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Snow Slide at Rainy Butte


A rare and tragic accident occurred this week in 1915, on Rainy Butte, eight miles southwest of New England, in southwestern North Dakota. Details of the sad story were published on the front page of the Hettinger County Herald, on Thursday the 11th.

The headline reads, “THREE BOYS MEET DEATH IN SNOWSLIDE WHILE COASTING ON EAST RAINY BUTTE.” Four boys—ages ten, eleven, twelve, and fourteen—set out to do what most North Dakota boys that age would do on a Sunday afternoon in February if given the opportunity.

East Rainy Butte had opportunity written all over it. The steep-sided flat-topped landmark was just down the road from the Iver Lee farmstead where the families had gathered, and there was plenty of snow. It was as routine for the boys to spend hours sledding on the butte as it was for the grownups to spend the whole afternoon visiting in the warmth of the farmhouse. Neither group was much interested in the activities of the other.

No one realized the danger—not even when neighbors arrived and mentioned in passing there had been a snow slide, about 75 to 100 feet wide, on the southeast side of the East Rainy. The Herald reported, “Nothing more was thought of it until five o’clock when the boys failed to return home.”

“At this time, Mrs. Lee became anxious about the children and so Mr. Lee and Sigurd Holtan started out in search of the boys. Thinking about the snow slide, Mr. Lee took along a shovel, but little did he think he would use it to save the life of his son.”

“The two men followed the boys’ tracks up the side of the butte.” When they discovered the tracks led to the site of the snow slide, the walk to fetch the boys immediately turned into a frantic search. As they moved about and called for the boys, a “smothered wail” was heard. Moving toward the sound, they “saw a hand pushed up through the snow.” It took only a few minutes to shovel away the snow and release 14-year-old Elmer Lee. He had been buried for about three hours.

“The rescued boy was barely able to speak and could not assist in locating his companions…There was not a mark on the surface that gave any clue as to where to look for the other three victims. Elmer Lee was taken to the house and word was sent to the neighbors for help. The telephone was used and in a few minutes people for miles around were hurrying to join in the rescue work.”

“For three hours neighbors worked furiously, hoping against hope that they might find some of the victims still alive, but one by one the lifeless bodies of the three little boys were dug out from under the heavily packed snow.”

“By the story told by the only surviving member of the little party, it seems the boys walked directly into the path of the avalanche before they had enjoyed one coast down the side of the butte.”

A few days later a funeral was held at the Lee house for eleven-year-old Julius Hillestead, and he was laid to rest in the Norwegian Lutheran cemetery in Strehlow Township.
The bodies of ten-year-old Edward Hillstead and his twelve-year-old brother Wilhelm were accompanied by their heartbroken father to Hitterdal, Minnesota, and placed next to their mother, who had died ten years earlier on the same day the boys died, “when Edward was but three weeks old.”