Voices of Early West: Far From Help

Having grown up in a town of 3,200 people, I thought I knew small towns. Then I moved to West Yellowstone. Coming here, one of things that surprised me most was learning the nearest hospital is an hour’s drive away… if the roads are clear. It’s not that I frequented the hospital back home, but it was a comfort knowing it was just across town if the need arose.

Children watching the first train of the season arrive.
Children watching the first train of the season arrive. Yellowstone Historic Center Collections.

Recently, I have been listening to oral histories of some of West Yellowstone’s earliest residents and realizing just how tough the pioneers were. They lived in a West Yellowstone that had no medical clinic, no pharmacy, and a hospital that was three or four days away during the “winter” months when there was no railroad access, which was about six months out of the year. Even during the fair-weather tourist seasons, doctors were not always easy to come by.

Walter Stuart claimed the title of first baby born in West Yellowstone. Walt was born in August of 1909, a warm, snow-free month. Even given the favorable conditions, a doctor was not readily available.  Knowing the baby was coming soon, Sam Eagle, friend of the Stuarts, waited for the first train of the morning to arrive to see if any of the passengers had a medical background. It just so happened that the train was hosting a group of medical professionals on their way to a conference in Yellowstone National Park.

The winter months were a different story. Helen Eagle Glannon recalled a time when her father, Sam Eagle, was chopping wood and his leg got nicked by the axe. Realizing by the severity of the cut that sutures were needed, Sam went inside and asked his wife, Ida, for a needle and thread so he could stitch himself up. According to Helen, Sam did a nice job with the suturing and the gash healed with minimal scarring.

Horse making its way through deep snow.
Horse making its way through deep snow. Yellowstone Historic Center Collections. 

Another incident, which more than one resident told the tale of, is the time Francis Whitman broke his leg. Francis’s incident occurred while skiing in February, a cold, snow-filled month. The journey to find a doctor started with a sled ride into West Yellowstone. Once in West, his father, Jay Whitman, got a team of horses together while others packed the sled with blankets, hay, and a cot to provide Francis with a more comfortable ride. From there, they headed to the Union Pacific depot in Monida, stopping twice during the 80-mile jaunt to eat and change teams. The Whitmans arrived in Monida at six o’clock in the evening, three hours before the last train of the day was due. From there, they rode the train to Spencer, Idaho, where Francis’s grandparents lived. Once they arrived, a call was made to a doctor who said to put ice on the leg and he would head their way first thing in the morning. As promised, the doctor arrived the next day and fixed Francis’s leg up for a four-week recovery.

As Helen Eagle Glannon joked, Francis’s brother John was a much more considerate child. When John Whitman broke his leg a few years after Francis, he was thoughtful enough to wait until the day the snowplows arrived in West, clearing the railroad tracks and providing an easy path to a doctor.

Hearing these tales makes 50 miles by automobile seem like a breeze, even if the roads are a bit snowy.

[As seen in the West Yellowstone Star January 18th, 2018. Written by Ellen Butler.]