Transportation during the winter of 1861-1862
Lt. John Mullan and his crew were continuing construction on the military wagon road over the Bitterroot Range of the northern Rocky Mountains in 1861 when he writes, “My second programme looked toward outfitting at Fort Leavenworth, and proceeding via Fort Laramie to the Deer Lodge valley, where I should spend the winter of 1861, and then press the work vigorously toward Walla-Walla, reaching there by the winter of 1862.” (1)
Little did the Lieutenant know he and his men were about to enter the worst recorded winter of the Northwest at the time. In October of 1861 Mullan reports, “Antoine Plant informed me that the snow disappeared from these mountains in May, there being perhaps a little left in deep ravines protected from the sun. Its average depth during midwinter is not to exceed two feet.” (2) While Plant’s description to Lt. Mullan might have been true for previous winters, the winter of 1861-1862 was very different.
Luckily for Lt. John Mullan and his men they worked near the Coeur d’Alene Lake and Wolf’s Lodge area when the snow began to fall. With a lower elevation, transportation in the winter was difficult, but not impossible. Lt. Mullan used wagons during the construction of his military road to haul the bulk of his equipment according to the equipment list from 1861. There were six wagons in all, but in Captain Mullan’s official report published in 1863 he mentions no difficulty in maneuvering his wagons through the deep snow. Higher up in the mountains the story could have been very different, but little to no records exists to enlighten us on the difficulties of wagon transportation during the harsh winter months. (3)
Nevertheless, deeper in the mountains, according to Charles Schafft (who worked for the sutler store and Lt. Mullan) there was three feet of “light feathery snow” on the ground. He was in the soldiers’ camp about 20 miles up the canyon at the ‘Rocky Grade.’ The snow was to light to hold the weight of a man even if he wore snowshoes. (4) Despite the snow being too hazardous for humans to travel through on foot it may have been possible for people to ride through the deep snow.
Horses could still travel through deep snow and may have been the only means of travel during the extreme winter of 1861-1862. Nonetheless the animals’ health and lives could be dramatically affected by the harsh winter conditions, therefore leaving their riders stranded. Horses that are exposed to constant prolonged cold weather adjust to the cold easily. Characteristically, horses require 10 – 21 days to adapt to cold winter weather. Draft horses, are much more able to withstand cold because of a lower relative body surface that release heat than other breads like thoroughbreds. (5)
Winter pastures, according to Dr. Nadia Cymbaluk, should not be relied upon to provide the sole source of nutrients for horses since they are usually poor source for food. Not only is the nutrient quality poor but, in deep snow, the maintenance energy needs of horses can increase by 40% because the horses have to paw and dig through the snow to find feed that then proves to be of low quality and nutritional value. (6) According to Lt. Mullan in October of 1861, “On the Coeur d'Aléne prairie there is but little or no snow, the Indians always resorting to it as a common wintering ground for their horses and cattle.” (7) If a horse cannot forage for proper supply of food during the winter months, be it in the mountains or on the prairie, than the horse’s health deteriorates and it becomes too weak to ride or pull a cart or wagon through the snow and mud.
Lt. Mullan and his men may have had little to no trouble traveling in the Northwest during the devastating winter of 1861-1862, but the same was not true for people in other parts of the region. An example is when a group of people traveling from Lewistown, Idaho to Portland, Oregon became caught in a severe blizzard. According to the packer James W. Watt who recounts the incident in his published journal, the traveler’s stage or wagon couldn’t move through the deep snow and frigid temperatures and they all froze to death on the sage brush flat at Butter Creek near Umatilla, Oregon. Transportation on the Upper Columbia River was also suspended due to the ice and weather. Steamboats, ferries, and stages all had difficulties operating during the severe winter conditions that included frigid temperatures and deep snow. These put a halt to mail and express deliveries in the Northwest. (8)
In February of 1862 new arriving miners were bound and determined to battle the deep snow and frigid cold in order to establish claims in the Salmon River mine area. A newspaper article in Walla Walla describes the scenes as miners loaded up a variety of sleds in order to haul their provisions through the wicked winter to their hopes to claiming a mine. According to the February 22, 1862 Washington Statesman article, “Some of them are jumpers made with two crooked poles, rigged for one horse—and harnesses are generally made out of straps of heavy drilling, presenting a crude and exceedingly ludicrous appearance. Many are starting out with hand-sleds, upon which they haul their provisions, blankets, etc. […] and more than a mule load of stuff was packed upon [each sled].” (9)
The wicked winter of 1861-1862 may have frozen transportation in many areas of the Northwest. However, the winter didn’t freeze up the progress, determination, and spirit of the men who were determined to conquer the area in the hopes of creating a better future for their country and themselves; come snow, ice, or shine.
Author: Sydney Stover
(1) John Mullan. Report On The Construction Of A Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla To Fort Benton. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863). http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/mullan_report/mullan_report_1-84.html [Accessed 11-22-10]. 28.
(2) Mullan, 157.
(3) Marc Entze. 1861 Report: Mullan Road Workforce and Supplies Required to Complete the Mullan Road. John Mullan to A. A. Humphreys, October 25, 1869 (p.70-71). http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/mullan_road/fast_facts/road_building_budget.html. [Accessed 11-22-10].
(4) Vivian A. Paladin. Sketch of a Life: Charles Schafft. Montana: The Magazine of Western History 26:1 (winter: 1976), 26-37.
(5) Dr. Nadia Cymbaluk. Management and Feeding of Horses in Cold Weather. Ontario: Ministry of Agricultural Food and Rural Affairs. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/horses/facts/info-coldweather-man.htm [Accessed 11-20-10].
(6) Cymbaluk. 1.
(7) Mullan, 157.
(8) James W. Watt,. Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860s. (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1978). 17.
(9) Article, “Sleds, Jumpers, and Plank Scows,” Washington Statesman, Feb. 22, 1862.
Bibliography
Article, “Sleds, Jumpers, and Plank Scows,” Washington Statesman, Feb. 22, 1862.           
Cymbaluk, Dr. Nadia. Management and Feeding of Horses in Cold Weather. Ontario: Ministry of Agricultural Food and Rural Affairs. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/horses/facts/info-coldweather-man.htm [Accessed 11-20-10].
Entze, Marc. 1861 Report: Mullan Road Workforce and Supplies Required to Complete the Mullan Road. John Mullan to A. A. Humphreys, October 25, 1869 (p.70-71). http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/mullan_road/fast_facts/road_building_budget.html. [Accessed 11-22-10].

Mullan, John. Report On The Construction Of A Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla To Fort Benton. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863). http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/mullan_report/mullan_report_1-84.html [Accessed 11-22-10].
Paladin, Vivian A.. Sketch of a Life: Charles Schafft. Montana: The Magazine of Western History 26:1 (Winter: 1976), 26-37.
Watt, James W.. Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860s. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1978.