JC takes his troubles north
JC had been in trouble before. It’s why he was here at the mancamp, just south of the Canadian border in the winter of 1913-1914. That mess in Kansas may or may not have been his fault, but he knew fault didn’t matter. He was a colored fellow and so the odds were against him. They called it murder and so he ran.
He’d been running since he left Arkansas. His 34 years on the road were full of trouble and strife. Gambling, drunkenness, fighting and even murder charges were tied to his feet as he trudged north. He just couldn’t seem to shake the trouble that was his nature. He was wanted in Kansas, Iowa (two murders), Arkansas and Omaha and Minot.
A new start. A fresh place. That’s the ticket! Yes, he’d try getting away from it all or at least get as far away from the law as he could.
From Kansas through Omaha, J.C. Collins followed the Missouri River north, working along the way to earn enough food to keep moving. That’s how he’d heard about a place up north where colored folk were welcome. They had a good reputation there, thanks to those Buffalo Soldiers at some god-forsaken fort up north. Maybe that’s what he needed. God had forsaken him, so he might as well go to someplace up north that God had also forsaken.
Past Fort Buford on to Mondak
Those buffalo soldiers were part of a blended contingency of cast-offs. Some were galvanized confederate soldiers – those who fought for the Confederacy, but after the war, they were conscripted into the Union Army. The buffalo soldiers got their name from some of the local tribal folk, honoring them with a label reserved for the animal the tribes respected. So, if JC could make it to their neck of the woods, maybe some of the respect they had earned would rub off on him.
He didn’t know what to expect. He’d heard that the fort there at the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri River was the last stop on a downward slide in the military.
Some at Fort Buford wore blue because they’d always been Union soldiers, but they had a hard time getting along with the Army way of life. When their time was over, they found good solid work in the area. The region here in the Badlands and prairies was getting civilized. Rail companies were putting to work even the roughest characters. Roads were being built, some parts of the prairie were being homesteaded. It was a good place to find work for a dollar a day.
JC Collins was a strong, physical man. He was built for a job on the construction crew building the lift bridge over the Missouri River in 1913 and 1914. It was such raw fresh country, that JC figured he could blend in with the people. Why, the bridge itself didn’t even have an official name that everybody used. Some folk called it the Snowden Bridge, others called it the Nohly bridge. It depended on which side of the Missouri River claimed the bridge. People from the south, down by Sidney, Montana called it the Nohly Bridge.
Them few hardy souls that lived up north called it the Snowden Bridge. JC took up with the Snowden side on the north. It was surprising how the Missouri River could divide people and law enforcement. To the south, people were farming around Cartwright, Sidney, and Fairview. The north side, especially the further west of Williston you went, folk were a little more independent, still clinging to the trapper/trader/voyageur culture shared with Canada.
The Snowden Bridge Man Camp
The camp where JC settled was a few miles in to Montana from the North Dakota border. Men liked to live on the Montana side of the border because it was a drinking state. Those riled up women folk in North Dakota made that state go dry. So, if a man wanted a drink, he’d have to be in Montana. Men outnumbered women, in fact, it was tough to get women to the west side of the border town to work. So, it was a man’s world fueled by hard work, course lifestyles and whiskey. JC liked his whiskey, so he split his free time between the mancamp, Snowden and the split town of Mondak.
He figured he could make some good money at the bridge site, and if he liked it, and they liked him, he could stay. The huge contract the construction company had won to extend the Great Northern Railroad south to
Fairview and Sidney put hundreds of men to work. The lift bridge was part of the project that tied the extension to the east-west line.
JC couldn’t have picked a worse season to settle in the north. Some folk say he moved in late fall, stuck it through the winter and worked the bridge during the worst of the winter until spring’s mess – February and March are known for being two-faced. Some days warm and muddy. Other days, cold and blizzardy. For months, through the worst part of winter’s split personality, the burley JC worked on the project. People knew him to be a troublemaker, but that just meant he fit right in with the others at the man camp.
Some of the folk who lived in that Williston and Sidney area said the colored folk had their own neighborhood in the mancamp, and it was a place where Johnny Law stayed away from.
Other people just shrugged. The whole Mondak and Snowden area was a rough place. Skin color didn’t matter when it came to making trouble. White or black, trouble-makers were well known to local deputies from Medicine Lake, Montana. Even though their headquarters were in Plentywood, Montana, being in Medicine Lake got them to Mondak in about two hours by car, or half-a day by horse and wagon. It was 60 miles of rough backcountry roads Coming all the way from Plentywood took pretty much a good part of a day, 100 miles or so. That’s why the Sheriff was in Medicine Lake. It was close enough to Mondak to bring in the law when it was needed, which was pretty much most of the time according to people who lived there.
There was a shooting or a knifing every night in Mondak..
So many died in the red light district that gunmen sold protection to those who sought a little
companionship on the south side of town. “Many a man who was seen going in that direction
disappeared overnight never to be heard from again,” Midrivers.com
JC had a temper and that was both good and bad. It meant other workers were scared of him. That gave him a measure of peace. They didn’t cross him, but they didn’t like him, either. The fact is, he wore out his welcome at Mondak just like he had everywhere else. He wasn’t welcome and needed to move along to other places. They say that’s why he was in the construction office that day – getting his last paycheck. The ice was going out of the river. The ground was soft and muddy. As hard as winter work had been, muddy spring work was worse, trying to walk with 20 pounds of mud on each boot.
JC had the bug to move on. So, decided to get his paycheck and head somewhere else, maybe further upstream to Fort Benton. Maybe he’d go back to Arkansas. His ma had died while he was on the road. So, there wasn’t much reason to go back south.
The sheriff tries to make his first arrest
JC didn’t know it that day in early April, but Sheriff Thomas Courtney was on his way to arrest JC. The sheriff and his deputy didn’t expect much trouble. The character they were after had worn out his welcome in Mondak.
It was all a misunderstanding, JC proclaimed. His story was that he’d lived in a cold winter tent in the man camp through the ugly winter days of February and part of March. When one of his colored workmates, Neal Clay put together enough money to buy a shack, JC moved in with him.
Clay surprised JC by announcing he was selling the shack and moving back south. He’d had enough winter. When the new owner came to move in, JC wasn’t ready to move out. The new owner’s wife was insistent. JC must move out. Now! JC called her an “uppity woman” and that just made her even angrier.
She got in JC’s face. He hit her. Many times. With his fist. A big man, JC’s powerful fists bloodied the woman.
This new owner, the woman’s husband didn’t want any trouble. Maybe he was a timid man and he figured if he wasn’t careful, this big physical guy would clean up the dirt trail with his body. So, instead of standing up for his wife, he went to the sheriff over in Sheridan County, Montana.
That’s why about 3:30 Friday afternoon, Sheriff Courtney came looking for J.C. He brought along a deputy, and while he was at Mondak, he recruited another “deputy.” Newly-sworn-in Deputy Wilson said he knew his way around the work site, and the mancamp. This Mondak deputy said he could find J.C.
Looking for J.C.
So, Deputy Wilson went on in to the construction office to find out where he should look for JC. Sheriff Courtney and Deputy Richard Burmeister stayed outside. They leaned up against the car they used to get them to the construction site. They were relaxed, but alert. After all, this was not the Ladies Aid gathering where they were standing. Their presence created a huge stir at the work site. More than one man had escaped to this northern reach to avoid the law.
The rumor pipeline was wide open and running full. Sheriff Courtney would not just slip in and get JC and then leave. Everyone was watching to see what would happen.
Deputy Wilson walked in to the construction office. He had an arrest warrant for JC and needed to know where to find him. Maybe God had forsaken this area, maybe He hadn’t. Maybe that’s why He timed it the way it was.
You see, when the deputy went in the office it just so happened that JC was hiding behind the door. He knew there wouldn’t be much of an issue for hitting a colored woman. That wasn’t the issue. It was his past troubles that scared him. He didn’t want to be strung up for murder. He wasn’t sure he could count on justice to be on his side this far from civilization.
Deputy Wilson asked where to find J.C. Collins. He didn’t have to look far. JC stepped out from behind the door. The deputy was startled and drew his automatic pistol.
Shots fired! Officer Down!
JC already had his short barrel revolver pulled out of his overall pockets. He grabbed the pistol from the deputy and ran out the door. The big colored man surprised Sheriff Cortney. He was expecting his Deputy Wilson, not Collins to come out of the shack. The sheriff pulled his revolver to stop JC, but he was too late.
JC shot the sheriff. Twice. The sheriff died on the spot.
His back up, Deputy Burmeister took aim at JC to shoot him. JC got the drop on the deputy and with the stolen automatic pistol, he put five slugs in him –shoulder, liver, and arms, two in his leg.
Men put the wounded deputy on a special train to race at 40 miles per hour to the hospital in Williston. It took less than two hours to get the deputy in to the hospital. It didn’t help. His last words were,
“I supposed it was all over with me. I feel sorry for my wife and children. How is Sheriff Cortney? I hope he did not get killed.”
Deputy Burmeister closed his eyes and died.
On the run again
JC was on the run. He took off from the construction office ran past the staging yard and the mancamp. Into the woods along the river. The thick brush and trees along the river gave him some cover. It wasn’t enough. He was about to finally meet a force stronger than his burly toughness.
No one would openly admit what happened next, but the story can be pieced together. JC met prairie justice just hours after the shooting. What happened to JC?
Part 2 wraps up the story. It’s a bit gruesome, not nice at all. It’s why there are stories of the haunting of the region today.
Below are a few links for you to follow for more information. We’ll share more links on Monday.
Tomorrow, learn and see a bit more about the infamous town of Mondak, one of our favorite historic abandoned points in the west.
Some of the Mondak photos and Snowden Bridge photos we’ve taken over the years can be found here or here on Mykuhls Photography.
People say these photos of the Snowden Bridge bring back memories. Start your visual tour of a dozen images by clicking here. Or you can see photos of the Fairview Lift Bridge also on Mykuhls Photography.
The Snowden Bridge is one of our most popular articles. Read about it here.
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Did you know we do historical research, journalism stories and photograph archives?
North Dakota newspapers are a few of the resources consulted. Part 2 will contain a more complete list of resources. Here are a few to whet your whistle before Monday’s article: