Thursday, March 24, 2011

Frederick R. Bechdolt, The Hard Rock Man (1910)

Poster, 1890s. Artist, Edward Penfield
Here’s another forgotten book from 100 years ago. This one, by Frederick Ritchie Bechdolt (1874-1950) seems to have begun as a short story “The Hard Rock Man,” appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in November 1908. Then a serialized novel named after its main character, Tom Morton, was published in The Saturday Evening Post, May-June 1910. That same year, The Hard Rock Man came out in hard cover.

Bechdolt was a prolific writer, with more than a hundred stories and novels in various genres, starting in 1906 and lasting into the 1940s. He had an education from the University of Washington, and in his early years worked as a journalist for newspapers in several Western cities.

Maybe I’m just going tone deaf, but these early novels set in the West seem as well written as many books today. The Hard Rock Man has a nice balance of character and action, and it brings a little known world to life. It also has something to say.

Iron Mountains, Washington. Farwestern photo by Gregg M. Erickson.

Character. Like other novels of the period, it wants to say something about the growth of character in a man. In this case, the man is a young Irish immigrant, who has fetched up in the mountains of the Northwest, working on a railroad tunnel project.

Modern immigrant literature, like Dinaw Mengestu’s novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, questions the myth of the melting pot. It embraces America, but with mixed feelings. Bechdolt’s Tom Morton represents the more traditional immigrant story.  He quickly adapts to the New World, rising gradually from a lowly unskilled laborer, shoveling muck at the mouth of the tunnel, to boss of operations.

He accomplishes this chiefly out of sheer physicality. He is big, strong and fearless. When five fellow workers gang up on him, he beats the crap out of them before stopping a bullet that hardly wounds him. Graduating to jobs with more responsibility, he eventually is in charge of one of the heavy drills pounding into the hard rock inside the tunnel.

Goat Peak, Cascades, Washington. Farwestern photo by Gregg M. Erickson.

Laboring men. The novel is a vivid description of what it was to build a railway tunnel through a mountain at the turn of the last century. Bechdolt vividly describes the scene, as the men work under conditions that would send a safety engineer from OSHA into shock. The air is toxic with fumes from exhaust and dynamiting. Men die of pneumonia. The din is deafening, and there’s the frequent threat of collapsing roofs.

It takes a breed of reckless and wanton men to do this work. Some of them, in fact, are marginally criminal. A gang of miners from Couer d’Alene take jobs in the tunnel and spark a rivalry with the “hard rock” men. There is eventually a barroom fistfight between their leader, Kennedy, and Tom Morton, the entire camp crowded around them and cheering.

The life of these men is hardly romanticized. A ramshackle town serves their few needs: saloons, dancehalls, and a postmaster, who doubles as a druggist and doctor. There are heavy snows in the winter, and the streets are littered with broken bottles. Canvas signs hang across the fronts of the business establishments, reduced in time by wind and weather to tatters.

Lake Cushman, Washington. Farwestern photo by Gregg M. Erickson.
Women. Then there are the women, of which we find two kinds. In the town there are bored dancehall girls, who barely get a mention. Of more interest are the bosses’ wives and daughters, who are seldom seen, their lives beyond the comprehension of the men.

There’s a telling scene in which the men, while shoveling a path in the snow, encounter the superintendent’s daughter coming the opposite way. A line of them lift and pass her from hand to hand until she is deposited safely past them. Tom is the last in line, and holding her for a moment is enough to stir up his long submerged memories of softness and tenderness.

Putting aside the Freudian implications of the setting (sometimes a tunnel is just a tunnel), the novel is about overcoming loneliness and finding love. Becoming a man of importance, Tom wins the willing respect of all the other men – including his rival, Kennedy. But it takes an accident in the tunnel for Tom to complete his growth as a man.

Romance. Here the novel follows the lead of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and many other novels of the time. The hero is reduced to being a patient nursed back to health by the loving attention of a young woman. In this case, it is the superintendent’s daughter, Nora, who wakes in Tom his need for a life’s companion. Once recovered and getting the encouragement of the town druggist-doctor, he courts her and eventually wins her hand.

In a postmodern twist at the end Bechdolt retells the story of Tom’s life as it would have been told years later around the camp stove by a man who remembers him. It’s an American success story about a working man’s rise to the top and marriage to the boss’s daughter. But the storyteller, not given to sentiment as Bechdolt notes, leaves out the part that love played in the story’s ending. 

The Hard Rock Man is available free online here and for Nook.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Martha Sandweiss, Passing Strange


  1. Sounds a lot different from most westerns as we know them, but worth a look!

  2. Frederick R. Bechdolt is another early western writer that I like. I've read many of his stories in POPULAR MAGAZINE and just about all of them are about the young man going west and building a railroad, or a dam, or finding gold, etc. The SATURDAY EVENING POST liked this type of success story also, so it should not be a surprise to see Bechdolt appearing quite often in the slicks.

    I have to admit the one big fault with many of these writers revolves around the romance angle with the pretty young girl. I imagine pretty girls were often very rare in these frontier settings. In fact women were rare, period. Just once, I'd like to see the young man meet the boss's daughter, and she's ugly as sin!

    But I agree with Ron about the high quality of many of these novels. But then again I have to remember that except for the romance formula, POPULAR MAGAZINE and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST had very high fiction standards.

  3. Cheyenne, pretty different, yeah.

    Walker, one senses an element of romance in these stories about civil engineers and railroad men in the West. This novel is more like the cowboy western in that the central character is a laborer, not an educated man with social connections back East. Being an immigrant sets him apart once more, however, from the home-grown variety, like the Virginian.