Incident Name: Blackwater Fire
Date: August 21, 1937
Personnel: 15 lives lost, 38 injured
Agency/Organization: US Forest Service
Position: firefighters, CCC
Alfred G Clayton, Ranger South Fork District, Shoshone NF, age 45
James T. Saban, CCC Technical Foreman - Tensleep Camp F-35 (former Forest Ranger on Medicine Bow and Chippewa NFs), age 36
Rex A. Hale, Jr Assistant to the Technician, Shoshone NF; from the Wapiti CCC camp, age 21
Paul E. Tyrrell, Jr Forester, Bighorn NF (Foreman), died later at hospital 8/26, age 24
Billy Lea, Bureau of Public Roads Crewman, originally from OR, died later at hospital
CCC Enrollees: Tensleep Camp F-35 in the Bighorn NF; Company 1811 - 3 months earlier came from Bastrop area of Texas, ages 17 to 20 years
John B. Gerdes of Halletsville TX
Will C. Griffith, Bastrop TX
Mack T. Mayabb, Smithville TX
George E. Rodgers, George TX
Roy Bevens, died later at hospital in Cody, WY, of Smithville TX
Clyde Allen, McDade TX
Ernest Seelke, LaGrange TX
Rubin D. Sherry, Smithville TX
William Whitlock, died later at a hospital in Cody WY, of Austin TX
Ambrocio Garza, died 8/23 at a hospital in Cody, WY, of Corpus Christi TX
On August 21, 1937, the tragic Blackwater Fire caused the death of 15 firefighters, injury of 38 others, and burned approximately 1,700 acres of National Forest System lands on the Shoshone National Forest, near Cody, Wyoming.
An electrical storm occurred in the general vicinity of Blackwater Creek on Wednesday, August 18th causing a fire, which was not detected until August 20th. At the time of detection the fire appeared to be only 2 acres in size and was located in the drainage bottom. By the evening of Friday, August 20th the fire had grown to approximately 200 acres and there were 58 men and 7 overhead constructing fireline in an orderly manner and with good speed. Early Saturday morning the man-power was about evenly distributed along the two main flanks of the fire. As more crews arrived and line construction advanced to the east on the hottest section of fireline, a blow-up of the fire occurred at approximately 15:45 caused by the combination of an undiscovered "spot" and the passage of a dry cold front. In this conflagration 9 deaths occurred directly. Six additional men were so badly burned that death ensued, and 38 additional men suffered injuries. (from the excellent Blackwater Staff Ride) The Fireline Handbook was developed following this fire.
Urban Post and a number of youmg men with him on the rocky knoll were badly burned, but survived.
Photos of some of the CCC "boys" (young men), from their Bastrop, Texas high school yearbook, thanks to Roxanne Hickman, professional photographer who resized and digitally enhanced photographs from the small year book. Hover over photo for the name; click for larger image.
Ambrocio Garza, Clyde Allen and Earnest Seelke
John Gerdes, Roy Bevins, and Rubin Sherry
This monument with the names of the fallen and injured is located on the Bighorn National Forest above Meadowlark Lake. The monument is accessible directly next to US Highway 16. This highway runs from Worland to Buffalo, Wyoming over the Bighorn Mountains. The reason for the monument's location on the Bighorn National Forest is that the Ten Sleep CCC Company (1811) that the fallen and injured crew were assigned to was stationed there.
From the Annals of Wyoming: Alfred Clayton sketch
Blackwater Fire Sketch map from a report on the Staff Ride website
Blackwater Fire Progression Map, from the Staff Ride website
Blackwater Fire, Shoshone National Forest, 1937
The following documents and reports came from the Blackwater Staff Ride documents page; for more, visit the website.
- Letter from the Regional Forester 9/37 (1.91 K pdf)
- Rocky Mountain Regional Bulletin 11/37 (7.41 K pdf) United States. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Bulletin Memorial Number Blackwater Fire. Vol. 20, No. 10: October 1937.
- Ranger Post's statement (2.135 K pdf) Fire Control Notes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. December 6, 1937.
- Factors that Led to the Tragedy (1.482 K pdf) Fire Control Notes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. December 6, 1937.
- Handling of the Blackwater Fire: Fire Control Notes (2.281 K pdf) by David P. Godwin. “The Handling of the Blackwater Fire.” Fire Control Notes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. December 6, 1937.
- Death in Blackwater Canyon: American Forester 12/37 (3.908 K pdf)
- Smokejumpers and the Blackwater Fire by Karl Brauneis. “1937 Blackwater Fire Investigation.” Static Line. Vol. 3 – Edition 4, July 1997. (9 K pdf)
- FOREST ARMY, Remembering the CCC: Death on the Fire Line: The Blackwater Fire of 1937 (Excellent historical narrative by Michael, whose passion is CCC history.)
[Excerpt] In the immediate aftermath of the Blackwater Fire, David P. Godwin of the Forest Service Division of Fire Control based in Washington, DC conducted the government investigation of the event. In his report, Godwin found little fault with the foremen and supervisor’s handling of the fire. Godwin’s attention focused on the travel times of the units reacting to the fire and specifically on the critical delay experienced by the crew from the Tensleep camp. Godwin speculated that, had they arrived as scheduled, the Tensleep crew would not have been deployed where they were when the fire blew up and thus may very well have survived unharmed.
Today, Godwin is remembered as the man who, just two years after the Blackwater fire, authorized the expenditure of funds to carry out parachute jumping experiments linked to fire suppression. To say that Godwin, the man who investigated the Blackwater fire, had a hand in the creation of what came to be known as the smokejumper program is not an overstatement. One has to wonder what role the Blackwater tragedy had in sharpening Godwin’s resolve to put crews on the fire line in rapid fashion, thus leading to his support for airborne suppression tactics.
- Martin Alexander & Miguel Cruz, 2011: What are the Safety Implications of Crown Fires?
Like all of Wyoming, the scale is huge:
Jack Seaman of Ten Sleep was kind enough to share some photographs from his family photograph collection of the CCC Camp at Ten Sleep (Meadowlark Lake). Photo credits: the James T. Saban Family Collection.
- Theysaid: 2001 "Original Intent" Ten Standard Fire Fighting Orders from Karl Brauneis with additional Historical note May, 11, 2006
- WLF Memorials and Monuments: Photo page
- Wildland Firefighters' Monument and Memorial Sites
- The Daily Plainsman, Aug 24, 1937, p7
CODY. Wyo- Aug. 24 -- Superviser John Seiker, of the Shoshone National Forest, said today lightning, striking a remote pine filled canyon, "unmistakably" caused the savage forest blaze that took the lives of 14 firefighters. Seiker reported 500 weary and smoke-choked men on the fire line now had the biaze under complete control. He estimated the flames hod swept over 2,000 acres in the Absaroka Mountains. "Lightning is the only possible thing that could have started a fire in there," Seiker declared. "There is no human habitation within seven or eight miles of the canyon entrance," he said. "We are sure, too, that no party of humans went into the canyon before the fire started." The fourteenth victim of the fire died last night in a Cody hospital. He was Ambrocio Garza of Corpus Christi, Tex., member of the Tensleep CCC camp.
- Hike and CCC Memorial Markers: Opportunities for learning from the tragedy
Blackwater Interpreter Guide Staff Hike, Karl Brauneis. (This was the first trial staff hike with a local Shoshone National Forest Crew.)
Memorial Trail Marker built in 1938 by the CCC.
Text: Shoshone National Forest
Blackwater Fire August 20-24, 1937
This marks the beginning of the Fire Fighters' Memorial Trail which follows Blackwater Creek five miles to the place of origin of the fire and thence to other points of interest. This fire was controlled after burning over 1254 acres of forest. Fifteen fire fighters lost their lives and 39 others were injured when the fire was whipped up by a sudden gale on August 21. Signs and monuments mark the important locations along the trail, including the fire camps, the first aid station, Clayton Gulch where 8 men were killed, and the rocky knoll where Ranger Post gathered his crew to escape the fire.
Clayton Gulch View
Gathering round the Clayton Gulch Memorial
Clayton Gulch Memorial built in 1938 by the CCC (All materials packed in by horse.)
Text: On the afternoon of August 21, 1937 while fighting the Blackwater Fire, these brave men lost their lives in the gulch to the right of this marker.
Will C. Griffith
John B. Gerdes
James T. Saban
Alfred G. Clayton
Rex A. Hale
George E. Rodgers,
Mack T. Mayabb
Spot in the Hole from the Post Point Memorial (Note: It is a 10 and 1/2 mile hike through grizzly country to get to Post Point on the fire. So, make sure you have bear spray or a 30-30 or big frame revolver. The trail is very good and easy on horseback.)
Post Point Memorial, the third memorial built by the CCCs in 1938. Marks the location where the firefighters with Post sought refuge.
Text: Blackwater Fire August 20-24, 1937
Here on the afternoon of August 21, 1937, thirty-seven enrollees of CCC Company 1811 in charge of Ranger Post and Jr Forester Tyrell, with seven Bureau of Public Roads employees including foreman Davis and Fire Cooperator Sullivan in charge, took refuge from the fire. Five men attempted to escape through the fire and four of them -- Lea, Allen, Seelke and Sherry perished. Ranger Post and all of the forty who remained with him received burns of varying severity and three of these -- Junior Forester Tyrrell, and enrollees Whitlock and Garza -- died later
- Who Will Remember the Dead of Blackwater? FOREST ARMY, Remembering the Civilian Conservation Corps
- CCC Resource Page: Remembering Some of the Dead at Blackwater Creek with photos of enrollee Clyde Allen, enrollee Rubin Sherre, enrollee Earnest Seelke, and survivor enrolee Patzke.
- Firefighters Monument, Wyoming Historic Place: On Highway 14/16/20 about 35 mi west of Cody WY in a turnout on the south side of the highway.
Dedicated to the men trapped in the Shoshone Forest fire August 21, 1937 Died in the line of duty: Foremen James A. Saban; Paul E. Tyrrell ; Enrollees Clyde Allen; Mack T. Mayabb; Roy Bevens; George H. Rodgers; Ambrocio Garza; Earnest R. Seelke; John B. Gerdes; Rubin D. Sherry; Will C. Griffith; William H. Whitlock
Burned in the line of duty: Enrollees Timateo Almager; Raymond Prazak; William G. Barnes; Oliver Randle; Hubert Ferris; David Rodriguez; Lewis Garcia; Julias Rodriguez; Juan Gomez; Andon Sanchez; Amos Hefner; Alcario Serros; Johnnie Levine; Henry Spomer; Weldon Mackey; James T. Sullivan; William O. Mueller; David S. Thompson; Alton J. Murray; James Touchstone; James Ottmer; Vicente Valle; Herman F. Patzke; Johnnie Wisneski; Jose Perez; Charlie Wheelus; John D. Phillips; Havel Zaskoda; Henry Poehls; Joe Zavala
Erected September, 1937 by Company 1811 C.C.C. Camp F-35-W Tensleep, Wyoming
- State of Wyoming Memorial Page: Wyoming Fallen Firefighters
Alfred G. Clayton
Requiescat in Peace
By L.C. Shoemaker and Roosevelt
We know you have heard the story,
Which was news a few weeks ago;
When fire in the State of Wyoming
Felled a ranger, with one fatal blow.
It was only news to the many
Who gave it but passing thought;
But to us who know fire-fighting
Twas an act which God had wrought.
You know how the accident happened;
How he came to relieve the distressed;
Took charge of the job of suppression,
While others sought food and rest.
With no intimation of danger
He began his attack on the fire,
And with not a thought that his forest
Would soon be his funeral pyre.
But fate and fiendish fire-forces
Joined hands to defeat the new foe;
And he and his youthful companions
Were trapped - and their bodies laid low.
But their spirits soared on to glory,
To report to The Chief, up on High,
Who, we know, gives to all a welcome,
Who so gallantly, fearlessly die.
When a soldier goes forth to battle,
There are orders he must obey;
But no high commands or bugle-call
Were urging him on that day.
He saw his duty and did it,
And paid the full price it demands;
But his name will live, as a symbol
Of duty that needs no commands.
To us he was truly heroic
For - "He died our forests to save";
And that epitaph, carved on a tombstone
Would appropriately mark his grave.
And whene'er we sit 'round our camp-fires,
We'll recall his unselfish deed;
And with sorrowful hearts remember
That he, at the last, proved our creed.
A hero? Oh no! just a ranger
Who answered unquestioned the call;
Whose motto - like ours - was service;
Who gave to "The Service" his all.
And a promise we give to his loved ones,
That as long as rangers shall ride,
The name of Alfred G. Clayton
Will still be remembered with pride.
Transcribed from the original by Karl Brauneis, Forester at Lander, Wyoming
- High Point Lookout and Lookout view from Karl Brauneis. The lookout is near the monument with names of the dead and ionjured on the Bighorn National Forest above Meadowlark Lake. This lookout has a road to it. It's an easy way to get the lay of the land by vehicle without a lot of hiking.
- There will be a May 15th, 2015 staff ride - hike - "Lessons Learned up the Blackwater
- Invitation and map to the Ceremony celebrating the Rededication of the James T Sabin Lookout, June 20, 2015 at 1PM
Contributors to this article: Karl Brauneis, Forester, retired USFS, Lander, Wyoming; Jack Seaman of Ten Sleep provided Sabin Family photos; Mike Engelhart - Archeologist; Carol Kysar - Bastrop County Historical Society Museum; Roxanne Hickman - professional photographer who resized and digitally enhanced crew photographs from a small high school year book; and many more who worked on the Staff Ride.
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