Few Nevada winters have been as brutal as that of 1948-49, when towering snowdrifts and record cold waves shut down the state’s major highways and isolated many rural communities. Seventy years ago, the elements nearly decimated Nevada’s livestock industry as cattle and sheep became helplessly snowbound. Twentieth-century Nevadans had never seen anything like it.
Thousands of state, federal and military personnel participated in Operation Haylift, a massive relief effort using C-82 cargo airplanes known as Flying Boxcars to save more than 100,000 head of starving livestock throughout Nevada’s rangeland. Most of the ranchers in trouble were in eastern and southeastern Nevada, encompassing an area half as large as Ohio. The goal was to save an estimated 35,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep marooned in White Pine, Nye and Lincoln counties.
Ely rancher and spokesman for the United Stockmen’s Association of Eastern Nevada George Swallow led the effort to organize a relief effort. Nevada senator Pat McCarran offered immediate support. He called Swallow and asked, “What kind of help and equipment do you need?”
Swallow told him, “We need an airlift of C-82 cargo planes.”
Thirty minutes later, Swallow received another call from Washington, D.C. This time it was Air Force Lt. General Lauris Norstad. He asked about the plan of operations. Swallow had no plan but off the top of his head he outlined and detailed the logistics needed to accomplish the task. Later, Swallow said, “After I got off the phone, I bowed my head in prayer, saying, ‘I hope to God it works.’ ”
Officials decided that hundreds of tons of hay and feed would be loaded on the giant transport planes in Fallon and Minden and flown to operation headquarters in Ely. From there, the supplies would be trucked into the snowbound sections of the Silver State. News reporters from around the country descended on Ely and the town’s bars, restaurants, hotels and two houses of prostitution did a gangbuster business. On Jan. 24, 1949, six Flying Boxcars landed at the Ely airport, followed by 22 more planes over the next two days. Anxious ranchers scrambled to unload the planes.
In addition to the truck convoys, Air Force pilots from McClellan Airfield outside Sacramento flew over the Sierra to Minden to pick up the hay and then off to eastern Nevada to make their deliveries. The skies around Ely and Elko droned with low-cruising transport planes. During most runs, a local rancher familiar with the area to be “bombed” rode alongside the navigators. Up to three “pushers,” each secured by a harness, were stationed near an open door at the tail of the plane. The pilot guided his Flying Boxcar over the target at 200 feet and then slowed to 130 to 140 mph. When the navigator signaled “Drop,” the pushers shoved the bales out the door. The payload usually hit within 50 to 75 feet of the stranded livestock. Most of the bales burst upon impact and the cattle were often eating by the time the plane made a second pass.
The system worked well — except for a few mishaps. An air delivery in Spring Valley, north of Pioche, went awry when a bale crashed through the roof of a rancher’s wash house, demolishing a new electric clothes washer. His wife threatened divorce. Animals were accidental targets, too. A Flying Boxcar was assigned to help sheepherder Tony Perez, who was isolated with his flock east of Eureka on Pancake Flats. Perez had been fighting the snow for weeks and his sheep were starving. As the pilot descended over Perez’s flock, the pusher shoved several bales of hay overboard. The compact bales, each weighing 100 pounds, rocketed to the ground. Unfortunately, one of Perez’s burros happened to be standing directly under the lethal bomb of dried feed. His burro, which for several years had patiently packed equipment for the sheepherder, never knew what hit him and died instantly. Then the deadly bale bounced another 12 feet, mortally wounding Perez’s other burro. After witnessing two mules killed with one bale of hay, a stunned observer remarked, “That’s one for Ripley’s.”
Airport personnel, ranchers and ranch hands, as well as state transportation, Air Force and Army officials worked together as the rescue effort kicked into high gear. Other emergency activities were performed by members of the Nevada and California National Guard units and also by the Army’s ground-transportation support units. These truckers, many of whom were African American, fought icy roads and life-threatening weather conditions to haul hay throughout the region. As Operation Haylift’s effectiveness became evident, the Senate Interior Affairs Committee passed an emergency fund of $750,000 to help rescue snowbound livestock in Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana.
As February began, Nevadans hoping for a break in the crippling cold wave were doomed to disappointment. On Feb. 5 and 6, the biggest storm of the winter slammed the Sierra and spilled into the Silver State. The 57 inches of snow that smothered Donner Pass closed U.S. Highway 40 (now Interstate 80) for nearly a day. Reno received only 1 inch of snow, but 70-mph winds generated blizzard conditions. Virtually every road in northern Nevada was soon blocked by drifts. Haylift operations were suspended due to impossible flying conditions. In Ely, George Swallow told reporters, “The situation is desperate. Right now, we’re in the worst condition we’ve been in since the emergency began.”
Over the course of 25 days, the pilots and crewmen of the Flying Boxcars flew 270,000 miles and dropped 2,000 tons of baled hay in their effort to save Nevada’s livestock. Amazingly not one accident or injury occurred to any pilot, crew member or plane.
The epic winter of 1948-49 is still the coldest ever recorded in the Silver State and snowfall was almost double normal. The extreme cold wave even reached southern California where it snowed on Catalina Island and snowball fights broke out in Pasadena.
Ely ranchers estimated that 300,000 head of livestock, mostly sheep, had been fed from the sky. In late April, stockmen confirmed that 35 percent of the cattle and 25 percent of the sheep in eastern Nevada had succumbed to the deadly weather. Roughly 25,000 cattle were thought dead along with 7,000 sheep. The loss was substantial, but there was no doubt among Nevada ranchers that Operation Haylift had prevented economic disaster. The airlift was later immortalized in the movie Operation Haylift, released in 1950.