Captain Louis Felsenthal and the men of New Mexico’s Fort Union’s Company C were out in the field in September and October 1864, escorting mail-and-passenger stagecoaches between Fort Lyon and Fort Union. This should have been pleasant enough duty on the Plains in the fall of the year—the heat reduced, plenty of grass for the mules pulling the supply wagons, golden trees lining the rivers that crossed the open prairie.
But the duty wasn’t pleasant. The weather that fall was unusually cold. By October 20, Felsenthal and his men were experiencing snowstorms every few days. They hadn’t expected these kinds of conditions and didn’t have winter clothing with them. They must have been glad when their two-month rotation ended and they could head back to Fort Union.
They were en route to the Fort, on the north side of Raton Pass, when they were caught in the worst snowstorm they’d seen to date. The company and its animals struggled up and over the Pass, then down to Red River Station, where they sheltered as snow continued to fall all that night and through the next morning.
At that point, the snow on level ground was over a foot and a half deep. And still coming down. It fell steadily snow for two more days until Felsenthal, worried about the lack of forage for the mules, decided to break for Fort Union.
Four days later, after marching through snow that reached to their waists, men, wagons, and mules arrived at Lucien B. Maxwell’s ranch in what is today’s Cimarron). By the time they got there, many of the men had frostbitten feet and most of them were snow blind from the glare of the sun on the snow. But they’d all made it.
One reason Felsenthal and his men survived their trek is that a herd of cattle destined for Fort Union was also marooned by the storm at Red River Station. As a result, the Captain was able to buy 378 pounds of beef to feed his men, giving them the fuel they needed for their coming journey.
They were also fortunate to reach Red River Station when they did. The storm that closed in after Company C arrived there extended north and east across the Colorado plains, creating deep drifts on the stage route between Bent’s Old Fort and Denver and making the divide between the Arkansas and the Platte Rivers particularly treacherous.
You can just never tell what the weather’s going to do on the Western Plains.
Sources: Jacqueline Dorgan McKenna, Louis Felsenthal, Citizen Soldier of Territorial New Mexico, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.