Originally published in Points West magazine in Fall/Winter 2016
Horsepower Saves the Day—Rescuing Barbara Nichols
Paul D. Hoffman
What? Three horses towing a plane? Now that’s horsepower!
These images of this backcountry rescue never fail to capture the notice of historic photo enthusiasts. As they pore over the digital collection of the Center’s McCracken Research Library, online visitors no doubt have numerous questions about the photos. For the first time in Points West, here’s the rest of the story from Paul Hoffman, one whose own family history has been part and parcel of the story for decades…
Every year, highly skilled personnel of the Jenny Lake Ranger District in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park rescue dozens of hikers and climbers by helicopter from the Grand Teton Range. But, there is a little-known story that may document the first ever, high-altitude rescue using aircraft in the Thorofare area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, just outside Yellowstone National Park’s southeast corner. In 1938, 12-year-old Barbara Nichols—my mother—was airlifted from a steep and rocky meadow at an elevation of some 9,500 feet. The rescue took place about three miles below Deer Creek Pass, at the confluence of Borner Fork and Butte Creek, in the heart of one of the Lower 48’s largest, roadless wilderness areas. I am forever grateful to the pilot of that Ryan single-engine plane, Bill Monday, whose bravery and skill saved my mother’s life that cool, fall day.
For the record, the story of this daring aircraft rescue is well documented—mostly in J.C. “Kid” Nichols’s own words on pages 143 and 144 of The Candy Kid, a biography written in 1969 by his daughter Lucille Nichols Patrick, Barbara’s sister. In retelling the story, I borrow heavily from my Aunt Lucille’s account. I’ve also added or changed details that my mother shared; that I gleaned from many days spent shoeing horses with Buffalo Bill’s grandson, Freddie Garlow; and that I gained from my knowledge of the area acquired as a wilderness guide in the Thorofare in the 1970s and 1980s.
It all began about two weeks before the fateful event when Barbara was playing in the barn at the Diamond Bar Ranch. One of the ranch hands asked her to throw a pitchfork up to him in the hayloft, but her effort fell short. The pitchfork returned to earth, but not before puncturing Barbara’s forearm. With little-to-no bleeding, and remembering her mother’s admonition not to play in the barn, the injury went unreported.
Author’s aside: The Candy Kid account insists that Barbara had tossed the pitchfork to Lucille, but Barbara always maintained it was the ranch hand who was in the loft. Further, the 1969 story states that Barbara did report the injury to her mother, referred to as Big Lucille, and that the 12-year-old did receive a tetanus shot in town. But this is not consistent with Barbara’s recollection, nor is it likely she would have been infected with tetanus if she had indeed received a tetanus shot. The lack of bleeding from the wound would account for Barbara’s believable story that she didn’t report the injury, and a non-bleeding wound has a higher chance of infection, tetanus or otherwise.
In September 1938, Barbara and her sister, Lucille, who was two years her elder, rode horses up into the Thorofare region with their father, Kid Nichols. The excursion was a long-planned elk-hunting trip with outfitter and guide Walt Ford. Also on the trip was Ed Grigware, a famous Cody artist who had recently moved from Chicago to Cody at the behest of Kid Nichols; Freddie Garlow (Buffalo Bill’s grandson), who was working at the Diamond Bar Ranch at the time; Wayne Schwoob, guide; and Vida, Walt’s wife and the camp cook. The hunting camp was located in what is now known as Walt Ford Meadow, about six miles down Butte Creek below Deer Creek Pass, between Woody Ridge and the westernmost abutment of the Thorofare Buttes.
One afternoon while hunting with her father, Barbara became ill. Her lips were swollen and numb. The Kid took his daughter off the mountain and back to camp where her state worsened significantly. As the evening wore on, her body stiffened, and she had cramps.
About 10 p.m., the Kid feared that Barbara had lockjaw. He went to young Freddie Garlow’s tent and asked him to ride out to get the doctor. Freddie quickly saddled his black, part-Morgan horse and headed out in the dark at a high lope. He arrived at Valley Ranch, about eighteen miles away, some four hours later and called Doc Dacken in Cody, who reached Valley Ranch that night. Wasting no time, Freddie loaded the doc on an available horse and led him up and over Deer Creek Pass to Walt Ford Meadow.
It quickly became evident to Doc Dacken that Barbara was in dire straits, and that she should be transported to town immediately. Those present had a conversation about contacting Cody pilot Bill Monday who had a Ryan single-engine airplane that he, along with Freddie Garlow, had flown into the mountains on several occasions. The group quickly decided that a landing was possible on a steep meadow about three miles up Butte Creek at its confluence with Borner Fork, named for Nettie Borner who owned the hunting camp there. They summoned Freddie once again from his sleeping bag, where he’d tried to retrieve some much-needed shut-eye, and dispatched him to town. This time, his mission was to get pilot Bill Monday, and guide him and his plane to what would later become Airplane Meadow.
Bill Monday to the rescue
While Freddie went to get Bill Monday, the Kid and Walt Ford built a makeshift stretcher, and the whole crew began hauling Barbara up the creek to Borner’s Camp, presently occupied by one Colonel Greene. Arriving at the landing site, the rescuers made a hasty attempt to mark out a landing strip that was devoid of holes, brush, and large rocks. A skiff of snow in the meadow complicated the process, so the crew resorted to kerosene smudge pots to mark the biggest holes the pilot should avoid.
About then, Bill Monday circled the meadow several times to scout out the landing site. Next, he flew up the valley, setting the Ryan down at the lower end of the meadow. After a rough landing, the steep terrain halted the plane’s progress well below the top of the meadow. Four hands on horseback immediately met the plane, including Barbara’s sister, Lucille, on their father’s big white horse. Using four lash ropes tied to the wing struts, riders pulled the plane to the top of the meadow. The campers brought Barbara quickly from Borner’s Camp and loaded her on the plane, along with Doc Dacken, who still had not quite recovered from his horseback ride into the Thorofare. For the takeoff, the Ryan aircraft was tied to a tree at the top of the meadow.
Author’s note: In Candy Kid, the story is that lash ropes were tied to the wing struts, and the plane was held back by horses. However, Freddie Garlow told me that the tail wheel was tied to a tree. They placed a log under the rope near the tail wheel, allowing the rope to be cut quickly with one blow of an ax. It makes more sense to have cut the rope near the tail wheel, rather than to have let two lash ropes go and have them trailing behind from the wing struts.
Freddie Garlow stationed himself at a pre-determined point down the meadow, holding a pole with a red flag on top. An experienced bush pilot, Monday reckoned that if the plane was not off the ground before the red flag disappeared from his view from the cockpit, he might not clear the trees on the far side of the creek where Borner’s wall tent was set up.
After Monday fully revved the plane’s engine, the crew cut the tail rope, sending the plane bouncing down the meadow. About fifty feet past the “point of no return,” the aircraft lifted off and barely cleared the trees. What may be the first-ever, high-altitude aircraft rescue had been successful—as much through bravery and sheer determination as anything else.
All’s well that ends well
The Kid and Lucille immediately headed over Deer Creek Pass and down to Valley Ranch where they borrowed a car to go to town. They encountered a washed out bridge at Corral Creek, near the TE Ranch, and forded the creek on foot with the aid of ropes that locals had provided. By that time, the tale of the daring rescue was already making its rounds in the community, and several locals were waiting on the other side of the wash out to take the Kid and Lucille to Cody. The Kid was relieved when he got to town and found Barbara resting well with her mother, Big Lucille, at the newly built Irma Hotel Annex. Years later, many would speculate that Barbara had in fact suffered from tetanus, and that her life was indeed on the line that fall in the Thorofare.
Kid Nichols sent an emotional letter of thanks to the Cody Enterprise, wherein he wrote, “I have tried to repay everybody that helped me; but I doubt that money can repay such service.” It was always rumored that some years later Kid Nichols bought Bill Monday a Ford Tri-motor airplane, but like all of my grandfather’s fabled acts of generosity, the left hand never knew what the right hand did.
Paul D. Hoffman served as Executive Director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce for twelve years before becoming a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC. He now resides in Prospect, Virginia, where he is the publicist for Hope Springs Media.