Rooster’s Mistake: Chapter 1, “At the Train” with the Carters and Nelsons

It’s been a minute, but here is the first earnest installment in Rooster’s Mistake. If you missed the introduction to this found object mystery, check out my original post.

Livingston, Montana, grew with the railroad and the depot on the Northern Pacific (NP) Railway served not only as the gateway to Yellowstone National Park but the architectural center of the city. This was especially true after 1902, when the NP refurbished the station to accommodate greater and more affluent crowds. But, with the crushing waves of the Great Depression, the crowds at the NP depot thinned out and diversified into a mix of affluent travelers, idle citizens, and drifters.

Livingston  Depot
The Livingston depot during the early 1900s. Postcard image from the Railroads of Montana website.

By the summer of 1936, however, as the Traveler completed his outward journey across the country, Montana newspapers reported a welcomed increase in travelers to both Yellowstone National Park in the south and Glacier National Park in the north. Less than three years before, large sections of the NP in Montana were washed away in floods on the St. Regis River, causing major interruptions to rail traffic. In addition, wool prices rose by over a third from the previous year and record amounts of wool sheared from local sheep left the NP freight depot that summer.

“At The Train” from the Traveler’s diary. Note the “18” at the bottom, but count the names. There are actually 19.

The Traveler arrived in Livingston during an unusually optimistic intermission between the Dust Bowl and World War Two. The 19 faces waiting to greet him at the station were mostly from local farm families and they soaked up the lively activity at the depot, a sign of greater things to come and a promise of prosperity. Local reporters regularly visited the depot to catch up on the economic news, word of capital improvements and wrecks on the NP, and the odd theft. Just a couple of weeks after the Traveler’s arrival, another young man, Edward Carl, reported the theft of his suitcase at the NP depot in Butte, containing “extra trousers and suits of underwear,” no small loss during the nation’s record-setting heatwave. Government officials, dignitaries, and celebrities came through the Livingston depot to visit Yellowstone, although automobile traffic continued to gain ground. While they were excited for the arrival of their long-lost relative, the men and women were also distracted by other social engagements—greeting friends back from travel, comparing takes in the latest wool freight, and catching up with the news in general.

1892 birds eye view of Lston
Bird’s-eye view of Livingston, Montana, c.1922. The depot is at the center of the photograph bisected by the fold. Photo from the Library of Congress website.


The list of 18* names entitled “At The Train” is the launch pad not only for figuring out the identity of the Traveler, but also for constructing an immediate and intimate context for him: family. They were, after all, the reason he traveled across the country, likely at great expense and effort. Based on some info-snippets from the diary, like his departure from “T.” and “A.,” probably Troy and Albany, New York, on the Cornelius Vanderbilt, a famed New York state based passenger line in the 1930s, I believe the Traveler came from somewhere in New York State. The best way to start exploring his origins is to examine the web that kept him connected to such a large group of people in Montana.

Since the Traveler neglected to sketch out kinship diagrams with his list (shame!), I hoped to reconstruct relationships and maybe build a better case for his New York origin. To do this, I plugged names into the 1930 and 1940 US Census, starting with the Carter and Nelson women, mostly because they were some of the only people with first and last names. From there, I was able to match up husbands and wives from the list, and some children, and identified four thirty-something couples with little kids, accounting for 13 of the 19 members of the welcoming party, including some mystery people with no clear affiliations at first.

The cast “at the train.” Names in red were my starting point for the census search. Uncle Bill wasn’t at the train, but he reappears later in the diary.

Three of the women—Mildred Nelson, Edna Carter, and Jane Nelson—present at the train station had a New York-born father and a Pennsylvania-born mother, so I operated on the assumption that these women were somehow related. Since they were all born around the turn of the 20th century, I went back to the 1910 census and searched for Mildred, Edna, and Jane when they would have been unmarried sisters. That’s where I came up with the Allen family, the first connection between Montana and New York state some fifty years before the Traveler came to Park County. But, that story will have to wait for another day.

Another illustrious illustration. The Allen girls and their husbands.

Mildred, Edna, and Jane were born in Montana between 1897 and 1905 to Albert W. Allen of New York and Maggie Shorthill of Pennsylvania. Jane and Mildred both married sons of Swedish immigrants, Seaman and Floyd Nelson. Hazel Nelson, another member of the welcoming party, but not one of the sisters, also married another son from the same Swedish family, Nels Edward. Edna married Eugene William Carter, a son of an English father and a Wisconsin-born mother. The Traveler’s list has a “Jean Carter,” but I couldn’t find anyone by that name in the census in Park County. Given the young man’s misspellings, it is possible that Jean is actually “Gene,” as in “Eugene.” The Traveler also wrote “Sam Nelson,” but this could also be Seaman Nelson, Jane’s husband.

By 1936, the families lived in one of three places, each within about six or seven miles of each other. Hazel and Nels lived in Livingston where he worked as a machinist’s assistant on the Northern Pacific Railway. Jane and Seaman Nelson and Edna and Eugene Carter both lived on farms on Suce Creek and Mildred and Floyd Nelson lived a little south of there on Pine Creek. Later that week, the Traveler went fishing with Floyd and Mildred and had supper with them on July 6. The next two days he spent at least part of his evening at Edna Carter’s. He had dinner twice at Hazel Nelson’s house in Livingston, once on the 2nd and again on the 13th of July. Oddly, he referred to her as Hazel Shorthill in one of those entries, suggesting he knew her when she was single, but we’ll get to that family and more of the New York connection later.

Bridge to Pine Creek across the Yellowstone River
An iron truss bridge crossing the Yellowstone River on the way to Pine Creek. The bridge was built in 1910 by a Livingston-based company. Photo from Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress website.

There were four other people at the station that didn’t quite fit the pattern, but I was able to figure out how they settle into place. First, there was Mr. and Mrs. Carter, no first names given. Luckily, I stumbled upon this couple in the 1930 census, listed two houses down from Eugene and Edna Carter. A little more census sleuthing found that T.O. and Eliza Carter were Eugene’s parents.

Right under Mr. and Mrs. Carter on the Traveler’s list was a person named Charline, no last name given. This was pretty easy because “Charlene” appeared on the 1930 and 1940 census as a daughter of Hazel Nelson. Charl(e/i)ne would have been about 15 at the time.

One last straggler was Helen Myers, listed third over all under Edna Carter.  The best I could find was on the 1910 census entry for 10-year old Hazel (Shorthill) Nelson, which listed her cousin, 9-year old Helen Allen, a young girl with a New York-born father and a Pennsylvania-born mother. Helen may have been another sister of the Allen girls, but for some reason she was living apart from her family. Hopefully, I’ll have more about Helen Myers in the future.

So, what does it all mean at this point? I am no closer to solving the identity of the young Traveler, but the Allen family may hold some clues to his suspected New York State origins. His slip-up in referring to Hazel Nelson as Hazel Shorthill also suggests that he knew her before she was married, probably around 1920 or so. The list also has some kids who were there at the train station who may still be alive today, including Charline Nelson (Hazel’s daughter), who would be about 89 or 90, Edwin Nelson (Jane’s son), who would be about 85, and Allen Nelson (Mildred’s son), who would be about 90.


Next time, I’ll play “Pin the Surnames on the Aunts and Uncles,” and explore the connection with the Shorthill family, including the eponymous cemetery where many of the people “at the train” reside currently. In the meantime, I am working on an Esri StoryMap for the Traveler’s time in Montana. I will post once that is up and public.

*The list in the diary is annotated with an “18” at the bottom, because the Traveler liked to count. But, he miscounted Mr. and Mrs. Carter as one, making it actually 19 people waiting at the station. Not the first screw-up in the ol’ Marquette senior diary.

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