Special Reports

Pasco man spends 45 days buried in the snow

In 1959 a Pasco resident was interviewed by the Tri-City Herald about his narrow escape from a snow-bound train in Alaska in 1914 as the Alaskan railroad was being built.

Published on Mar. 1, 1959

"Cut her off," a voice cried out in the storm. "Cut her off or we'll be derailed."

The voice belonged to one of 11 men aboard a small but sturdy snowplowing train whose job it was to free the 250 miles of railroad track of ice and snow deep in the frozen heart of Alaska.

The man at the throttle of that train today can joke about the 45 days he and 10 other men spent together buried under 11 feet of snow waiting for help.

He's Herb Beebe who spent 44 years piloting passenger and freight trains throughout Alaska.

The year was 1914, Beebe recalled. It was constantly snowing and winds - "Well, if you think its windy here in Pasco, you haven't seen anything yet." The mercury was holding at 45 degrees below zero.

Beebe described the sudden alarm of the crew when the rotary blade in front of the engine stopped deep in the solidly packed ice and snow. There was no turning back - snows had buried the track just as fast as the revolving blade and plow had cleaned it off.

Beebe was only 21-years-old at the time and has since had many experiences. But never before or since has he found anything that would top being isolated with 10 men for 45 days.

To provide heat, the crew kept one engine fired up. Water was had by melting the snow. There were enough provisions to last for awhile - but nobody was sure how long "awhile" would have to be.

What do 11 stranded men do to kill seemingly endless time? "It didn't take long to get tired of cards," the old-timer recalled. "Things grew so tight that anything anybody said would be snapped at and used as grounds for a fight.

"And there were plenty of fights. Thank goodness nobody was killed."

To break some of the monotony, the men would step outside the car and exercise briefly in a hollow melted in the snow by the engine's heat.

The crew figured it was 10 miles to the nearest station, Beebe said. But in the blizzard this might as well have been 10 million miles. Beebe said a man would even have had difficulty crawling through the snow let alone walking. Freezing to death faced any man fool enough to attempt it.

Afterwards the 11 men learned that an attempt was made to get provisions to them. A man and a dog team were dispatched. They were never heard of again, Beebe said.

The fear of staving to death while watching provisions shrink, forced the crew to do a little hunting. "Things were really getting bad when we got down to eating nothing but beans," he told. "And I can honestly say that I haven't eaten hardly a bean since."

Knowing that an Alaskan bird called the Ptarmigan is often found mangled near the tracks under telephone lines the crew took turns being tied to an end of rope and sent out into the storm to fetch them.

"They tasted awful," Beebe said, "but anything was better than beans."

ON the 45th day the whistle of an approaching train was heard - as it had been dozens of times before. But this time it wasn't imaginary ..it was for real.

The train was freed and backed to the main station. For the men a celebration was in store, Beebe reported - not only for being free men again but also for the fat pay check that each received.

The men were paid full time for every hour spent on the train during the entire 45 days. "But what a way to make money," Beebe declared.