Nevada’s Operation Haylift saved marooned and starving herds in 1948-49 |

Nevada’s Operation Haylift saved marooned and starving herds in 1948-49

Photo courtesy Nevada Historical SocietyCattle stand iced over by severe winter conditions in the punishing winter of 1948-49.

Second in a two part series. Please see e-edition, Jan. 31 to read the first part.

Sixty years ago violent blizzards combined with frigid temperatures to threaten Nevada’s extensive livestock industry. During the brutal winter of 1948-49, deep snow on the range cut the herds off from grazing forage. By mid-January 1949, countless cattle and sheep were marooned and starving across the state. But help was on the way. Inspired by the successful Berlin Airlift underway in Europe that winter, Nev. ranchers and U.S. government officials organized “Operation Haylift” to prevent mass starvation among the animals struggling in the high desert.

In Operation Haylift, hundreds of tons of hay and other feed were loaded into C-82 Flying Boxcars at airports in Fallon and Minden, Nevada. Once filled, the giant transport planes were flown to operational headquarters based in Ely, a small Nevada hamlet near the Utah border. Since most of the stranded livestock were in eastern Nevada, particularly White Pine, Nye, and Lincoln counties, Ely was the best staging area. Businesses in Ely were kept busy as news reporters from around the country swarmed into the town’s restaurants, bars, hotels and two brothels.

On Jan. 24, 1949, the first of 28 Flying Boxcars carrying bales of hay landed at the Ely airpor, where anxious ranchers scrambled to unload the lifesaving cargo. Initially, the ranchers had wanted to truck the feed in after highway crews cleared the roads, but many of the cattle and sheep were stuck in isolated canyons. To make matters worse, gusty winds drifted the powdery snow over the roads as fast as the snowplows could clear them. An airlift was the only option.

Once the operation started, it ran like clockwork. Day after day pilots flew routes from McClellan Airfield outside Sacramento to Minden to pick up the hay and then off to Eastern Nevada to make their deliveries. The skies around Ely and Elko droned with low-cruising transport planes. The affected region encompassed an area half as large as Ohio and pilots often flew their aircraft as far as 200 miles from Ely before spotting marooned cattle or sheep.

To help pilots reach isolated herds, a local rancher familiar with the area usually rode along to guide the navigators. Men called “pushers” were secured by a safety harness and stationed near the large open bay at the tail of the plane. As the aircraft slowed and swooped low over the animals, the pushers shoved the bales out the door. The payload usually hit within 50 to 75 feet of the stranded livestock. Most of the bales burst upon impact and the hungry livestock were often eating by the time the plane made a second pass.

Operation Haylift was executed in a professional manner and everyone concerned worked well together as the rescue effort kicked into high gear. Some roads in Nevada had become impassable due to the drifting snow, so National Guard units from Nevada and California were deployed to help provide food provisions to isolated families. To expedite the process, the Army ordered its transportation units into the fray. These truckers, many of whom were African-American, fought icy roads and life-threatening weather conditions to haul hay and supplies throughout the region.

As Operation Haylift’s effectiveness became evident in Nevada, the federal government passed an emergency fund of $750,000 to help rescue snowbound livestock in Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana.

In Ely, the rescue was a community effort. While loading hay in sub-zero cold, one Ely local told a journalist, “You can’t just let those animals die without trying to do something about it.” The Ely National Bank funded the hay deliveries for ranchers, whether or not they could pay. Gordon Lathrop, vice president of the bank, told the press, “The ranchers will pay us back when they can ” if not this year, perhaps next year. I know them all.”

Ely automobile dealer George Hawes hired a private pilot to fly him over some of his customers’ remote homes in case they needed help. On the way he discovered many residents were struggling in isolation. Restocking the plane, he dropped emergency supplies to as many as 30 families and sheep camps. “It’s costing about $50 a day,” Hawes said, “but it’s darn well worth it.”

Arctic air and frequent snow showers dominated the weather throughout January. Nevadans hoping for a break in the crippling cold wave were disappointed when the biggest storm of the winter slammed the region on Feb. 6. Snowfall was light, but 70 mph winds picked snow up off the ground to create blinding blizzard conditions. During the next two days, drifts blocked virtually every road in Northern Nevada. One National Guard unit was trapped in their vehicles by drifting snow as temperatures plummeted to nearly 30 degrees below zero. All aviation operations were suspended because of impossible flying conditions. Ely rancher George Swallow told the papers, “The situation is desperate. Right now, we’re in the worst condition we’ve been in since the emergency began.”

A week later, another powerful windstorm swept through the state. In the ranch country near Elko, drifts towered up to 20 feet high. The swirling storm trapped an eastbound train three miles west of Wells. The snow was so deep that passengers on the luxury streamliner City of San Francisco were forced to wait for a Southern Pacific rotary snowplow to clear the tracks. Three years later, that same train would become snowbound for three days near Yuba Gap, west of Donner Pass, with 226 passengers and crewmembers onboard.

Finally, on Feb. 17, the wind shifted to the west, which ushered in mild maritime air from the Pacific Ocean. Daytime temperatures soared into the 60s and the snow began to melt. When highway crews broke into the Starr Valley area, east of Elko, it was the first time the road had been passable in three weeks.

The epic winter of 1948-49 is still the coldest ever recorded in the Silver State and snowfall was nearly double normal. Ely ranchers estimated that 300,000 head of livestock, mostly sheep, had been fed from the air. The airlift was considered a success, but the operation could not save all the animals. In late April, stockmen confirmed that 35 percent of the cattle and 25 percent of the sheep in Eastern Nevada had succumbed to the deadly weather. The loss was substantial, but there was no doubt among Nevada ranchers that Operation Haylift had prevented economic disaster.

Pilots and crews on the Flying Boxcars had flown 270,000 miles and dropped 2,000 tons of baled hay in their efforts to save Nevada’s livestock. Despite the adverse weather conditions, no one was killed or injured.

” Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books are available at local stores. Mark can be reached at

Men called “pushers” were secured by a safety harness and stationed near the large open bay at the tail of the plane. As the aircraft slowed and swooped low over the animals, the pushers shoved the bales out the door.

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