Fire destroys historic Ewing-Snell Ranch house

A piece of local history was lost last Wednesday when the ranch house at the Ewing-Snell Ranch, one of four historic ranches in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, burned to the ground.

It was an emotional loss for local history lovers and members of the National Park Service staff, some of whom painstakingly restored the venerable structure several years ago. The ranch house was used for many events and scientific and artistic residencies.

“Seeing the pictures of the fire when all of us were gathered in the office, I broke down a little bit,” Bighorn Canyon Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming said this week. “Then when I went out there (a couple of days later), I just felt like, ‘Uh!’ There was no emotion.”

“Getting out there and watching it burn, and having worked on historic structures in other parks, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we just lost a piece of history,’” Bighorn Canyon Chief of Resources Virginia DuBowy added.

“A lot of people put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that building getting it livable,” Fleming said. “There are a lot of memories from special events and from community members who lived and worked out there. Tom Smith (former North District interpretive ranger) said when you went to that house it just had that special feeling. You felt calm and relaxed.”

A blackened pit of the foundation is all that remains of the ranch house, which was located at the ranch a little more than a mile south of the Barry’s Landing turnoff on the west side of the park highway.

The site also includes a schoolhouse and barn, which were not damaged in the fire. Park visitors were able to visit the house and sit on the porch facing the east. Many photos were sent to the Bighorn Canyon NRA Facebook page this week of people sitting in the old rocking chairs on the porch.

No chance to save

The fire broke out Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 9, during a severe windstorm that hit the region. Park Ranger Scott Devore was on his way north to the Barry’s Landing area between 2:30 and 3 p.m. to check for a reported illegal trap when he spotted smoke at the ranch as he drove down onto Mustang Flats.

Fleming said his reaction was immediate, to the effect of, “Please don’t let it be the house.”

The fire had started on the south end of the house in the area of the kitchen, which also had utility infrastructure under the main floor. When Devore arrived the flames were coming out the kitchen window and the roof above the kitchen, and within a few minutes the house was totally engulfed by flames. He called in the fire and drove to higher ground to speak directly with the Lovell dispatch center, then returned to the house, Fleming and DuBowy said. DuBowy arrived shortly thereafter.

“By the time I got to Mustang Flats it was gone,” DuBowy said.

Fiendish flames with a green tint consume the inside of the Ewing-Snell Ranch house during the wind-whipped blaze last Wednesday afternoon.  David Peck photo
Fiendish flames with a green tint consume the inside of the Ewing-Snell Ranch house during the wind-whipped blaze last Wednesday afternoon.
David Peck photo

There was no way for Devore to fight the fire, they said. The Park Service has a fire truck that is on call during the warmer months, stored at a shop in the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area, but the truck had been winterized and the engine boss was off that day.

The Lovell Volunteer Fire Dept. got the call at 2:58 p.m. and Capt. Bob Mangus arrived at the site at 3:20, followed by the first truck at 3:23.

“The wind was blowing so hard. One end of the cabin was almost totally burned and the roof had already caved in on the south side,” Mangus said. “All of the rooms were totally full of fire. The cottonwoods were on fire, and the fire was going down the drain toward the propane tank and generator.

“Instead of working on the house, we put everyone around the generator and the propane tank. Those were the only things I could see that we could save. Later on an outbuilding roof caught on fire (and was extinguished).”

One of the problems with fighting a fire in such a remote location – about 20 miles from Lovell – is having enough water once the tankers were empty, Mangus said, noting, “We eventually got a floater pump out there, but by then it was pretty much history. By then we just wanted to keep the sparks down.”

Mangus said firemen were able to pull water from Layout Creek and the pond just to the west of the ranch house. He noted that a Bighorn National Forest crew responded and helped cut down burning trees, stack the trees and perform cleanup at the site.

“The wind was just terrible,” Mangus reiterated. “You could hear it coming down the canyon. One moment it would be blowing south and then it would change and sparks would be blowing north.”

Fire Chief Jim Minchow said the National Weather Service reported gusts of 54 mph in the national recreation area.

“Once we couldn’t save the house we saved our water to prevent wildfires and save other buildings,” Mangus said, “and eventually the floater pump arrived.”

The LVFD left the scene at 7:28 p.m. and the Forest Service crew remained on the scene overnight for monitoring and mop-up.

“You hate to see that (historic) stuff burn up. We did everything we could,” Mangus said. “When I was driving out there the smoke was white, then turned black from the shingles and I said, ‘Crap. There goes the roof. We’re not in very good shape now.’”

Mangus and Minchow said the cause of the fire is undetermined at this time, with several different scenarios possible.

Fleming said a fire inspector from Yellowstone National Park visited the scene Friday and will issue a report in the near future. She agreed with Mangus and Minchow that the Park Service does not know the cause of the blaze.

Fleming and DuBowy said that a member of the Park Service staff regularly checked the house – almost daily – when it was not occupied during the winter to make sure the house was warm and pipes were OK. A ranger had checked the house thoroughly that morning and found everything to be fine.

The house was unoccupied last week, with the last occupant staying there during the Thanksgiving weekend. A researcher was supposed to stay at the house starting the next evening.

Park Supt. John Bundy last week expressed appreciation to those who responded to the blaze, saying, “Thank you to the Lovell Fire Department and Forest Service Wildland fire crews for their help with the fire. This is a devastating loss of history and home.”

A special place

The history of the Ewing-Snell Ranch goes back to the turn of the 20th century when, in 1896, Erastus T. Ewing came to the Dryhead country to prospect for gold, along with others. He didn’t find gold but liked the country and turned to ranching, and he and his family settled on Layout Creek.

The historic home greets visitors on a beautiful fall afternoon in 2014. David Peck photo
The historic home greets visitors on a beautiful fall afternoon in 2014.
David Peck photo

Over the years the ranch changed hands a few times, to Clint Hough in 1910-11, Philip Snell in 1920, E.E. Hanson in 1955 and Clarence Mangus and Newell Sorenson in 1964 before the ranch was sold to the U.S. Reclamation Service for inclusion in the newly formed Bighorn Canyon NRA.

The National Park Service used the ranch house for housing including rangers, resource crews and maintenance crews, and as a ranger station, but the old building was falling into disrepair. In 1999, then Chief of Resources Rick Lasko started a project to renovate the ranch house, and the first stage was repairing the foundation. Funding was secured in 2000, and in 2002 the house was lifted off its foundation and secured on blocks while the foundation was repaired, then gently lowered back to the foundation.

Later, the logs were repaired and re-chinked and the interior was restored with the intention of making the house into a science center. The ranch was “taken off the grid,” Fleming said, powered by solar, wind and propane, with a backup diesel generator if needed following several cloudy days.

Since then the house has been used by artists in residence and scientists and researchers studying mountain lions, bats, bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons and more. The Greater Yellowstone Inventory and Monitoring Network has used the house, as has the archaeological field school. Many Park Service employee meetings and gatherings have been held at the house.

“People enjoyed the setting. You could look over to the orchard and the mountains,” DuBowy said. “It’s been a nice visitor experience.”

Added Fleming, “You could sit on the porch and pretend you own it.”

The future

As it so happened, the entire Bighorn Canyon staff gathered for an all-employee meeting the next day, Thursday, Dec. 10. Talk began about the fire and what might be done.

“The house is gone, but we haven’t lost the setting,” DuBowy said. “We lost more than a house, we lost a base for a lot of programs in the park.”

“We have been talking about what could be,” Fleming added. “It comes down to funding. Can you rebuild a historic structure when it wouldn’t be a historical structure anymore? Being program based gives us a leg up, but with funding and leadership above Bighorn Canyon, can we? There are mandates we have to follow.”

“We’re asking, but we don’t know,” DuBowy noted, and Fleming said there would likely be plenty of volunteers to work on the project, but the question is funding.”

As for the near future, visiting researchers will have to come up with their own accommodations, and artists in residence will have to bring a camper or some other kind of housing.

For now, the ranch remains closed, but the Upper Layout Creek Trail is now open, Fleming said.

By David Peck