The Prettyman Party January, 1937
January 15, 2007
The recent cold wave chilled skiers and boarders at local resorts and threatened parts of the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley with some of the lowest temperatures since December 1998. But the moderately chilly air mass never even got close to Californias all-time low of 45 degrees below zero, set 70 years ago at Boca on Jan. 20, 1937. The Boca measurement wasnt the only extreme record set that month. Ten days earlier, the first wave of the Arctic-bred onslaught had bulldozed into Nevada with bone-chilling cold, setting the Silver States all-time low of 50 below at San Jacinto, located near the Idaho border. January 1937 still ranks as the coldest month of record for both states.
The cold weather that January made headlines throughout Nevada. Overnight temperatures in eastern Nevada were running in the minus 30s and minus 40s, but in the western valleys, conditions were only slightly better. Downtown Reno plunged to minus 16 on Jan. 8, just three degrees shy of the citys all-time record low of minus 19 set Jan. 8, 1890; while Carson City residents shivered at 27 below on Jan. 21. Far to the south in Las Vegas, gamblers were chilled to the bone when the thermometer dropped to 10 degrees above zero on Jan. 22.Winter weather may seem rough here in the Sierra, but when Arctic air invades the Far West, Nevada usually takes the brunt of it. These so-called inside sliders or back-door systems overrun the region from the frigid, snow-covered Canadian provinces, as opposed to streaming in from the temperate Pacific Ocean. Its during these unforgiving winter weather patterns that the wild beauty of the Silver State can become especially forbidding and dangerous. Desert blizzards often strike suddenly and with lethal force. Gale-driven snow can cause impossible traveling conditions, and the lack of visibility may disorient the most experienced snow travelers. Even well prepared motorists are at risk in this stark and primeval landscape, where drifting snow can cut off roads with little warning. In the 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.Supplies were running low at the mine, so Mr. Prettyman decided to leave his wife and friends to go for food in Las Vegas, 110 miles south. A storm approached as Prettyman drove off in a truck, but he made it to Las Vegas just ahead of the bad weather. The people he left behind werent so lucky, however. The wind howled, and snow fell for seven days straight. Soon their camp near Yucca Pass was buried under drifts 10 feet deep. Despite intense efforts by Nevada highway crews, all roads into the district were lost to the storms assault. The five members of the Prettyman party were now trapped and running out of food. Temperatures near 30 below zero fueled fears that the stranded party would not survive. Civilian Conservation Corps workers began searching for the five, who were presumed lost. As soon as weather permitted, Lee Prettyman hired an airplane and flew within 200 feet of the cabins at the mountainous mining site. There was no sign of life, and then Prettyman noticed that his automobile was missing. He and the pilot figured the group had attempted a desperate escape during the storm. Prettyman dropped 50 pounds of food into the camp and returned home to alert the authorities. Within 48 hours nearly 200 CCC youths equipped with shovels, trucks, and tractors joined in the battle to open the roads. An anxious Lee Prettyman was back in the air the next day. This time he ordered the pilot to head south, where they saw Prettymans half-buried Packard sedan surrounded by shovels. But again, no one was in sight, and several sets of footsteps led off into the frozen and forbidding landscape. Prettyman feared the worst as he contemplated the fate of his wife and his other snowbound friends.
His concerns were justified. Things were not going well for his companions. On Dec. 27, they had panicked and attempted to break out and drive to Las Vegas, but drifts from the Christmas storm covered the roads, and another storm was brewing darkly over the mountains. The five had piled themselves, two cats, and a dog into Prettymans sedan, fired up the big engine, and made their escape down the snow-covered road. It wasnt long before the car bogged down in the deepening drifts. After hours of shoveling they managed to dig themselves out but soon stalled again about three miles from Groom Lake and ran out of gasoline. Despite constant shoveling by James Poe and Fred Miller, the relentless wind buried the car with snow blown from the dry lake bed. They huddled under blankets in the car for three days before deciding it was suicide to remain there without heat and food. On Dec. 30, Fred Miller, the unmarried member of the party, volunteered to brave the elements and hike to another mine for help. Bill and Alice Smith had a year-round cabin at the Kelly mine, about 20 miles south, and were well known for helping others in distress. It was a mission of life or death. Only hours after Miller set out, the storm exploded in its fury. All night long the wind shrieked and pelted the car with ice. As the snow deepened around them, the four companions feared that Miller would not survive his desperate trek. Two days passed, and despite their prayers, Miller failed to return. By previous agreement, James Poe was next to go. Provisioned with only one can of corned beef, Poe solemnly left the safety of the sedan and pressed out into the cold. He could not fail. The lives of three women, one of them his wife and one his sister, depended upon his success.In his heroic effort to get help, James Poe battled temperatures of minus 10 degrees. The wind chill was 30 below, and the snow three feet deep. After walking for 11 hours, he came upon the frozen body of Fred Miller. The sight of his friend face-down in a snowbank only intensified Poes determination to push on. He set Joshua trees on fire to keep warm and signal distress, but no one came. Every hour or so he ate a fingerful of corned beef to maintain his strength. At one point Poe stopped between two rocks to rest but knew that if he lay down to sleep, he would never get up again. So Poe sat there, slowly smoking a cigarette, waiting for his strength to return. He couldnt sit long. The cold reminded him of the desperate nature of his mission, and it wasnt long before he resumed walking. Stay tuned for the conclusion next time.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