Cold Missouri Waters

In the summer of 1995, I bought a copy of James Keelaghan’s album “A Recent Future” at the bookstore at Lake Louise junction, and I was immediately caught by the ballad “Cold Missouri Waters.” Keelaghan had won the Juno for Roots and Traditional Album for his previous album “My Skies” in 1994 and was not nominated again in 1995 but the song is one of his best and has earned critical, artistic and popular support.
Keelaghan has since won the USA Songwriting Competition in 2002, in the Folk category for this song. It was covered by Richard Shindell, Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky on their joint album “Cry, Cry, Cry”. The song has also taken on an interesting life of its own. Keelaghan met relatives of the dead firefighters, and his song has a following among firefighters and park rangers. He rewrote a line in the song (originally he sang “North Montana” and corrected it “West Montana” in deference to how the people of the area see their land. Keelaghan recorded the slightly revised version of the song on his 2004 retrospective album “Then Again.”
In 1995 and 1996 I was posting regularly to a mailing list devoted to Canadian folk music with a special emphasis on the songs of life of Stan Rogers. In the fall of 1996 I followed up Keelaghan’s liner notes by reading Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” and I published a set of posts summarizing the book and relating it to the song. I have brought those posts together and edited them into one piece:



The song and the book are about the Mann Gulch fire, August 5, 1949, in the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness, in west Montana, along the upper reaches of the Missouri River. The Forest Service dropped 15 Smokejumpers under the command of Wag Dodge to contain the fire. They landed on the north side of the gulch, opposite the fire but were caught when the fire suddenly exploded into a racing wall of fire that crossed the gulch. Dodge set an escape fire and threw himself into the ashes of his own fire. The fire, deprived of fuel, passed around him. 13 of the 15 men who tried to outrun the fire died. The Forest Service later erected concrete crosses to mark the place where each man fell.
The families of some of the dead men sued the Forest Service and they blamed Dodge for their sons’s deaths. They said his escape fire had caught and burned the other men. The lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The families never accepted the findings of a Forest Service Board of Inquiry. Dodge died of cancer in 1954 and the story of the fire was left untold until Norman Maclean decided to tell it.
Norman Maclean was born in Missoula Montana in 1902. He was the son of a minister. Norman had a formal education, and he loved the outdoors. Norman moved to Chicago and became a professor of English literature. He married a woman from Missoula, Jessie, who predeceased him. She died of throat cancer. In her youth, she had named a mountain after herself and upon her death, her ashes were scattered there. Maclean returned to Montana regularly to camp, fish and hunt and had a cabin at Seely Lake. Maclean’s biography has become well known through Robert Redford’s movie of Maclean’s story of his family “A River Runs Through It”. Norman was the darker haired older brother.
He saw the site of the Mann Gulch fire on a visit to Montana, a few weeks after the fire, in August 1949. Years later, he became fascinated by the story, and he visited the site of the fire each summer for several years, in the late 1970’s. He combed the archives of the Forest Service. He checked the records of the Forest Services’ Board of Inquiry. He checked the records of the lawsuits brought by the families of the dead men. He located and interviewed the survivors, and visited the scene of the fire with them. He visited the Forest Services’ fire labs and learned about the behaviour of timber and grass fires on slopes. He wrote the greater part of the book, but he left it unfinished. It was finished and published posthumously by the University of Chicago Press.
The material he left behind is a work in progress, with Maclean trying to understand and describe the meaning he found in the facts. As it is, we have the story repeated in different contexts as Maclean writes about the different parts of his personal inquisition. His overall perspective is stated in a memorable passage that this is the story of men “still so young they hadn’t learned to count the odds and sense they might owe the universe a tragedy”.
The book has three main parts. First, Maclean tells the story of the smokejumpers and the fire, and the aftermath. He describes a controversy over Dodge’s escape fire. He comments on the limited training of the smokejumpers, and the systemic flaws that led to the men being placed at risk, and then their not obeying or responding to Dodge when he offered the only plan that would save them.
When Maclean starts to narrate the story of the jump, he begins to refer to various waypoints as the stations of the cross. The delay at the drop site, gathering the gear, is an early station of the cross, and there are several later stations – the point they turned around, the point they dropped tools, the point at which the men cursed Dodge setting his escape fire. The stations of the cross are a devotion in the Catholic denominations and perhaps some other Christian denominations. They are a reenactment of Christ’s march to his crucifixion, death and burial.
The second part of the book records how Norman Maclean, in 1977, at the age of 73, investigated a fire that had occurred nearly thirty years previously. It records his 3 trips to the gulch from 1977 to 1979, including his trip in 1978 with the two surviving jumpers. On that trip the two men instantly realized that the cross for William Hellman, who had crossed the ridge, but died overnight of his burns, was in the wrong place. They pointed out the right place, and found the can of potatoes they had punctured to get moisture for the dying man.
In his account of the 1978 trip, he explains how they began to search the slope from the site of the crosses because: “You would have picked the place of the crosses yourself; nearly anyone would, so ancient and binding are the connections between drama, religion, and the top of a hill. The Christian scene of suffering, where hill meets sky ….” Those stations of the cross again.
He also mentions another, personal incident on this trip. He was ill with a heart condition and his companions tried to talk him out of the trip – perhaps out of the memory of Gisborne’s fatal visit. Maclean’s reply: “Look, there is a mountain downriver no farther than twelve miles from here by air that also looks over the Missouri. It was named by my wife when she was still a girl, and she named it Mount Jessie after herself, although she lived an otherwise modest life. At her request her ashes are there now. Nobody should feel bad if I should remain behind on one of these hills that looks her way.”
His objective in this part of the book was to try to explain, in the light of more modern fire science, how the blowup happened, and how the men came to die. His task was difficult because the records of what happened were troubled by inconsistencies and contradictions. He spent years trying to get the locations of various events accurately recorded before he could look at causes. After three trips to the site, and reviewing many documents, he was ready for the scientists at the Forest Service Fire labs. He learned about burn rates in timber and grass and on slopes. He worked with a scientist and they worked out the speed the fire was travelling up Mann Gulch.
Mann Gulch is a dry gulch on the east side of the Missouri River, in the Gates of the Mountains National Wilderness. It is about two and a half miles long. The fire, and the story all took place in the first mile east of the Missouri. At that point the Missouri is a mountain river, running cold and clear from the rockies. It runs generally from southwest to northeast – it later turn east and runs to the Mississippi. Mann was one of series of gulches formed by the forces of erosion. It is V shaped, both horizontally and vertically. It is one of a series of gulches, separated by ridges. The ridges are topped by cap rock, which has kept the tops of the ridges from eroding away. The gulches are lower places, eroded by ice, water and wind.
The gulch to the south of Mann Gulch is called Meriwether Gulch, and the one to the the north is called Rescue Gulch. The elevation of the Missouri at that point is about 3560 feet. The elevation of the tops of the ridges is about 4800 feet. The elevation of the ridge just abouve where the fire caught the doomed crew was about 4700 feet.
The prevailing winds ran down the Missouri, from southwest to northeast. The river turns a bit at the foot of the ridge to the south of Mann Gulch, and it runs to the northwest for a bit. The ridge splits the wind. Part of it flows into Meriwether Gulch, and over the top of the ridge, and down the south side of Mann Gulch. Part of it swirls around the ridge and up the bottom of Mann Gulch, almost at right angles to the wind coming over the ridge.
The south side of Mann Gulch was covered with trees. The upper parts of the north slope were exposed and grassy. The weather was hot; there had been a long dry spell. The official temperatures were at a record 97 F and temperatures on the exposed north slope of Mann Gulch may have been as high as 130 F – without the fire.
The fire was started by lightning on the ridge to the south of Mann Gulch, at the west end of the ridge, above the Missouri. It was likely started sometime overnight between August 4 and 5, 1949. It was first noticed around noon on August 5 by local rangers or firewatchers. The fire would have smoldered in the trees, before dropping to the ground and growing.
Wag Dodge was the foreman of a crew of 15 (including himself) Smokejumpers. Dodge had not worked or trained with this crew. He was skilled with his hands and during the training season, he had been assigned to repair and maintain gear, instead of training with the men. The Smokejumpers were a relatively new branch of the Forest Service. They had been formed in the late 1930’s. Their objective was to parachute onto fires while they were small, and put them out. Typically, they jumped in small teams on small fires. They were also a summer service – made up of University students or local men. They were not necessarily big men – they tended to be small, wiry men. Parachute jumping is not kind to heavy men.
Maclean devotes a chapter or two to the subject of jumping – the parachute, the static line, the tap on the left calf from the spotter that sends the jumper out of the plane. He also highlights some flaws in the training and thinking of the Smokejumpers. They were not experienced with big fires and didn’t understand the dangers. The men worked in a rotation and the same men seldom worked with the same foremen or the same crew. The men did not know one another, or their leaders. They tended to work in small units, and they were arrogant and independent.
The crew jumped and landed between 3:10 and 4:10 PM. They landed on the north side of the gulch, about a mile east of the fire. The C-47 made 4 or 5 passes, dropping the men in small groups of 3 or 4 on each run, and then dropping cargo. The winds were fierce, buffeting the plane and scattering the jumpers. It took nearly an hour to gather the men and gear.
When the men landed, the fire was on the south side of Mann Gulch, burning on the ridge, above 4400 feet. It was about a half mile wide. It seemd to have been growing along the top of the ridge, upgulch, from west to east, although it was also moving downhill, to the north. By the time the crew had gathered, the fire had grown. The gulch was filled with smoke, and the exact location of the front of the fire was difficult to determine. The radio was smashed in the jump, and they had no communication with the spotter in the plane.
Dodge and his men started to move west, to the river, along the north side of the Gulch. They started at an elevation of about 4250 feet, and maintained that elevation (sidehilled) for about a half mile as they approached the river. Dodge had decided that it was not safe to attack the fire from the front. He wanted to get below and behind it, attacking it from the west – with the river behind him for a retreat. His thinking was sound, except that it was nearly two hours after they had jumped and the fire was now growing rapidly. The Smokejumpers met one other ranger who had been fighting the fire, and he joined them.
A couple of chapters near the end of the book imagine the last 10 minutes of the mission as a deadly race with fire.
At 5:45 PM Dodge ordered them to stop and turn around. At first they tried to climb gently, at an angle, upgulch to east, and slightly to the north. At 5:53 after they had made about 250 feet of elevation and about 300 yards (they had climbed to about about 4480 feet) Dodge ordered them to drop tools and get to safety. They continued to angle uphill, upgulch. They were moving away from the fire, which was now coming straight up the gulch. The fire had blown up, fed by the winds. It had turned into a solid wall of fire. First it blew down the south slope of the gulch, and then it blew upgulch, swirling and roaring and gaining speed. Another ranger, Jannsen, had come in from a station at Meriwether. He tried to go up the bottom of the Gulch, but he turned back at 5:30 PM. The fire was on both sides of the Gulch. He was lucky. He was near the point the fire blew up, and he survived to tell the tale.
The smashed watches of some of the men pinpoint the time the men were caught by the rushing fire at around 5:55 to 6:00 PM. Maclean, working with modern fire researchers tried to reconstruct the progress of the fire on a time line and suggests some times for some key events. The fire reached the point where they had turned around at about 5:49. It reached the point where they dropped tools at 5:54. It caught the slowest men at 5:56 and the swiftest at 5:57. They had travelled between 800 and 1100 yards from where they turned around.
Dodge survived by setting an escape fire. Maclean suggests he set it at about 5:55. The escape fire was unknown to the Forest Service, although it had been known to the First Nations of the Great Plains. It came to Dodge, who was gifted with his hands, almost instinctively in a crisis. An escape fire is a fire set to run in the same direction as the main fire. The idea is to let it burn, and then run into its ashes. The main fire, deprived of fuel will not burn there.
The other men did not understand, and they did not trust Dodge. One of them – it was reported to be Hellman – said “to hell with this”, and they ran on. Two jumpers, Sallee and Rumsey, went straight for the ridge, across the advancing fire. They made it, barely. There were many opening in the rock, but the main fire was ahead of them, burning in the larger openings, which were as grassy as the main slope. They found refuge in a narrow crevice. The others continued upgulch and uphill, racing the fire. William Hellman crossed the ridge, but he had been badly burned and died overnight. 12 jumpers and the other man who had joined them died. The blast of the fire blew watches, keys and other articles several feet uphill.
There was a controversy about the escape fire. Some suggested the escape fire had caught and killed the fleeing men. Maclean and the survivors rebut this. The escape fire was not burning like the main fire. It burned uphill, rather than upgulch. The survivors easily ran around it. It was the racing main fire that caught the others. After the fire blew up, around 5:30, it began to gain speed. By the time it caught the men, it was likely travelling at 100 yards per minute. It sounds slow compared to a competitive sprinter – but the men were running workboots in waist high grass on a 45 degree slope, in terrible heat, choked by smoke and tired after earlier exertions. Maclean carefully assesses the suggestion that Wag Dodge’s escape fire caught the dead men, or raced ahead of them and prevented them from gaining the safety of the ridge, and he absolves Dodge.
James Keelaghan’s song is faithful to Maclean’s interpretation of the facts. James adds a narrative device of his own: the death bed interview of the foreman, Wag Dodge, who survived the fire and died of cancer a few years later. Maclean never interviewed Dodge, and he reports one inconclusive discussion with Dodge’s widow.
The second, third and fourth verses of the song are an accurate narrative – but I would add that almost each line quotes or invokes some part of Maclean’s more lengthy prose description of the story. I don’t think Keelaghan was copying; he was compressing and retelling a historical tale, as it had been told to him by Maclean.
“Feel the tap upon your leg that tells you go” – Maclean spent a couple of chapters on the history of the smokejumpers, the dangers of jumping and the traditions of jumping. “Gauged the fire, I’d seen bigger” Deadly. Dodge had seen a couple that size, but not many. He was up against something bigger and more dangerous than he and his boys knew. “So I ordered them to sidehill”. This was Dodge’s plan. He was being cautious and cocky. He did not realize how the fire was growing or foresee its explosion in the next quarter hour. “But the fire crowned, jumped the valley just ahead” Indeed it did. “…. We’d have to fight that slope instead” A forty five degree slope of slippery dried grass, rocks and snags. And fire picks up speed climbing any slope – but especially in dried grass.
“Sky had turned red, smoke was boiling”. His description is literally and figuratively accurate. “Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yard behind”. In the last chapter, Maclean begins with his notes of a meeting with a fire researcher, and proceeds to visualize the fatal dash upslope. “I don’t know why, I just thought it, I lit a match to waisthigh grass …” Dodge’s action in lighting the escape fire was unthought, intuitive, correct. “Tried to tell them …” He did. “But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead …” They did.
Keelaghan added to Maclean’s story by one inspired move. He shifts the perspective from Maclean’s to that of Wag Dodge. He tells the story as Dodge, dying of cancer in 1954, five years after the fire might have told it. Maclean never met Dodge. He never visualizes or imagines such an interview.
Keelaghan makes it all personal. Dodge must have died guilty. He was accused, wrongly, of setting the fire that killed his own men. But he also carried the taint of failure. It was the only time (before Maclean wrote) that Smokejumpers were caught in a fire. A few others died in jumping accidents, but no others died by fire. He carried guilt for multiple errors that led to disaster, and he bore the guilt of surviving.
Ironically, he had rediscovered the escape fire – a tactic that has saved many lives, and his errors informed and taught a generation of successful firefighters. His errors were modest, and only the blinding light of hindsight makes him the goat. As Maclean implies, the errors were not his. They were inherent in the culture and mandate of the jumpers and the Forest Service. He did his best, but the odds were counted against his young men that day.
The historical record does not show that Dodge was interviewed again on his death bed, but I am not surprized that Keelaghan pictures him in confessional conversation with someone – call him death, call him God, call him a friend.
Maclean’s editors found a note among his papers, and they could not work it into the story, so they used it as a preface. He said: “As I get considerably beyond the biblical allotment of three score years and ten, I feel with increasing intensity that I can express my gratitude for still being around on the oxygen-side of the earth’s crust only by not standing pat on what I have hitherto known and loved. While the oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if compassion is a form of love.”
In the final section and chapter of the book Maclean returns to his image of the stations of the cross. He looks at the monster the fire has become. He says that he is guided by the understanding we have gained from ourselves and those close to us. He mentions talking to a doctor about death by suffocation by lack of oxygen in a fire. He mentions something his wife said in her final illness – cancer of the esophagus – that she felt she had her head underwater.
At the end of “Young Men and Fire,” in a few brilliant pages, Maclean accompanies the dead men. He suggests their response to sudden death would be, first, the prayer: Good Lord deliver us. He quotes something one of the two survivors had said he had thought as he ran through the smoke: “My god how could you do this to us.” A few lines later, he returns to this thought: “My god why hast thou foresaken me?” He then turns to the ground, and the men on the ground. He accompanies them on their final steps in a journey of compassion.
Norman Maclean’s concluding words: “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.” In the end, he solved the puzzles of the fire convincingly, but his accomplishment is greater. He transformed the story into a universal metaphor of life and death in an unpredictable universe. His own investigation was meticulous and compassionate.
Keelaghan added something by imagining Dodge’s guilt as a survivor and his parting words “I’ll join them now, they left me long ago … ” What makes James Keelaghan’s contribution to the story of Mann Gulch precious and unique is how he make brings a sense of compassion for Wag Dodge, the guilty survivor.

4 thoughts on “Cold Missouri Waters”

  1. This is such an awesome story. I will have to look for the book. I have never heard of James Keelaghan, but after reading this post I thought I would like to check him out. I have ordered 2 CD’s: A Recent Future and Road.
    I was able to hear one of his songs on his website, “Sing My Heart Home”, so I am pretty sure I will be happy with the CD’s. I’m looking forward to hearing the song Cold Missouri Waters even more now that I know the background information.

  2. Yesterday I was happy to find in my mailbox the 2 James Keelaghan CD’s and the book Young Men and Fire. First I listened to the disc titled “Road”. While it is not the one featuring Cold Missouri Waters, I liked it alot. When I put on the CD “A Recent Future” I went right to Cold Missouri Waters…
    Before I can finish that I have to interrupt myself. I opened the book Young Men and Fire, to the last page of photos. It shows a plaque with the names of the men who died. The first name Robert J Bennett is from Paris, Tennessee. I sit here typing this post from Paris, Tennessee, so this makes the story even more interesting to me.
    All I can say is that I love the music, I’m looking forward to reading the book. Thanks so much Tony for writing about this topic.
    Lisa

  3. James Keelaghan’s song brought me to tears. I sat on that god-forsaken hill in 2003 looking across that slope looking at the markers where 13 of my brothers fell one hot day in 1949. Sitting there wondering if I would have made the safe decisions, wondering if I would have been a cross on the ground or be the one with a cross to bear.
    When you are sitting there you can almost hear the voices of the young men running up that slippery slope. You can feel your legs burning as theirs had done as they dug their way up that slope with what I am sure was the thoughts of the ones they knew they would be leaving behind. Sucking that the dry hot air trying to find a way to get more. Clawing at the gravel, feeling that wall of death gaining faster and faster…………
    To lose so many so young, to believe that you had lead those boys to their deaths. I am not sure if I would have been as strong as Dodge I am not sure many could be. I sat there for hours looking down as the sun cast long shadows from the few snags left standing on that now grass covered slope.
    I want to thank James for capturing our stories and our passions, the wild land firefighting community is tight and any loss comes with much grief.

  4. Amanda Huber

    I know the song through the Cry Cry Cry cover, and indeed have shared it with many friends, some of whom have become equally absorbed by its story. Thank you for this great, well-written background on it! I’ll have to check out the original song and Young Men and Fire now too.

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