The Prettyman Party January 1937
Seventy years ago, during the frigid winter of 1936-37, Nevadans were stopped in their tracks as Mother Nature walloped the state with storm after storm, blanketing valleys and mountains in deep, impassable drifts. Rescuers spent the holidays burrowing pathways for stranded residents and travelers as the frontal systems pounded the state. At a remote mine near Groom Lake, a desperate drama unfolded shortly after Christmas in 1936. Five people were trapped by snow, and their attempt to escape proved to be a memorable and harrowing struggle for survival. A group of six friends had found themselves snowbound by the heavy winter storms at the Nevada-Maryland Mine, located near the present-day town of Rachel and the top-secret Area 51 in the vast Nevada Test Site. The silver mines operator, Lee Prettyman, shared the isolated quarters with his wife; her younger brother, James Ross Poe; and his wife; as well as prospector Fred Miller and a cook, Doris Dunn.
Lee Prettyman managed to escape before heavy snow overwhelmed the region, but when the group he left behind (which included two cats and a dog) attempted to escape the mine in their car, snowdrifts and temperatures near 30 below combined to thwart their effort and they bogged down on the road. After three days trapped in the vehicle that had run out of fuel, Fred Miller decided to go for help. Tragically, he died in the bitter cold and snow. After anxiously waiting for Millers return, James Poe set out into the winter storm for the Kelly Mine, about 20 miles away. For food, he had only one can of corned beef.James Poe stumbled through the storm for 22 hours. He was delirious from cold, hunger, and fatigue when he finally found the Kelly Mine, where Bill and Alice Smith lived year-round. The Smiths were stunned when he burst into their cabin holding a half-empty can of corned beef and crying, Kitty, kitty, kitty. Poe, crazed and incoherent, thought he was back at the stranded automobile. The Smiths offered Poe bread, water, and whiskey and tried to calm him down.Despite Poes frozen feet and compromised mental state, he and Bill Smith took off immediately in Smiths 1929 Model A Ford truck to rescue the women. But the disoriented Poe was no help to Smith, and two days were wasted before they found the buried Packard sedan.
Meanwhile, the three women stranded in the car calmly awaited the end. Mrs. Prettyman wrote in her diary, This being the third day of January, it makes us here eight days. We have lived on three cans of corned beef and a half a loaf of bread. Miller took half a loaf of bread and one can of corn beef with him. James took only one can of corned beef with him. For water we have eaten snow, also snow for food for the last three days. There are also our two cats and one dog with us. 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 Smiths truck laboring toward them. The women and animals were loaded onto the truck and rushed back to the cabin for first aid. Mrs. Prettyman, Doris Dunn, and Mr. and Mrs. Poe were all suffering from painful frostbite on their feet, which were so swollen that Smith had to cut their boots off with a razor blade.Mrs. Prettyman was also suffering from mental fatigue and severe gallstone attacks. She had hardly slept since leaving the mine eight days before.
Another eight days passed as the four ragged survivors were doctored and tended to by the Smiths. Their enforced isolation at the small cabin was reminiscent of the misery the group had endured while marooned in the car. They were still were cut off from the outside world by an impenetrable barrier of snow. There was a small radio at the cabin, however, and on Jan. 12 a bedridden James Poe heard a garbled broadcast. It described a massive rescue effort. Bulldozers were opening snow-choked roads while hundreds of men hacked away at the enormous drifts. Planes flew overhead looking for life, but searchers feared that the members of the Prettyman party were lost and possibly dead.Knowing a rescue effort was under way, they 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 Smith cabin in an airplane he had hired for the search and saw the message. Thirty-six hours later a large tractor-plow was chugging toward the Smith cabin. Prettyman, accompanied by two policemen and a doctor, followed the plow in a car. But sometimes, no lessons are learned from tragedy. The four men, gun-ho but poorly prepared, ran out of gas and became stranded on the road. The lead tractor pushed on, leaving the four behind in the frigid darkness of night. Without blankets, the would-be heroes were left to shiver helplessly and wait for the snowplows return. Their only food was a container of potato salad and sandwiches that were too frozen to eat. The tractor forged ahead another 20 miles before it ran low on fuel. Heading back to base camp, the tractor crew came upon Lee Prettyman and company 10 hours after their car had run out of gas. The four men were suffering from frostbite and needed medical attention.
As darkness neared and ominous clouds portended more snow, snowplows and trucks broke through to the Kelly Mine. The exhausted rescue crews decided to wait until daylight before attempting to evacuate the three women and Poe. Fortunately, the weather held, and the next day the convoy began the slow crawl home.The drama might have ended there, but fate demanded more from the battle-weary group. When the convoy reached Indian Springs, it was decided that the automobiles carrying the victims should go ahead unescorted. This decision proved overly optimistic, as the makeshift ambulances soon became mired in slush and snow. No further progress was made that day, and everyone was forced to spend another night in the desert.To Mrs. Prettyman and the others, it must have seemed that their punishment would never end. Finally, late the next day, a tractor arrived to drag the autos onto the cleared Tonopah-Las Vegas Highway. The four survivors were admitted Jan. 18 to a Las Vegas hospital, 22 days after their ordeal began.
The Prettymans were happily reunited, and doctors said everyone in the party should completely recover. In the end, all three women were fine, although James Poe lost parts of two toes. Fred Miller, the prospector who lost his 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, read a story in the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal on Jan. 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 in the newspaper recalling his grueling trek through the snow. Likely echoing the feelings of his companions, he concluded, Ive been through hell and I dont want to go back.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, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm,” “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2,” and “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org