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A Spy on Pinkham Creek

Well, maybe we should call him an undercover agent.  In my youth, the term would have been narc.  Still, this story, from the old Forest Supervisor, C.S. Webb, is the closest to an official story of a Forest Service spy, working from the Supervisor’s office, monitoring the Pinkham Creek residents.  His whole story is at npshistory.com.

In 1933, we were allotted 4 CC camps, and in 1931 the 4 CC camps returned and sufficient Dev-Nira and Imp-Nira funds were allotted to hire 200 men all season. In these two years, we built many miles of low-standard road, new towers and houses on dozens of lookouts, and telephone lines to serve them. A good start was made on a topographic map of the forest, and we built all the ranger stations as they stand today, except the Libby Station and the residence structures at Sylvanite, Warland and Rexford. The latter three were remodeled. The airfields at Troy and Libby were also constructed during those years. Times were hard, men plentiful, and the local populace was very appreciative of the employment provided by the Forest Service.

It was in 1932 that Charlie Powell, ranger at Rexford, overheard a conversation at a trail camp between two Pinkham Ridgers, indicating that the Ridge-runners planned some incendiarism. He promptly reported this to me. The Ridge-runners were a rather canny clan who migrated from the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky years earlier and took homesteads on Pinkham Creek and Pinkham Ridge. Their chief pursuits were stealing tie timber and moonshining, but occasionally they would set a few fires, “just for the hell of it – to bother the ‘Govment’ men,” and also to provide a few days’ work. A bad epidemic of these fires was experienced in 1922.

Their planning in 1932 was to make lots of work. Bill Nagel, supervisor of the Blackfeet, and I hired an undercover man to go to Eureka to loiter and fish and get in with the Ridgers. He took an old Ford, rambled around the country, got acquainted with all of them, and finally joined their planning discussions after being accepted into their confidence. They completed their plans and set a date (August 22) for setting a string of fires from Edna Creek on the Blackfeet clear through to Sutton Creek on the Kootenai. A man was appointed to go into each drainage and the approximate spot was prescribed where he would set his fire. The complete plan, which was pretty thorough, was reported by our man directly to Nagel at Kalispell. This man was always around Eureka in the daytime, and whenever he had anything to report he drove into Kalispell during the night and was back before morning. We never phoned or wrote to him, nor did he to us. He was an ex-forest officer known to Nagel and me as a fully reliable man.

The day before the scheduled setting of the fires, we had two or three men in the vicinity of where each fire was to be started and quite a few others at anticipated places of travel by the Ridgers in or out of the woods. Our men met several of the Ridgers, who appeared very surprised to see someone. Our fellows saw others they did not meet, and likely our men were seen, too. We had hoped to catch at least one or two Ridgers in the act, but not a fire was set. Our undercover man was out on the fire-setting expedition with one of the Ridgers and joined in their talks after they returned to Eureka. They had tumbled immediately to the fact that we had gotten wind of their plans, since everywhere they went they encountered someone. But, they never suspected our undercover man, and to this day, old timers there are wondering how we got next to their plan. I have never heard since of any attempts at incendiaries in that area. Previously, there had been several outbreaks, and one man served time in Deer Lodge for setting a fire on Pinkham Ridge.”

1 thought on “A Spy on Pinkham Creek”

  1. Driving to Kalispell at night and returning by morning—in a Model T, no less—seems rather daunting. 20 MPH would be a pretty good clip.

    Liked by 1 person

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