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The winter of 1889-90 is still a painfully cold memory in the heart and soul of the Nevada ranching industry.
Photo: Illustrations by Tony deRonnebeck
If the Hollywood westerns and pulp fictions are to be believed, the old-time cattle ranchers’ biggest headache was rustlers. While cow thieves were an ever-present problem and called forth such extreme measures as group lynchings and the employment of professional man-hunters, a much more primal challenge faced the stock-growers of the late 19th-century West: extreme weather.
It was a force that could be neither predicted nor prevented, and its effect on the cattle and sheep industry rendered the damage inflicted by rustlers and other predators a mere nuisance. And when the winters of the 1880s had finished with the Western states and territories, including Nevada, the stock industry had been forever changed.
It hit first across the Great Plains and up into the Wyoming and Montana territories. After severe drought conditions in the summers of 1884 and 1885 dried up the creeks and burned off the grass, the ranchers were clobbered by the winter of 1886-87. It saw the ruin of such an astounding number of ranching outfits that it has been known ever since as the “Big Die-Up.” The dream of endless grass and water and trouble-free, fat-profit stock growing that had inspired these entrepreneurs in the 1870s was dead, and the cattle business was fundamentally altered.Nevada’s Own Big Die-Up
For reasons largely relating to a difference in weather systems, Nevada’s cattle and sheep ranchers were spared the effects of the Big Die-Up—for the moment. But after three years of drought, a devastating winter hit the state’s northern ranges beginning on December 5, 1889, rivaling the one that had so ravaged Montana and Wyoming just a few years before.
Northern Nevada’s stockmen had survived rough winters in the past, but those winters didn’t compare to this one. It buried the Sierra Nevada under 66 feet of snow, and temperatures plummeted to negative-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, the winter of 1889-90 has come down in Nevada history as the “Great Equalizer.”
Edna B. Patterson’s invaluable history, Nevada’s Northeast Frontier (1969), chronicles the damage done and the names and brands of those hardest hit. One sheep and cattle rancher, J.J. Hylton, was new to the business of stock growing. He had come to Mound Valley—the future site of Jiggs—in 1874 as a general store proprietor and had only recently begun to run livestock. When the winter storms hit, he led his hired men and dogs south into the Pancake Range in a desperate and fruitless attempt to find and rescue his sheep.
The critters had sheltered alongside an earthen mound, but “a strong wind, from out of the south, whipped thickly fallen snow over the hill and began drifting and burying the band,” Patterson writes.
As the snow continued to accumulate, the panicked animals climbed ever higher on the bodies of the sheep that had been smothered. After the storm abated, “dead sheep were piled like haystacks.” In order to make the best of a dismal situation, Hylton and his men skinned the animals and sold the pelts. The site where the sheep perished has since been known as Calamity Hill.Counting Their Losses
A few outfits managed to salvage a fair portion of their herds. One ranch headquartered in Deeth had been running some 12,000 head in the Marys River country in northeastern Nevada and managed to save nearly half of its cattle—as historian Patterson cryptically writes, “with ingenuity and the use of money.”
For most cattle- and sheep-raisers, however, the percentages of lost stock equaled or exceeded that of the earlier Midwest disaster. The Nevada Land and Cattle Company, one of the state’s largest outfits, estimated its livestock losses at 98 percent. Another large operation in the northeastern corner of Elko County owned by John Tinnin and future Nevada Governor John Sparks lost 90 percent of its cows.
Sparks—a former Texas Ranger, Indian fighter, cowboy, and trail driver—owned herds in Wyoming and Idaho as well as Nevada and had long been credited as one of the most knowledgeable cowmen in the West; still, he was powerless to lessen the impact of the Great Equalizer. During the roundup of 1885, Sparks and his partner had branded some 38,000 head of cattle; the year following the winter of 1889-90, they branded only 68 calves. Sparks later told a Harpers Weekly reporter, “Mr. John Tinnin and myself…lost that winter…35,000 head of cattle.”
Sparks was not the only big cowman to witness the near-extermination of his calf crop. Colonel E.P. Hardesty was a Texas cattleman who had driven longhorns north and settled in Nevada, establishing the U7 Ranch northwest of Wells and becoming one of the region’s undisputed cattle kings. In 1889, he was running about 20,000 head, and at the spring roundup that year, he branded around 5,000 calves. On the winter range the following year, he branded just 25.
Many ranchers besides Sparks and Hardesty lost at least 90 percent of their cattle, including the Garat family, owners of the vast YP Ranch. According to Patterson, Garat vaqueros long recalled a chilling sight: “In sheltered places on the winter range between the Tuscarora and Duck Valley forks of the Owyhee River, a hand could throw an average-sized loop and cover frozen bodies of 15 to 20 head of cattle, huddled together seeking warmth and piled on top of one another.”
Even when the cowboys were able to reach the cattle before the animals froze to death, it was often too late. The owners of 71 Ranch—doing business as the Halleck Cattle Company—mustered their men, who “put on all clothing possible” and ventured into the 60-below-zero cold in search of their 5,000 head. When they found the half-frozen beasts, the men tried everything, including physically pushing them, to drive them to better feed. The weakened cattle, however, simply gave up and died where they stood.
Some ranchers had actually put up a store of hay in anticipation of a hard winter; it did little good. William Dunphy, founder of the T Lazy S Ranch, hayed, irrigated, and fenced more than 20,000 acres in an effort to protect his sizable herd. During the winter of 1889-90, he cut and put up his hay in stacks and hauled it to the cattle behind teams of draft horses. He still lost 10,000 head, a significant loss considering he had run as many as 40,000 head 15 years earlier.
In mid-March 1890, the snow turned to rain and sleet, soaking the winter coats of the cows and sheep. Then the temperature dropped like a stone, and—unable to shake the ice from their coats—the already-weakened animals perished. In some places, it got so cold that even sheltered stock froze.The Aftermath
When spring finally came, the stench of rotting meat gagged the range. According to one historian, “It was said that a man could walk on dead cattle for 100 miles along the Marys River fork of the Humboldt.” After the snows had melted, the streams and water holes thawed, and the carcasses were counted. Those stock growers who had not been irrevocably broken faced two choices: quit or tighten their cinches and start anew.
The Altube brothers—Bernardo and Pedro—owners of the vast Spanish Ranch, saw their massive holdings all but wiped out. When Bernardo confessed his desire to throw in the towel, Pedro reputedly said, “God took it away from us; God will give it back to us. We will do better the second time, and in a few years we will be worth a million pesos.” And so they were. The ranch continues to prosper today.
By spring 1890, it was clear that the ranching industry in the West was facing major changes. In describing the impact of the Great Equalizer in their classic volume, Cattle in the Cold Desert (1986), authors James A. Young and B. Abbott Sparks wrote, “Rarely does a single climatological event alter the plant and animal ecology or change the social and economic structure of a wide geographical area. However, such a far-reaching and dynamic event was the devastating winter of 1889–90 in the sagebrush/grasslands of western North America.”
The standard practice of open-range wintering had proven disastrous. Claudia Wines, director of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko and member of a venerable Nevada ranching family, summarized a long-term effect: “From that winter on, every rancher in Northern Nevada was forced to grow and put up enough hay to winter their stock, regardless of the severity of the coming winter.” Painting: “Frozen Assets” by Nevada artist Larry Bute
Special thanks to Claudia Wines, director of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko and wife and mother of buckaroo bosses at some of the state’s largest ranches.