Local Historian Keeps Digging with New Edition of ‘Wild River Pioneers’

Author John Fraley updates and expands on his book exploring the history of the Middle Fork drainage of the Flathead River

By Mike Kordenbrock
Author John Fraley as seen on the Flathead Valley Community College campus on Nov. 26, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Fifteen years ago in a Columbia Falls cemetery, John Fraley’s hands clawed into the earth and scooped away at the soil above the grave of Lena Cunningham.

A local author and historian, Fraley was researching Cunningham, a Columbia Falls mother of three and German immigrant, who had been brutally murdered in the 1890s, which set off a trial leading to the execution of Charles Black, who maintained he was innocent.

 The effort to find her grave had seemed hopeless after Woodlawn Cemetery keeper Pete Darling couldn’t find her grave where it was supposed to be.

The two then tried a metal detector. The device hit on something nearly a foot below the surface. They started digging with their hands, and eventually uncovered a worn gravestone that had become buried in the more than 100 years since her death.

“That was one of the most profound moments in my life, because it was so incredible and improbable,” Fraley said last week.

Cunningham’s is just one of the many stories unearthed and documented by Fraley in his 2008 book “Wild River Pioneers,” which explores the history of some of the more memorable residents of the Middle Fork drainage of the Flathead River.

Fraley remains restless and determined in his pursuit of the past, but a new expanded and updated edition of “Wild River Pioneers” published last summer has brought the local author and historian some degree of satisfaction.

“This is kind of my ode to the Middle Fork, to Middle Fork history,” he said. “Now that it’s updated it feels really complete.”

As Fraley explained, the stories told in “Wild River Pioneers” didn’t exactly end after publication.

In the 13 years since the first edition of the book was released, Betty The Trapper, both a subject and a source for Fraley, died, and her ashes were carried to the top of Great Northern Mountain.

Flathead County’s first sheriff, Joe Gangner, received a new headstone in St. Mary, this time with the correct spelling of his name.  

The famed bootlegger of Glacier National Park, Josephine Doody, finally got her funeral, and the park has acquired her homestead.

Fraley has also heard from people with connections to the subjects of the book, including relatives who had only heard bits and pieces of family history passed down through generations.

Fraley worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for decades before retiring in 2017 as a regional education and outreach specialist. Fraley has a background in wildlife biology and fisheries ecology, and at one point studied native trout species.

“I’m not really much of a historian or a writer. I’m more of a scientist. That was my training,” he said. “I ran into all these stories, and just started investigating them the way a scientist would.”

The book took about 10 years to research and another two to write. To some degree the history is personal to Fraley, who grew up in the Valley and has family members who interacted with some of the people chronicled in his book.

One source was his Great Aunt Doris, who knew Doody, and also George Snyder, who was behind the first hotel at Lake McDonald.

The largest chapter in the book is devoted to Snyder’s tale, which ultimately brought Fraley face-to-face with a piece of his family past.

Later in life Snyder was injured while working for the Works Progress Administration and then committed to Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs, where he died in the 1940s. Fraley said that his great aunt claimed to never know what happened to Snyder, and he only got the Warm Springs tip after reading an old Glacier National Park interview with Ace Powell.

The hospital didn’t have his record anymore by the time Fraley requested it, but the Montana Historical Society did. Fraley recalls combing through the documents inside and finding a letter written to Warm Springs by his great aunt and uncle.

“I was totally shocked,” he said.

His great aunt had known about Snyder’s final years all along, and had lied to cover it up. Fraley guessed that it had to do with the shame people at the time associated with someone being committed to Warm Springs.

“All these leads and all these crazy things, some of them just go down the rat hole,” Fraley said. “If there are all these things I found in just one drainage, it’s gotta be there for every drainage.”

John Fraley will be at the Northwest Montana History Museum’s Schoolbell Books & Gifts on Wednesday, Dec. 15, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. to sign copies of the new edition of “Wild River Pioneers.”