Walter Cooper Walked Through the 1881 Fire

It had been a hot, dry summer. On August 19, 1881, Walter Cooper and friends Peter Koch and George Wakefield began the trek on horseback into Gallatin Canyon with dog Brownie. They planned to travel on to Yellowstone National Park to survey for a possible railroad. Koch, a civil engineer, wanted to determine if a railroad line could be built through the canyon. Wakefield was interested in making geological calculations. Gunsmith Cooper kept a diary of their travels.

The men were hoping to interest Northern Pacific officials in St. Paul in building a line through the canyon. That summer the company was laying track up the Yellowstone toward what would become Livingston, establishing stops along the way. The three men felt that a line through Gallatin Canyon was a potential bonanza and would bring tourists to the west entrance of the nine-year-old park. Cooper was familiar with the geography of the canyon and would eventually float logs downstream to Central Park from his lumber camp above Taylor Fork.

Along the way, the men looked for sign of game without much success. They did shoot at four mountain lynxes to no avail. Having spent a few days in the park, on Thursday, August 25, they were ready to return to Bozeman. The following day, as the men halted for a noon meal near Cascade Creek, they smelled smoke.

One of the men kept a journal:

August 26th: “Smoke and hazy ahead… Must be approaching forest fire, probably not in our path. Seems advisable to rest for night and push on early in the morning. Might be cut off if we go back.”

August 27th: “Up at 3:30. Quick breakfast. Get under way at 5:00… Smoke awful. Horses nervous. Birds with seared wings flying past us. No red glow anywhere but thick heavy smoke.” By evening it was different: “See red glow ahead and very nervous… Afraid to travel before daylight for fear we might get off our course and get lost in the increasing smoke.”

August 28th: “For fear of what may lay ahead am trying to keep up journal. Day breaks late. Ready to start by 5:30. No use earlier. Fire creeping toward us from every direction; all around us. Horses’ feet very sore. Travel through hot ashes… Water getting too deep to travel in stream.” Their dog Brownie now rode on top of one of the packs. “Her feet very raw. What this night will bring and tomorrow, we know not.”

August 29th: “Flames jump canyon from one side to the other. Spectacular sight but an inferno. See small game with seared fur and bewildered elk and deer race by. We hardly halt for food. Hot ashes falling everywhere. Noise of fire deafening…” By late afternoon, the men and Brownie reached a burned-over section where the heat was not as intense. They coughed constantly and the horses were “short-winded and exhausted… Timber practically burned out. Nauseating sight... One mountain completely bare of timber. We are naming it Baldy. Some places the largest trees still standing. One wonders how they escaped. Seems a miracle.”

By dusk, the weary men reached Hell Roaring Creek and pushed on to Spanish Creek before nightfall. They slept well for a change and came out of the canyon slowly because their horses’ feet were too sore to travel with any speed.

Back in the Gallatin Valley, heavy acrid smoke poured out from the mouth of the canyon, leaving no doubt that a fire was rampant in the canyon. When the three men returned from their adventure, they soon learned that the Northern Pacific was looking elsewhere for a route to carry tourists to the park.