Historic tram victim of river ice, flood (slideshow)
By Donna Faber
For Yellowstone Newspapers
When some of the children at the Haughian ranch were nearing the age to attend high school, Dan and Leo Haughian needed to make a decision whether to send the kids to Terry or Miles City.
They decided to construct a tramway across the river and bus the kids to Terry.
Prairie County became involved in the process; in the contract, the commissioners stipulated that the Haughian Ranch would give access to the general public to use the tram to cross the Yellowstone River. The $28,000 cable car was built in 1961 after the Haughian family leased a parcel of land on the opposite side for the tower and parking space, as well as travel access to the highway.
Before the tramway, traveling to Miles City meant dirt roads to Kinsey and then highway into Miles City; many times the roads were impassible due to mud and snow. Going to Terry the back way meant yet longer time and worse road conditions. Driving or walking across the ice was also another option, depending on the condition and depth of the ice. Even after the tramway, the kids especially liked the freedom and adventure of walking the ice. It was a sad day in the spring when water started to appear on the surface and no crossing the ice was allowed.
By crossing the tram, the ranch families were now 15 miles from Terry and 26 miles from Miles City. However, the tram wasn’t without impositions: the endless packing of groceries up and down all those stairs (28 on one side and 44 on the other) for the large families, freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer, never-ending running the tram back and forth, worrying about high water and ice jams, and shivering on cold, dark nights going to Christmas midnight mass.
At first, whoever needed a ride across would honk the horn until someone on the ranch would hear and operate the tram car to bring them over. After several years, a phone was installed at the base of the tramway to call one of the houses, so communications improved greatly.
In 1969 the ice took out the cables, tramcar, and a garage, as well as damaging the steel beams. It was 6 months before the cables were installed: the big cable had to be spliced — it created a “bump” when the car passed over the splice. The kids had to move to Terry to finish out the year and catch the Cherry Creek bus the next fall.
The tramway was such a novelty for the region; it also grabbed national attention. One reporter nicknamed it the “Flying Susan” after Susan Haughian, the matron of the family. Friends and family loved to ride it; it was both a scary adventure and a rush at the same time.
All the kids who had the opportunity to “run” the tram learned responsibility. Caution was necessary; when people were transported from the other side, the operator had to make sure the door was securely closed before pushing the GO button. When the car neared the platform, it needed to be slowed down and manually stopped precisely at the right time, otherwise, the car would bump up against the support housing the pulleys.
Even though the tramway could be a burden, the kids did try to have fun with the chore. Because of the close quarters in the car, a window was taken out. The kids had fun throwing innocent things out the window to watch them fall into the river, watching people jump when the car hit the bump, thinking about not slowing the tram down to see how bad it would crash, stopping people in the middle of the river, going across the river in the middle of a thick fog in early mornings to school, and just having fun on that high tower.
When the Milwaukee Railroad was discontinued, the Haughians gradually shifted to traveling to Terry via the railroad grade instead of using the tramway.
Around midnight of Sunday, March 10, 2014, ice from a huge jam snapped the lower cable but left the car intact on the ranch side tower.
The loss of the cable has been emotional for the families who grew up with the tramway, who realized this recent destruction may mean the end of an era of the “Flying Susan.”