Rose Wilder Lane Writes about the Hard Winter of 1880–1881

Over twenty-five years before Laura Ingalls Wilder published her book The Long Winter (1940), she shared her memories of Dakota Territory’s Hard Winter of 1880–1881 with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Lane, in turn, chronicled them for the readers of the San Francisco Bulletin in a newspaper serial called “Behind the Headlight: The Life Story of a Railway Engineer.” The serial ran in the Bulletin in twenty-four installments during October and November of 1915. It is difficult to track down copies of the Bulletin in these days of closures and short staffing due to COVID-19. Luckily, the Pioneer Girl Project obtained copies of the serial years ago, and the upcoming Fall issue of South Dakota History allows modern readers to explore the first four installments, set in Minnesota and Dakota Territory.

As Wilder told her husband Almanzo in 1915, Lane “went all around hunting up engineers to talk with” before writing the story. Her interview subjects included an engineer who “fired” on a train for the Chicago & North Western Railway on its run from eastern Minnesota into Dakota Territory from 1880 to 1885. Wilder claimed that Lane shared “some of what [the engineer] told her and some that I told her” in the Hard Winter portions of “Behind the Headlight.”1 The first four chapters of the serial thus provide a slice of Dakota Territory’s railroad history while previewing some of Wilder’s unique contributions to that history.

Here is a sneak preview of part of Lane’s first chapter:

It has been a good many years since I sat in a cab, and my nerves are not what they used to be, but I could take a special over the mountains yet, easier than I could write this story. I know how to handle a throttle, but I am awkward with a pen.

It is my observation that men are divided into two classes—the do-ers and the say-ers. You find a man who does things and usually he is not much good at writing about them. It works the other way around pretty often, too. I have read a good many stories about railroading, but I do not remember one that seemed to me to give the right idea of the work. . . .

It was work for young men who wanted excitement. It was pioneering work, adventurous and dangerous.

I do not remember the time I did not want to be an engineer. I used to hang around the depot in the little middle western town where I lived when I was a boy, and wait for the train to come puffing in. The engineer, a big, gruff fellow, always black with oil and coal dust, was a sort of demi-god to me—not an ordinary, commonplace man like my father and the other small storekeepers I knew.

If I had ever seen him washed up and in everyday clothes probably the shock would have changed my whole idea of railroading. But I never did. The first great event of my life happened when one day he lifted me into the cab and let me see the steam gauge and throttlebar at close range. I think I was about twelve at the time.

From that day on we were good friends. There was a great fascination for me about the engine, a big, black, powerful thing it seemed then, though it would be mighty small nowadays. The engineer, whose name was Burke, sometimes let me help him oil it, and he explained how it worked.13 I would have missed Christmas rather than fail to be at the depot when he drove it in.

13. Burke may be C&NW Roadmaster James Burke, who worked out of Burns Station (later Springfield) in central Minnesota near Walnut Grove. As roadmaster, Burke appears to have overseen repairs to the train tracks, and he took charge of snow shoveling operations on the western lines during the winter of 1881. Marshall (Minn.) Messenger, 29 Apr. 1881; Wilson to Koupal, 20, 24 May 2021.

You can find the rest of the story in the Fall issue of South Dakota History.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder to Almanzo Wilder, San Francisco, 1915, ed. Roger Lea MacBride (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 115–16.