In August 1899, employees of McShane and Company’s Rockwood, a bustling timber camp located above the Tongue River’s Box Canyon on the Big Horn Forest Reserve, were hard at work on what appeared to be another normal day. This busy settlement was important to the local timber industry for its production of lumber used to construct and maintain the massive network of tie flumes on the reserve and in providing large logs that were made into railroad ties, according to Robert M. Granum’s “History of the Tongue River Tie Flume, Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming, 1893-1913.”
Granum’s research showed that along with a commissary, school, family cabins and other buildings, Rockwood housed a large sawmill that was capable of cutting 25,000 to 30,000 board feet per day.
According to Robert Strait, an eye witness whose account was retold in Granum’s work, news of a forest fire burning on the head of Pass Creek and the Dry Fork of the Little Horn River had been filtering to Rockwood for days. The latest information relayed that a group of local tie hacks and ranchers had surrounded the fire and it was under control. Suddenly, a rider appeared in the settlement and informed the residents that the fire was out of control and was only 3 miles away and burning toward Rockwood. Gradually, a cloud of dark smoke became visible to the residents and workers as chaos set in. There were about 100 people in the camp that day.
It had been decided that the camp doctor would lead the women and children along the flume’s foot boards to another camp that had been prepared in case of an evacuation. The group of around 25, including a pregnant woman, set out while the remaining men hastily packed personal belongings and valuables. Just as they were leaving, the camp filled with thick black smoke and the doctor, in a panic, raced ahead, quickly leaving his group behind. The local school mistress, Mrs. Starboard, immediately took control and led the children and women down the foot boards of the flume.
Their departure was almost too late, between safety and the group of children and women lay a portion of the flume that had already burned. It was too wide to jump and they could not turn back due to the fire roaring behind them. Nor could they get off the flume, due to the steep canyon walls and the drop to the river. Mr. Starboard calmly collected enough boards by pulling other parts of the flume off and laying them over the void to create a makeshift bridge. She ushered her group across. Remarkably, everyone made it to safety, which was no small feat. Parts of the flume the women and small children walked were nearly 300 feet above the Tongue River and against sheer cliffs.
Thanks to heroes like Mrs. Starboard, no one was directly killed by the fire. However, a handful of men, including Strait, had been trapped in Rockwood during the blaze and taken refuge in a muddy spring, continually coating themselves in mud while the fire ravaged around and above them. Shortly afterward, Strait and another man contracted pneumonia. Strait survived but the other did not, making him the only casualty of the fire. All of the flume in the area and most of the buildings in Rockwood were destroyed except for the school house and two cabins. The fire consumed approximately 80 square miles from Black Mountain to the Dry Fork of the Little Horn River. In some places it scorched an area 8 miles wide. Rockwood eventually was rebuilt but in a different location near Black Mountain, where it continued in operation until 1904.
Sara Evans Kirol is a public affairs officer for Bighorn National Forest.