Operation Haylift

OHThe winter of 1948-1949 was the worst in the Western United States since 1889. In Northern Nevada, sheep in the hundreds of thousands and cattle in the tens of thousands were stranded in snowdrifts without feed on their winter ranges. Ranch houses were snowed in, as well. The governor declared a state of emergency and Federal aid was appropriated to try to save the livestock. The U.S. Air Force deployed its pilots and C82 cargo planes, the “Flying Boxcars,” for a project called “Operation Haylift” to drop over 1,700 tons of feed to the desperate animals. Although a significant number of animals were lost to the storms, Operation Haylift and truck convoys saved the livestock industry in Nevada from total destruction.

As with almost any historical event, the story that survives has been simplified over time. Primary sources in Special Collections and newspapers of the time provide a more nuanced account of the successful collaborative response to a dire emergency in a large sector of Nevada’s economy. Choices that were made during the emergency response were not without controversy, and not all the facts in the official reports are accurate. James A. Young, in his thorough 1984 article in Rangelands  estimated the loss of animals  to be 10-25%. “Legend suggests that the variable estimates of death losses were partially due to the large numbers of trespassing animals on the public ranges …”

Accounts by participants and witnesses are included in some published books, most of which are out of print, but still available in libraries. Clel Georgetta wrote that “A flying boxcar with four tons of baled hay on board flew over Tom Thurnal’s place and tried to drop eight bales of hay in his corral. On the plane’s first pass, some bales the plane dropped took off the porch of the house. On the next pass the heavy bales falling out of the sky smashed the wash house with his wife’s new washer in it. Tom got on a saddle horse, rode to McGill, called ‘Operation Hay Lift’ and said ‘Please! Do not drop any more hay on my place. My wife will divorce me’ ” (on page 338 of Golden Fleece in Nevada). Beltran Paris gave a first person account of his participation in Operation Haylift in Beltran: Basque Sheepman of the American West: Beltran Paris As Told to William A. Douglass. The entire book was digitized for a Special Collections online exhibit, Sheepherders in Northern Nevada.

operation-haylift-movie-poster-1950-1020711652Operation Haylift had a public relations arm. Nevada journalists and photojournalists were invited to fly along in the cargo planes and document their observations. Edward Olsen of the Associated Press donated his photographs, including  Operation Haylift Photos, to Special Collections. A feature-length film, Operation Haylift, was released in May, 1950. Filmed entirely in the Ely area, with its world premiere in Ely, the film may have contributed to the aura of romance that continues to surround the story. The  Air Force loaned some planes and personnel for the movie, and locals were also included in the cast. The film did not win awards or accolades, and is not known for a strong story line or brilliant acting, but the producers apparantly stuck fairly closely to the facts, using some creative license; “As drama sweeps the sky!” Its age has given it historical value, and it provides good views of the landscapes in which it was filmed. The movie is available from Netflix or Amazon as part of a DVD compilation entitled Darn Good Westerns Vol I.

UNRS-P1989-51-654One fact that has been obscured (though not obliterated) by time is that there were two severe winters in Nevada within three years. A second large operation fed marooned livestock in early 1952, during snowstorms that were even more extreme. That was the year the passenger train City of San Francisco was stuck for six days in Donner Pass (another story!).  This second operation using “cats and dozers” as well as cargo planes to rescue stranded people and livestock was referred to as “Operation Breakthrough.”

Primary materials in at least two manuscript collections in Special Collections offer insights into Operation Haylift. First, a folder in the  Vail M. Pittman collection contains

  • his correspondence as the Governor of Nevada with  members of Nevada’s Congressional delegation, the Governor of California, officials from various federal agencies, constituents, and stakeholder organizations
  • his notes for speeches to the Nevada Legislature requesting a $25,000 emergency appropriation (his request was successful)
  • a petition signed by 108 citizens of Searchlight (including Inez Reid, Senator Harry Reid’s mother) asking for $50,000 from the emergency fund  “to cover repairs and improvements necessary in our wells, due to the storms … We have had three fires during the past 40 days, two of which  we were able to control and save the buildings by the use of fire extinguishers — the third, the old Nevada Hotel burned to the ground …”  (request denied)
  • requests for reimbursement from the Clark County Humane Society for hay and oats they sent for stranded livestock ($171.25) and from the United Stockmens Association in Ely for $921.40 for rooms and meals for the National Guard (both requests denied)
  • photographs of snowslides along highways

Also within this folder are letters concerning honorary Nevada citizenship that was granted to all Operation Haylift Personnel, who referred to the campaign as “Operation Hayride.”


Another manuscript collection in Special Collections with primary materials relating to Operation Haylift and Operation Breakthrough is the Gordon Griswold collection. Griswold, a rancher, was the coordinator of  1952 rescue operations in Eastern Nevada. Two folders contain correspondence, telegrams, notes, lists, accounts, and miscellaneous items relating to the operations. Below are some items from this collection:




Newspaper articles of the time provide interesting factual details that have been left out of more recent accounts:


But more enjoyably, newspaper articles provide human interest stories, the political context, and the varied reactions to the news of the day. For example, a continuing debate on whether governmental assistance to the ranchers would lead to socialism took on a life of its own in the Letters to the Editor. The Newspaper Archive database makes it easy to retrieve those historical stories without having to wrestle with microfilm equipment. Visitors to Special Collections will have access on computers in our reading room. UNR students, staff and faculty can access the database on their own computers with their NetIDs.  Various historical tidbits can be gleaned from the newspaper articles published during the weeks of the crisis, such as

  • the ridicule of a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer [“Dawdling Reno! Reporter Exposes Horrible Facts” Nevada State Journal, 2/1/1949]: “… Not content to travel the straight journalistic path he calls on the Prophet Isaiah and the Nero story, and from there on he really takes it away. He warns Reno to repent for destruction is at hand and heads his piece ‘Reno dawdles while livestock freezes’…”
  • [in “Haylift for Bovines Being Started Today” Nevada State Journal 3/22/1952]:  “…Many ranchers have shared hay with less fortunate neighbors until both were out. Hay, normally selling for $35 to $42 a ton, was bought in places for $100 a ton  …  ‘ There are large numbers of isolated cattle in places where there is no feed whatever. There are places where there is hay but the drifts are so big the cattle can’t get to it.’ [Hotel owner and president of the Elko Chamber of Commerce Newt Crumley reported] One of those places, he said, is crooner Bing Crosby’s vast Elko County ranch …”

Extreme winter weather conditions could revisit Nevada at any time.  It seems to me that there are some potential research trails to follow for a more thorough understanding of the Operation Haylift and Operation Breakthrough activities of 1949 and 1952, in terms of logistical lessons and issues of emergency assistance within a sociopolitical context, which may not have changed that much in Nevada over the past 65 years. I would put it on my own list of pursuits if it were not too long already!


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