“I came off the mountain as I was alone” –Elizabeth Gervay

The Gervay tragedySG frozen body 2The circumstances surrounding the death of Stephen Gervay and Elizabeth Gervay’s harrowing survival on Little Mountain were recounted in several local newspapers in March and April 1924. According to Elizabeth, on Friday, March 14, her husband told her that he was going deer hunting “across the canyon” and would be gone overnight. She waited for several days; her fuel supply ran low, and she was forced to saw up some of the furniture in the cabin. Elizabeth came to believe that her husband had met with an accident while he was hunting and was probably dead. Therefore, on Sunday morning, March 21, she left the cabin and attempted to walk out to Kane, the nearest settlement, to seek help. Unfamiliar with the trail and forcing her way through waist-deep snow, the 15-mile journey took her three days and two nights. The paper stated, “The homestead is high up on the mountain, virtually cut off from the rest of the world during the winter months.”A man named George Beall (other accounts stated Daniel Beall) found Elizabeth collapsed on a muddy road near the Kane Bridge crossing of the Big Horn River on March 25. The man took her on his horse to the residence of Carl Fink, and Doctor Olson was called. While at Fink’s house, she gave premature birth to her child, who was born dead. Doctor Olson stated that she suffered from starvation and exposure, and frozen feet. Later, she was taken to the Basin hospital, where it became necessary to amputate the first three toes of her foot. Elmer Dorn wired Elizabeth’s mother, who came by train and took her daughter back to St. Louis.A search party was sent out on Thursday, March 27, to find Stephen. It consisted of Bighorn National Forest Ranger Earl Snelling, stationed at the Porcupine Creek Ranger Station; E.J. Dorn, a saw mill operator; Ed Messick, a neighboring rancher of Gervay’s wintering at the ML Ranch; and Munroe Hoffman, a Kane rancher and friend of Gervay. Snow and fog hampered their efforts, and each night the men took refuge in Gervay’s cabin. The men noted that Gervay’s livestock were gaunt but in fairly good condition and let down the fences so that they could get to the haystacks. They verified that Elizabeth had burned most of the furniture for fuel, but that her food supplies were still adequate.The searchers found evidence that Gervay had killed a deer and cached it near a tree and marked it with his handkerchief. In another location, they found where he had built a fire and apparently cooked some of the meat. The remainder was cached in an old box that had been left there by campers. The searchers then found the site of a second fire in Devil Canyon.The men continued to search around the campfire, traveling in ever wider circles. Finally, at 4 p.m. on March 30, they found Gervay’s skis. At 5:30 they found his body about 100 yards below the rim of Devil Canyon on the Sioux Trail. He was still wearing a small pack carrying meat from the deer. The searchers concluded that “Gervay was nearly exhausted with the climb and when one leg broke through the six-foot deep snow, that he did not have the strength to go further, and was frozen to death where he stopped.” (This ambiguous statement led some subsequent writers to believe that Gervay had broken his leg.) The rescuers took the body to the Gervay cabin and spent the night. The next morning they fashioned a sled from a pair of skis and pulled Gervay’s frozen body down the mountain. An inquest was held by Kane Justice of the Peace C.K. Mansfield, and the jurors concluded that Stephen Gervay died of exposure and exhaustion.While Elizabeth was waiting for her husband, she kept a diary account addressed to her husband, The Cowley Progress reported:“Her final message shows her lack of confidence in being able to reach the settlement alive and hope of her husband not being so badly disabled as to prevent him taking care of himself and eventually reaching home. She told him of her illness and delicate condition, lack of fuel and desperate suspense. Then the heroic woman gave him various directions about domestic affairs and told him where she had placed his best clothes.”The paper concluded that it was a miracle that she had been able to reach the valley and help through the deep snow on the trail.Wylie Sherwin, who established the Trail Shop near Wapiti, Wyo., to serve Yellowstone tourists, was an acquaintance of Stephen Gervay. In later life he wrote a journal of his life and included a chapter titled the “The Pete Garvey Incident.” In a footnote, Wylie stated that he knew Gervay personally, but “As to details, I have had to use my own imagination for some of them…” Although Sherwin roughly followed the newspaper accounts of the tragedy, they merely served as a starting point for a fanciful, fictionalized account. He did not know Elizabeth’s name and so called her Nellie in his story. He described her as follows:“…a pathetic little thing, young, of course, and dark, with jet black hair, and eyes so dark you could scarce make out the pupil. A pretty little thing in the face, they said, but it was her leg that everyone noticed, for she was badly crippled, whether from birth or polio she never said, but one leg was short and weak and when she was in a hurry she took an extra hop on the good one to save the other.”Sherwin imagined Elizabeth’s long vigil in the cabin waiting in vain for Stephen to return.“During the next few days Nellie suffered more than any woman ever should. She cried until her eyes were swollen almost shut, and she prayed, oh how she prayed.”According to Sherwin, Elizabeth waited for Stephen’s return for eight days and spent two days fashioning warm clothes and gloves to wear from a pair of her husband’s wool pants and socks. Once she had made up her mind to hike out for help, she was hindered by her crippled leg and her pregnant condition. She tried to walk on the crusted portion of the snowdrifts that often bore her weight. According to Sherwin, during Elizabeth’s sojourn off the mountain, she was accompanied by a sheep dog named “Tiny.” It was his barking that attracted the cowboy who found Elizabeth and therefore saved her life. Wylie’s fictionalized account suggests how deeply the local residents were affected by the Gervay tragedy and how the line between fact and fiction blurred with each retelling of the story through the years.The story of Stephen and Elizabeth Gervay was again recounted in Bill Scott’s “Pioneers of the Big Horn: True Stories of the Yellowtail Country” (1966). Scott called him “Pete Garvey” alias “Dutch Pete” and described him as a “big husky German.” (However, Gervay’s Declaration of Intention to become a U.S. Citizen states that his name was Stephen Gervay, that he was born in Budapest, Hungary, and was 5’9” tall and weighed 175 pounds.) According to Scott, Gervay’s claim was near the Cottonwood Cow Camp of the ML Ranch on Little Mountain. Gervay leased some of his land to sheepmen for grazing, and as a result bad relations developed between Gervay and the ML Ranch.The ML Ranch cow camp had been established as a line camp by Henry Lovell in 1883, and the following year, it became the ranch headquarters. With the financial backing of Anthony L. Mason, an eastern investor, it grew to become the largest cattle ranch in the eastern Big Horn Basin, running up to 25,000 head of cattle. The ML Ranch remained in the Lovell family until 1909, then changed hands a number of times before it was purchased by the Bureau of Reclamation in the 1960s. It is currently enrolled on the National Register of Historic Places.Land records verify that in 1920, Gervay was a partner with Edward Vopat, who grazed a flock of sheep on a nearby homestead. Although no one was injured, there were several “long distance shooting scrapes” when sheep wandered onto what was considered ML grazing land. Scott told essentially the same story as the newspaper accounts of the Gervay tragedy but with several embellishments. According to Scott, Gervay met his wife by answering a “heart and hand letter” from his bride-to-be. He also stated that the Gervay’s Australian Shepherd dog had led Elizabeth down off the mountain, picking the best route along ridge tops where the snow had blown clear. Finally, he added that Gervay had wounded a buck mule deer which then descended into Devil Canyon, forcing Gervay to follow. He butchered one hindquarter and placed the meat in a sack and started back up out of the canyon, when he succumbed to a heart attack. He had left his skis sticking up at the lip of the canyon, found by the searchers shortly before locating his body.By Robert G. RosenbergSee the rest of the story including background and Elizabeth's continuing struggle in our Historical Section under Special Sections on this webpage or in your print or digital edition.