On a cool, sunny October day, author John Fraley is digging a hole in Cork Hill’s pasture in Nyack. The pasture is along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. The hole is for a post and on top of the post is a plaque that tells the story of the one of the worst train accidents ever to occur in Montana.
And it happened right about where Fraley and Hill are standing. On Aug. 31, 1901, freight cars that were sitting in Essex had their brakes slip. They began rolling back down the track, picking up speed as the grade increased.
A passenger car that was headed west chugged along, unaware of the runaway freight train behind it.
The freight train was likely doing 70 to 100 mph when it struck the passenger car right here in what is now Hill’s front pasture.
One can only imagine what happens when runaway freight barrels into a passenger car. But it was worse than that. Several of the first freight cars were carrying dry wooden shingles. They caught fire in the collision.
More than 30 Asian laborers, as well as other crew members on the passenger train were killed or burned to death in the resulting wreck and inferno.
Cork Hill still has ghosts in his home today.
Sometimes they come as a green orb. Sometimes they’re just a presence, sitting on the bed.
But they aren’t figments of his imagination, Hill noted last week — dogs don’t just start barking at nothing.
This story and many others are part of a fascinating new book of history, “Rangers, Trappers and Trailblazers: Early Adventures in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park” by Fraley.
As the title suggests, the bulk of the stories are about figures in the woods, There’s the story of Glacier Park Ranger Clyde Fauley and the long forgotten Paola Ranger Station in Glacier Park. There’s Fuller Langeman and John Schurr, who more than 50 years ago decided to brave the winter and run a trapline in the Great Bear Wilderness, where temperatures dropped to 60 below zero, or ranger Henry Thol, a “ranger’s ranger” who patrolled the South Fork from Coram to Spotted Bear to Ovando in the winter on wooden snowshoes at, even by today’s standards, was a break-neck pace.
This is Fraley’s third book. His previous titles “A Woman’s Way West” and “Wild River Pioneers” also tell tales of early settlers in the region.
Fraley was the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 public information officer for decades and was also a fisheries biologist. He retired June 30 of last year. On July 1, he started writing this book.
But he’d been researching it for nearly 30 years — all of the chapters have citations. Many of the citations are from personal interviews with the subjects or relatives.
“I told myself, ‘If I don’t retire, I won’t write this book,” he said. Fraley has also traveled over the ground where the stories are told, from the Middle Fork in the winter to the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
In his travels, he would often wonder who the people were behind the geographical names.
“I wanted to honor these old timers,” he said.
He also makes it a point to honor the dead and forgotten, like the 30 or more people that are buried in Cork Hill’s pasture lot in the Nyack.
Fraley will talk more about their story at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at Flathead Valley Community College’s Arts and Technology Building. He’ll give a second talk, focusing on early rangers at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the The Museum at Central School.
The book is available at local bookstores, the Farcountry Press website, www.farcountrypress.com and Amazon.com.