and the tragedy that inevitably is a part of it.

      • Nicholas and Leo, I agree with you both that Maclean’s book is a wonderful work of literature, and that it probably will stand the test of time. Furthermore, it’s a beautiful elegy to the smokejumpers, and a moving meditation about his own mortality (just as “A River Runs Through It” is one about his brother). I wouldn’t change anything about the book. It absolutely deserves the literary accolades it has earned.

        Please understand, though, that part of the job of a historian is to address the historiography–what has been written about a topic. Looking at it as a work of history, as I said I had done when it came out, I have to acknowledge that some of his conclusions have been disputed, and I have to acknowledge the findings held by others, including the two survivors. It is in that context–Maclean’s historical interpretation of events–that I meant it being a “flawed take.” Nonetheless, it is still valuable for the history he has captured and written. It is also a valuable historical text because of its impact, including how it continues to encourage others to investigate the incident to determine what happened.

        In the end, it is a testament to what Maclean achieved with the book that we now find ourselves passionately discussing it. Of how many works of history or literature published in the last twenty years can that be said?

  5. A great blog post. Thank you for posting and including the photos. I agree with the others that your photos really give someone who has never been to Mann Gulch the feeling of being there (as well as any photographs can).

    I read Young Men and Fire the year it was published and few books have stayed with me as well as that one.

    I am doing research on a blog post for my blog “The Last Surviving” which I dedicate to ordinary people who survived extraordinary events, and are the last ones living who can tell the story (or were connected to it).

    Finding that Bob Sallee is still alive these 60 years after the Mann Gulch tragedy, I would like to do a post on him and the history of Mann Gulch.

    May I link to your blog? I will certainly reference it in my post.

  6. Chris Klitbo says:

    Regarding the damaged memorials.

    I hiked the Mann Gulch trail in July 2007 – just hours before the Merriwether Fire started – and don’t remember any of the memorials being damaged. I was even able to count all the crosses from a distance.

    Was there some heat spalling from the wildfire that further degraded the concrete crosses?
    CK

  7. Pat Dailey says:

    Jamie,

    I ran across your blog here after completing “A Great Day To Fight Fire”. Having read “Young Men And Fire” years ago as well as having grown up in Montana, Mann Gulch has always been a subject of interest for me. Have two friends that have been smoke jumpers out of Missoula as well as my High School Football coach, who spent his summers jumping and only recently retired from the USFS.

    As well as the above another “connection” to Mann Gulch exists: have spent the last 25 years Elk Hunting the “Beartooth Game Range” which is a Montana State Wildlife Management Area LITERALLY just east of Mann Gulch. It incudes the Cottonwood,Elkhorn and parts of WIllow Creek drainages. Another way does exist into Mann Gulch and that is from the east from Willow Creek. A fairly “easy” trail cuts off to the South/SouthWest from the Willow Creek road. Have taken it horseback many times into the head of Mann Gulch and up over into Meriwether and down to the River. The trail takes you by “Devils Kitchen” a cave in Meriwether Gulch.

    Have stopped and looked for and at the crosses in Mann Gulch with much emotion as you mentioned. A person really cannot appreciate the situation until one “walks the ground.”
    How the hell anybody made it up that slope is beyond me, as it is VERY steep.

    Also as you said, the condition of those crosses is a shame, especially to me as a Montananan. I would like to offer my time and horses to anyone willing to come out and help with trying to improve those crosses. Don’t know the best way to do that but am willing to help. The best time of year is either right at May 15th when the FWP opens the Beartooth for humans and the weather is not blistering hot, or later in the Fall, after Labor day.

    To my knowledge, Mann Gulch has burned twice more since 1949, once in 1990 and again in 2007. The terrain is rough and the country gets ungodly hot in the summer as well as hot. Rattlesnakes are present as well as elk and deer.

    My Contact info is as follows:

    windyprairie@mtintouch.net
    406-759-5794

  8. Dan Morrill says:

    One of the victims of the Mann Gulch Fire was Silas Raymond Thompson, Jr. of Charlotte, N.C. The public television station in Charlotte, WTVI, is producing a documentary on his life and death. I am a co-producer. Hopefully, this documentary will help tell the human story of Mann Gulch.

    Nobody called him Silas. In North Carolina he was called Raymond. In Montana his fellow smokejumpers knew him as Ray.

    His sister and his boyhood friends still carry the pain of his death.

    Dr. Dan L. Morrill
    Professor of History
    UNC Charlotte

  9. charlie says:

    Can someone explain why “markers” were used rather than new crosses? I think I saw a Star of david on one. Was one of the young men Jewish? If so, that would be a logical response. My concern in this PC worls is that crosses were not allowed on public land the 2nd time. Curious.

  10. JCroz says:

    After the reading of “Young Men and Fire” and examining of Mann Gulch photos, the best I can take from the experience is that it was steep, it was slick, it was hot, and it was nearly hopeless.

    And what has become of the promise made to Norman Maclean, that the crosses marking the last stands made by the Smokejumpers would always been maintained and kept in all the dignity befitting the heroes of a tragedy? I guess it’s acceptable to promise anybody anything at all, then carry on as desired after that person dies. The dead don’t usually demand compliance of the living.

  11. George Harpole '49 says:

    Good article. Unsolved? Who started the stampede and the insubordination to Wag Dodge? It all began at the nine mile training camp – a no need to know attitude. Google “From the SmokeJumpers into the Forest Products Laboratory” for a couple of profound details.
    Say what you want, but it didn’t have to happen, nor at Storm King Mt., or on the AZ Dude fire; and, maybe a majority of all deaths related to use of fire equipment.
    Get yourself as fully trained as possible, anticipate and minimize your risk – in and for all of your activities.

  12. Jan in Taos, NM says:

    I am almost finished with “Young Men and Fire”. It was recommended by Philip Connors in his book “Fire Season” which came out this spring 2011. Since I live in a town bordering US National Forest lands, wildfires are an interest from many perspectives.

    Several folks have mentioned here the profound brilliance of Norman Maclean’s story telling skills. I found this a study of the human psyche both in tragedy and a need to find justice through sussing out the actual sequences of past events. I am grateful Maclean followed his obsession to write about the Mann Gulch Fire, so the story of this avoidable tragedy will travel forward and dignity can be offered through remembrance of those who perished. Thanks also to those working to follow up on the families who lost their beloved family members.

  13. Mike M says:

    I did climb Mann Gulch – much as the firefighters did, but without a fire. My friend who climbed with me said that his eighth grade picnic was in the park in the Meriwether Canyon watershed, but the nuns (teachers) wouldn’t let the kids go over because of the rattlesnakes. My climb was in October and I never saw any sign of a snake. It is a spiritual place. Deeply and profoundly so.

  14. Kevin says:

    I camp and fish near Mann Gulch quite often. Please don’t let a couple rattlesnakes stop you from visiting. There are snakes and i have had a run in or two with them in the area. Be smart, be cautious, listen for the tell tale rattle. I have only been into Mann Gulch twice, both times I came straight up the gulch from the river. I was not aware of the interpertive sign on the ridge and may have to check it out this next summer. There is also something in the gulch below the crosses, a tribute to the fellow that died of a heart attack studying the fire that fall. I can’t remember his name or what the tribute is, i think its a brass plague. I assume most don’t know its there if they hike in from the Meriwether side.

  15. Jim Taylor says:

    There was a website that had biographies and stories about the Mann Gulch victims. I can’t seem to find that site today… any suggestions?

  16. Tom Slee says:

    I will give a short reply at this time – I have a story to tell
    . I WILL START NOW to write on my part (on the ground), in the Mann Gulch Fire. I hope to get it in print very soon. Those of you interested may reply to me and/or email me. There is also another fire fighter that was with me who has more to add, but, he does not have Email. We did not know each other and met for the first time ( although 15 or 20 fighters apart on the fire line) in Aug.1999 attending the 50 year memorial of Mann Gulch in Helena, MT.

    The summer of 1949 I was for the first time working in a ‘blister rust’ camp, the Musselshell Camp, Pierce Dist. Clearwater Nat’l.Forest, Ida. We were alerted at 4:30 AM on the 6th of Aug.- we were finally going on our first fire – 25 green college students, We arrived in Helena about 2 PM and were bussed to the fire later that day. The rest of the story is yet to come. My friend, Stan Susich, of Cle Elum, WA stayed 4 days after we left and aided in the recovery of the bodies and equipment and has some facts that have not been in print, either.. After a second season with the USFS, I returned to Oklahoma and enlisted in the USAF, made it to pilot Training and retired in 1971 at McChord AFB and live in Lakewood WA. My email is f86pilot@comcast.net.. Mark Matthews, I hope to hear from you.

    Thomas (TOM) M Slee, Maj USAF ret
    80FBS, 8FBW K-13 Suwon, Korea 1953-54

  17. Leo MacNeil says:

    And so the story ends with the death of Bob Sallee and the gang passes into immortality and mythology. .

    Right now, I am viewing and listening to the poignant rendition of “Cold Missouri Waters” by the Fiddlin Forresters, the perfect tribute.

  18. Royce Ferguson says:

    Am reading Maclean’s “Young Men ans Fire” but needed some additional information and photos to help me try to visualize the terrain, and found your helpful blog. Thank you.

  19. Peter says:

    August 5th, 2014: On this anniversary, you are not forgotten.

  20. spazapple says:

    Jamie et al

    Thank you for the original post, and thanks as well to all those who have added their memories, trip details, and reflections.

    I’m a regular visitor to Montana, as its the best local fishing near me (Francestown, NH). Read Young Men and Fire at a pivotal time in my life and it has stayed with me, such that I reread often. Leo McNeil and Jan from Taos says it well, above: a person comes to the tragedy with questions, and after a time, poses better questions.

    It’s far from accurate or fair to describe the book as ‘flawed,’ but I’d guess Norman Maclean would accept your slight with grace, for all we do is so marked and rendered. You are right to note your role as a historiographer. And it was fine for Rumsey and Sallee to dispute some of the ‘facts,’ but their memories are also subject to the vicissitudes of time. The story will haunt for the ages, whether or not one can pinpoint the exact spot of the escape fire. We can ‘fix’ very little on this earth, very little in our minds, our bodies. But we are inexorably tied to the trying.

    I’m deeply moved by his attempt, late in life and in fading light, to revisit a moment in time that prompts such existential questions. Among other things, Maclean wrote about the heroic tradition in literature, and by some kind accident of grace, his work has found a place there.

    I hunger for knowledge of what ‘really’ happened at some points on that terrible day, but the resonance of his story exceeds that desire, and finds something unfinished, and unknowable in my life. “We cannot know the truth…” Yeats offered, “…and yet we embody it.”

  21. Justin Fontaine says:

    I am just about to finish ” A great day to fight fire” and read Norman Macleans account two years ago which really got to me. The story is both compelling and tragic. I live in Northwest Montana and I am finally going to hike Mann Gulch this weekend. I am chartering a boat to take me to the gulch and will be doing this trip solo. Surprised to hear all the reports of rattlesnakes in the area. I am going to have a snake-bite kit but I would not let that deter me from going. Even though this event happened 10 years before I was born as a Montanan I feel compelled to go and pay my respects to the men who parished there. I hope that the monuments are still visible.

  22. Justin Fontaine says:

    Back from my visit to Mann Gulch. I was dropped off by a small boat at the bottom of the gulch with a few supplies for a 6 hour journey that I will never forget. The hike in was longer than I expected but there is a visible trail and about a mile or so in the gulch opens and you can start to see where it all unfolded but it looks so much bigger in scale than I imagined. I was intimidated I will admit. As the trail started to side-hill unto the left ( north) side of the gulch I could finally see some of the crosses through my binoculars. There was an erie calm as I was alone and saw a few deer and some antelope. It was steeper than I imagined and even though I am in pretty good shape at 55 the climb to where they all fell was as steep as I have been on. After getting to Reba’s cross ( the first one) I could start to see the rest of the tragedy ahead including the reef rock that the two got through to survive. I did not see a marker that someone left to indicate the start of Dodges escape fire but it is fairly easy to imagine where. I made it to 9 of the 13 and went to the top of the ridge and saw where they went through. I can’t imagine running up that hill. In fact most of the time I was there I was nervous about losing my footing and falling ass over tea-cup 200 yards down. It is that steep and slick. If it had started to rain harder I would still be there. Most of the original crosses are actually still intact and there are newer single post granite monuments where each man fell as well. Reba’s cross was in the most dis-repair from what I could see.

    In closing it was worth it to me but don’t go in there un-prepared and I would advise having someone along. It is very rugged country and you are off the grid entirely there.

    it really brought the whole story and tragedy to a close for me. I appreciate all the people in the world who literally laid down their lives for us all and they deserve to be remembered and honored.

  23. Rudi Schmiddt says:

    Was nine years old when my home caught on fire–woke up my parents; we escaped…never forgot. Read “Young Men and Fire”–was captivated. Met Norman’s son, John, at the U of Wash. who was doing a reading from his also captivating book about the South Canyon fire–amazing man, his Dad would be proud. Have hiked the South Canyon site, peaceful…ironic.
    Jamie: I plan to visit, finally, Mann Gulch this Sept or Oct and would love you or any of your fellow Montanans or someone you can recommend accompany me.
    Thank you for your post.