Operation Haylift Saved Nevada’s Cattle Industry, Part I

Freezing cattle. | Courtesy Churchill County Museum

It’s been 70 years since one of Nevada’s worst winters wreaked havoc across the high desert. Virtually no winter seasons have been as brutal as that of 1948-49, when drifting snow and record-breaking cold waves shut down the Silver States’ major highways for weeks, isolating many rural communities. The extreme conditions nearly decimated Nevada’s extensive livestock industry as cattle and sheep became helplessly snowbound on the range without food.

Weather conditions were so severe that a small group of desperate ranchers in hard-hit eastern Nevada devised an unusual plan to reach their starving livestock cut off from grazing by deep snow. Ranchers and state officials were inspired by the besieged citizens of West Berlin, who at the time were receiving emergency shipments of food and fuel airdropped by U.S. military planes in the Berlin Airlift. The Nevadans organized Operation Haylift, a massive relief effort using U.S. Air Force C-82 cargo airplanes, known as Flying Boxcars, to deliver alfalfa and save their starving animals.

Operation Haylift was collaboration on a grand scale, involving more than 1,000 men and women of the Armed Forces and National Guard, as well as civilians from Nevada and California who came to the rescue like a modern cavalry.

The drama began when a vigorous storm system roared into the Silver State right after Thanksgiving 1948. Nearly 1 foot of snow fell in some places with wind gusts in excess of 70 mph. More storms followed. The relentless snowfall forced residents in parts of the state to bore tunnels through 10-foot drifts. Deep snow thwarted grocery deliveries and gasoline was doled out on an emergency basis.

Loading a cargo plane. | Courtesy Churchill County Museum

Cattle country near Elko and Ely was soon smothered by 2 feet of snow. More than 40 inches of the white stuff buried the noted mining camp Jarbidge, located in the northeast corner of the state. Between storms, the snow cover and clear skies allowed daytime heat to radiate back into the atmosphere, causing nighttime temperatures to plummet. On Christmas Eve, the mercury slid to 8 degrees below zero in Elko and to 17 below in Ely. Las Vegas residents and visiting tourists were spared the worst of the snow but were shocked when the temperature nosedived to 17 degrees.

People stayed home and kept close to their stoves. They didn’t go to the movies or holiday parties. As temperatures slid into the single digits in western Nevada, pipes froze and broke in dozens of Carson City homes. In Reno, the deepening frost buckled city streets. When the bitter cold froze Virginia City’s water mains, several sections of town were cut off for weeks. Heavy snow fell in the Tahoe Sierra, which helped protect infrastructure from the frigid temps plaguing the Great Basin.

Despite the severe cold, some ranchers were optimistic. The previous winter had been one of the driest in Nevada history — Reno recorded less than 1 inch of precipitation in all of 1947-48 — and the growing Sierra snowpack held promise for abundant water in the spring. Elko County ranchers reported ample hay supplies, but in Nye County feed was reported poor and most watering holes around Eureka were frozen. Comparatively mild winters in the previous decade had led some to risk grazing their animals on the open range instead of rounding them up into home-ranch corrals for the winter. Centered around Ely and Pioche, these stock operators were caught with their cattle herds and sheep flocks in the hills and open range.

Aware of the extraordinary success of the ongoing Berlin Airlift, George Swallow, an Ely rancher and spokesman for the United Stockmen’s Association of eastern Nevada, told the Reno Evening Gazette: “Either stock will have to be shipped out, or feed is going to have to be shipped in — quick! The stock out here simply can’t last much longer under present conditions … there is no doubt that this winter is the worst since the so-called ‘White Ruin of 1889-90.’ ”

Back in 1890, similar conditions killed 70 percent of the state’s livestock herds when there were no planes to save the day.

Nevada Gov. Vail Pittman happened to be in Washington, D.C., for President Harry Truman’s inauguration. He alerted the newly elected Chief Executive and Congress of his state’s desperate situation. President Truman promptly declared the region a disaster area and authorized an emergency $50,000 grant. Almost overnight, county, state and federal agencies joined forces to force open Nevada highways so trucks could distribute feed and haul water to struggling ranchers. Cargo airplanes would be used to reach the marooned herds out on the range.

Despite the encouraging news from government agencies, ranchers were anxious as livestock continued to die. Lincoln County Sheriff Jack Fogliani reported finding 20 cattle near Pioche “huddled together in a small draw — all dead on their feet. We are losing some of our snow here but we still have 28 inches on the ground.”

In an interview with the United Press, Elko rancher Arthur Carter said, “Snow is so deep the cattle can’t move around any more, and I guess the sheep are really snowed under. I’ve been out with the cowboys every day for a week now trying to take feed to the cattle and to bring them in, but the wind blows so hard that the trails you open blow shut right behind you. Sheep just stand around in bunches and smother under the snow. They won’t do anything to save themselves, and you almost have to force them to eat when they’re like this. The cattle are a little smarter. They’ll eat the hay and the grain if they can get to it.”

General Mark W. Clark from the Navy airbase at Fallon took charge as coordinator of Operation Haylift. He secured 36 Flying Boxcars from McChord Field near Tacoma, Wash., and ordered a rapid commencement of the emergency airlift. The goal was to save an estimated 35,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep marooned in White Pine, Nye and Lincoln counties. Ranchers had tried to move the animals to neighboring states for grazing, but California was already overstocked with 60,000 head of transplanted cattle and heavy snowstorms in Arizona and New Mexico had covered grazing lands there. The scale of the potential disaster was massive, and it would require an unprecedented, Herculean effort to save nearly 140,000 animals and Nevada’s ranching industry.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.