William Clyde Moreland
Ridgerunner: Elusive Loner of the Wilderness
by Richard Ripley
During the early 1940s in Idaho’s expansive Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, a few items disappeared from a tent camp, then from a lookout tower, and a ranger station. Eventually, the continuing loss of food and supplies at such isolated sites confirmed the presence of a mysterious stranger. For years no one saw him, even though he entered forest service quarters while employees slept. In the winter, when he did leave tracks, they were found on the most inhospitable ridges and earned him the regard of locals who could appreciate the severe conditions and hardships of survival under such circumstances. The forest service, determined to catch him, sent out their best…
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The Clearwater National Forest is located in North Central Idaho in the northwestern United States. The forest is bounded on the east by the state of Montana, on the north by the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, and on the south and west by the Nez Perce National Forest and Palouse Prairie. The forest is located in Idaho, Clearwater, and Shoshone counties. (Wikipedia)
The Ridgerunner was a man in northern Idaho who spent 13 years living in the wilderness of the North Fork of the Clearwater River, stealing from Ranger Stations. (Wikipedia)
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Photo of Bill Moreland by R Benson
courtesy Robert Campbell
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William Clyde Morland or Moreland
There have been a number of stories written about a man locally known as the Ridgerunner. Most of these stories describe him as a crafty woodsman who by various tricks eluded capture by the Forest Service for years. The writers make a hero out of him by picturing him as a poor individual who by his cunning outsmarted and evaded the forces of a powerful U.S. organization that pursued him constantly. Well, the Ridgerunner was an unusual character, but he was not the hero pictured.
The Ridgerunner’s true name was William Clyde Morland or Moreland. According to information collected by F.B.I. agent, A.J. Cramer, Morton Roark and others, Moreland was born October 1, 1900, near Landsaw, Kentucky. His father and mother separated when he and his sister were small. Bill went to live with his mother. His sister, who was older, lived with the father. Bill’s mother soon died and he was raised by his grandfather, Bill Stone. Later he and his grandmother lived on a farm in Indiana.
Bill went to school just long enough to reach the fifth grade. He ran away and from 12 to 16 years of age spent most of his time in reform schools. Finally, when 17 he went to work for a lumber company in Michigan. He tried to enlist in the Army in 1917 but was too young and too small.
After this he drifted. He was sentenced in 1921 to 1-3 years for burglary in Arizona under the name of John Howard. In 1922 he was sentenced to 2-4 years for grand larceny in Arkansas under the name of John Williams. He also used the name of W.C. Morrison. He carried the nicknames of “Wildcat” and “Dago” from being in the brush so much when he was young.
From 1923 to 1933 he wandered over the country but spent considerable time in Tacoma and Seattle. He says he hired out in 1932 at Lewiston, Idaho to a sheepman who had a place near Mountain Home. Other parts of his story indicate that this ranch was in Oregon, a short distance west of the Snake River. He was there only a short time. He claims he got in trouble over a girl on the sheep ranch near Mountain Home. He gave her name as Rose Baker or Baton, but no such person could be located. The girl’s mother, he says, was trying to frame him and he took to the hills. He gave the name of the owner or chief herder of the outfit as Kuhnhouser, but here again nobody by that name could be located.
He spent the winter of 1932-33 in the Sawtooth Range of south Idaho. He subsisted on venison which he snared with telephone wire and stole from the Forest Service. He did not possess a gun. In 1934 he went to Shoup, Salmon and Gibbonsville, but wintered near Chamberlain Basin. In Chamberlain he tried to steal an airplane. The keys were in it but he couldn’t get it started. He had no knowledge of how to fly a plane. A check with the pilot confirmed that someone did molest a plane at Chamberlain Landing Field at that time.
In January 1936 a man who fits his description robbed Frank Lantz’s place on the upper Salmon River. In addition to stealing food he took a 250-3000 rifle. Upon discovery of the theft, Frank Lantz and another man gave chase and pressed Bill so close that he was compelled to abandon the gun and packsack to make his escape.
After escaping from the Salmon River, Bill crossed over to the old Meadow Creek Ranger Station. This was quite a journey to be undertaken in January, and demonstrates this man’s ability to survive in the severest weather with little food or shelter. He wintered in and around the Meadow Creek Ranger Station.
In 1936, Bill spent considerable time around the upper Selway country. It was at this time he found a Forest Service key in one of the buildings he entered. From this key he took impressions in soap and set to work making a key. It took him quite a while to get one that would work but finally he succeeded. Thereafter, Bill entered all buildings by means of a key. He never broke in which made it difficult to detect an illegal entrance of short duration. He made these keys out of tin from meat cans. To support the key, he filed a jackknife blade thin. By inserting the key and knife into the lock together he could open any Forest Service lock.
Late in 1936, Bill traveled north as far as Red Ives, going by way of Powell, Kelly Creek, Cedars and the old Chamberlain Meadows Cabin. This was a winter trip and in telling of it Bill said that he almost perished.
From 1937 to 1942 Bill roamed the back-country of the Clearwater and St. Joe Forests. He spent a great deal of his time near Roundtop Ranger Station, which was his chief source of supplies. During this time the Forest Service knew that its cabins were being entered, but this was not unusual. The Forest Service did not realize that many of these entrances were by the same man. It was during this time that Moreland thought he was being pursued and he later stated that he did something every day to throw the trackers off his trail.
On June 9, 1942 the first known theft of property by Moreland on the Clearwater Forest occurred. He entered a trail camp at the Forks of Isabella Creek, while the crew was at work, and stole some food, clothing, a bed and packsack. In one of the clothes pockets was a draft card of W.C. Turner. This was Bill’s first knowledge that the nation was at war. He read on the back of the card that everyone of his age must have a draft card. Bill later tried to alter this card to fit his description, but ruined it in the attempt.
The camp theft of August 1942 was the event that started action to capture Moreland. In casting about for a person who might have committed the theft it was concluded that it was probably Charles “Baldy” Webber. Webber was wanted for attempted murder and was also a short man. Actually, Moreland is five feet two inches tall and Webber five feet five inches. Thereafter, it was supposed that the Ridgerunner was Webber until his capture. The Forest officers got together and compared notes and it then dawned upon them that the same man had broken into many cabins before the theft of 1942.
A study of methods used clearly showed that it was the same person. He entered with a key; at night he lit candles and dripped candle wax over floors and tables; he never washed dishes, disposed of garbage, or cut wood if any was available; he had a special liking for jam and left opened cans scattered about.
Moreland spent the winter of 1942-43 around the Roundtop country. In March the ranger went to Roundtop and apparently Moreland saw him coming and fled. The Ranger followed his tracks until he got below the snow line. Moreland said he escaped by hiding in a hollow tree. Following this narrow escape Moreland changed his headquarters and shacked up in an old homesteader’s cabin near the mouth of Gold Creek. This cabin was a long way from the National Forest. There was no trail to the cabin and it was away from the river far enough that it could not be seen by travelers on the river.
In June of 1943 Moreland stole a 90-day ration from a lookout building. It had been packed there in anticipation of occupying the lookout as soon as the weather made it necessary. When the man arrived for duty the food was gone. In September of that year Moreland also stole a 22-caliber rifle from the Collins Creek cabin. This was the first time he had a gun with which to kill game. He had this rifle when captured in 1945. He said that he was so thrilled to get this gun that, although he had entered the cabin to get food supplies, he grabbed it and raced away.
On March 30, 1944 two Forest Service employees, Louis Holt and Clyde Cole, came to the Flat Creek cabin and found Moreland inside. He was preparing supper. They could have easily taken him prisoner, but did not know they had the authority to do so. They ate supper together, after which Moreland picked up his rifle and walked away.
Holt and Cole telephoned to the Bungalow that they had seen Webber (as they supposed). An effort to overtake Moreland was then started. Morton Roark and Mickey Durant were dispatched to the Canyon Ranger Station via the Bungalow to follow his trail and arrest him if possible. There was no snow along the river and Moreland had better than a two day head-start. This was going to be a very difficult mission.
Roark and Durant took a truck to the Bungalow and hiked downriver, reaching Canyon Ranger Station on the second day. They picked up Moreland’s tracks and he had passed the station.
They arose early on the third day and started downriver. A short distance below the station Roark noticed tracks going upriver. The track showed a different pair of shoes than those that went down river, but Roark concluded that it was probably the same man, so they followed this track. The man had gone around the Canyon Station and back to the trail and continued upriver. This effort to avoid meeting anyone was further evidence that it was the “Ridgerunner”.
Roark and Durant followed this man up the river to Skull Creek and then up it to the Collins Creek cabin at the forks of Collins and Skull Creeks.
They were sure that they would find their man in this cabin. Although he had been there and cooked a meal, as evidenced by the stove being warm, he was nowhere about. The cabin was locked and apparently a bed and some food were missing. The two men were sure their man would return so they locked the door on the outside and crawled in a window and awaited his return. They were supperless and went to bed to keep warm. Durant snored loudly all night, but Roark stayed awake and listened and waited with his gun ready. Nothing happened. At daylight, Roark crawled out the window and watched and waited for the man’s return, but no luck.
Finally, Roarke woke Durant. They were almost starved since they had not eaten supper the night before so they cooked and ate breakfast. After breakfast they took up the trail which led across the creek on a footlog. On the other side the two men separated and started to comb the hillside. Soon Roark saw his man breaking limbs off a tree to start a fire. He motioned to Durant and the two men got together. It was agreed that Roark should approach the man while Durant covered him with a rifle.
Roark approached within a few feet of his man before he was noticed. Roark took a look at his fellow but he did not fit the description of the look “Ridgerunner”. Roark remarked, “You don’t like the fellow we were sent after, but you will do”.
This man had good outdoor clothes and a packsack. He carried no fire arms. He had a key, made from a spoon that would open Forest Service locks. He offered no resistance, but could give no satisfactory reason for being in that locality. He wouldn’t talk much, and was very nervous. He pled guilty to a charge of burglary and received a sentence of 90 days. He gave the name of Davis. F.B.I. records showed he had a criminal record of burglary and theft. He was not wanted. How many cabins this man had broken into no one will ever know. Perhaps some entries charged to the “Ridgerunner” were actually his. Davis was never seen again.
Of course, this man diverted attention from the Ridgerunner who later stated that he became frightened and decided he would change locations for the summer. He headed south and drifted as far as Meadow Creek on the Nezperce Forest. He stole some food and clothes from a trail maintenance camp on Rhoda Creek. In the fall he returned to his regular winter headquarters near the mouth of Gold Creek. He obtained his winter supplies by theft from a logging camp that was not in use. It was mostly peanut butter.
In the winter of 1945 the Forest Service decided to make a special effort to capture the Ridgerunner. Morton Roark and Lee Horner were picked as two of the best woodsmen and instructed in what they should do. They set up traplines. Roark trapped around the Bungalow and Horner around the Canyon Station. Occassionally they would meet at the Flat Creek cabin. They kept in touch with the Supervisor’s Office by radio.
On February 2, 1945, Roark and Horner met at the Flat Creek Cabin. They spent a day there skinning some coyotes they had trapped. They then decided to go to Canyon Ranger Station together. They started downriver. Travel was slow because there was a crusted snow which the elk had punched so full of holes that footing was poor.
Just above the Skull Creek cabin they came to rubber shoe tracks which they concluded were those of the Ridgerunner. The snow was thoroughly tracked up showing that he had made numerous trips to this point to look upriver. It may be that he saw them approaching, but Roark didn’t think he did. They decided to wait until near dark and then rush the cabin. This they did. It was empty, but the Ridgerunner had been there. The door was closed and the padlock hooked in the hasp, but it was not snapped shut. They looked around the cabin and crossed to the forks of the trail up Skull Creek. There were numerous tracks, but darkness closed in so they could not be followed.
Roark and Horner stayed that night at Skull Creek cabin. They decided that the Ridgerunner had likely gone to Canyon Ranger Station and was spending the night there. The weather was so severe that they could not believe a man would camp out without a shelter. They planned to surprise him at daybreak. They arose at about 1 o’clock. Roark said he didn’t sleep. They walked to Canyon Ranger Station, arriving just before daybreak. They hid near the buildings and waited for signs of life. Daylight came but no one was there. They then examined the trail and found that the Ridgerunner had not come down the river to Canyon Ranger Station but was somewhere up river.
They next decided that the Ridgerunner had probably gone to Collins Creek Cabin, so they went there, but no one had been up the Collins Creek Trail more than half a mile or so. They returned to Skull Creek for the night. This was quite a bit of hiking for one day.
Roark and Horner radioed for new showshoes and a radio. Their shoes were wearing out and their radio was failing. These were dropped by parachute at Canyon Ranger Station and they hiked down there and back to get them. By that evening Ranger Lewis, Amsbaugh, Meneely, and Holt arrived at Canyon Ranger Station to join in the hunt.
The next two days were spent patrolling the trails in hopes of picking up the Ridgerunner. The belief was that he did not have enough food to keep hidden more than a few days and would have to come to one of the cabins. During these two days Roark studied the Ridgerunner’s tracks carefully. He concluded that the Ridgerunner had left the trail between Skull Creek and Canyon Ranger Station where the trail crossed a small creek. The Ridgerunner had walked up this creek in the water where he would make no tracks and was, so Roark reasoned, camped somewhere on the mountain side above, likely under an overhanging cliff.
That night Roark and Horner planned to capture the Ridgerunner. They decided that he was camped somewhere up the small creek and was likely watching his trail. They concluded that their best approach would be to go up Skull Creek and climb the ridge and this put themselves above him.
The next day they put their plan into operation. They went up Skull Creek about one mile and climbed the ridge to the left. This ridge is extremely steep and, with snow on the ground, progress was slow. They did not reach the top until about noon. They then hoped they were above the Ridgerunner and started downslope by a series of long switchbacks, keeping a sharp eye out for any signs. After losing some elevation Roark saw some smoke. He whispered to Horner and tried to point it out to him, but Horner could not see it. Finally neither man could see the smoke. They proceeded as before and came upon a very fresh man’s track going uphill. This they followed a short distance and found where the Ridgerunner had cut some kindling out of cedar tree and gone back down the hill by a different route. They followed this trail and soon they could plainly see smoke from a camp fire. They stole closer, keeping a large tree between them and the fire. They looked around the tree, one on either side. They saw a camp consisting of a piece of canvas thrown over a pole to make a crude shelter. It was open at both ends. The smoke was coming from under this canvas, but they could not see the Ridgerunner because one side of the canvas hid him.
Roark and Horner had previously agreed that should they come upon the Ridgerunner they were to separate and come at him from two sides. At a nod they advanced. Horner had one of his snowshoes catch in some brush before he could reach the Ridgerunner. Roark came upon him and the Ridgerunner later said that he first knew of Roark’s presence when he saw his snowshoes on the opposite side of the fire and heard him say “Don’t move”.
Roark and Horner had expected to find Baldy Webber, a murderer, armed to the teeth. Instead they had captured a meek little man, trembling with fright, armed only with a .22 rifle and it leaning against a tree. His only shelter was a piece of canvas thrown over a horizontal pole. He had a kapok bed rolled out under this canvas but it was sopping wet. His clothes were ragged and worn. He wore two pairs of “tin pants”, or weatherproofed trousers. He had no underwear and used dishtowels for sox. He had improvised a shirt out of a Forest Service blanket. He had lost most of his teeth. He later said that they had become loose and he pulled them. This may be an indication that he had had a touch of scurvy. He carried a pocketknife, some matches, a 6-inch fry pan, some aspirin, a bottle of cloves, a .22 rifle with cartridges, a small axe and a Forest Service key of his own make. He had no snowshoes. He was cooking his last morsel of food.
This man must have suffered greatly from cold, hunger, and toothache. Why did he choose to lead such an existence? Certainly not for love of the outdoor life. He must have been in great fear, either real or fancied. It was probably the latter, but no one will ever know.
Following Moreland’s arrest in 1945, he was sentenced to one to five years for burglary, but it was suspended. He actually spent about 90 days in jail at Orofino. During this time he was sent to the State Hospital for observation. The report of the hospital was that he was rather antisocial, but no more apt to harm anyone than the ordinary individual.
The public sympathized with Moreland. They admired anyone that could live in the mountains without support for 13 years. The fact he robbed Forest Service and other cabins did not cause them concern. The Forest Service estimated that it cost the United States over a thousand dollars a year to feed him and then there was all the inconvenience he caused and his messes they had to clean up. Stories were built up about what he had done and how clever he was in throwing Forest Officers off his trail. Actually the Forest Service personnel followed Moreland only three times.
One out of Roundtop when he came very close to getting caught, the time Roark and Durant followed him a short distance and the last time by Roark and Horner when they caught him. In his imagination he was being pursued almost daily and repeatedly eluded arrest. He told many stories of these exploits and many people believed them.
There was one thing about Moreland that cannot be denied. He could live outdoors with very little shelter. He stayed in Government cabins at times, but for fear of being caught he usually camped under cliffs, in old abandoned cabins or some sort of an improvised shelter.
While the above may be an ability to be admired, he had many less commendable habits. He was always filthy dirty and you could tell when he had stayed in a cabin by the dirt he left behind. He never washed a dish or disposed of his garbage. If there was a cap over the stovepipe to keep out rain or snow he frequently would not remove it, but disconnected the pipe and opened a window for the smoke to go out. He used candles for light and dripped wax over the table and floors. He never replaced the wood he burned which is a violation of the woodsman’s code of ethics.
After he was released from jail in 1945, A.B. Curtis hired him to work for the Clearwater Potlatch Timber Protective Association. Moreland also worked for the Potlatch Forests, Inc. as a grease monkey and as a watcher on Camp T flume. He couldn’t get along with other people, particularly with foremen. He had a hatred for anyone in authority. In June 1950, he was accused of dynamiting a P.F.I. tractor, but a jury refused to convict him. Then in 1952, he fired some shots around Studebaker, a P.F.I. foreman, for which he received a six month sentence. The result of all this was that by 1953 no one would hire him.
He then took up residence at the old Smith Homestead at the mouth of Milk Creek and improvised a shelter out of what had been a root cellar by adding to it with split cedar boards. From this place he operated a great deal like he had in the past. That is, his chief source of food supplies was by theft from the logging camps, the Forest Service, and the Association. However, he did raise a garden and hunted and fished, but he was a poor hunter.
Prior to this time, Moreland had written letters to various people complaining about how he was being treated. Now he settled down in earnest using stationery he stole from the Canyon Ranger Station. He wrote letters to the Governor, the Regional Forester, the Forest Supervisor and the P.F.I. He gave his address as the Milk Creek Ranger Station, flew the American flag, which he had stolen, and signed himself as a special agent of the U.S. Government. His letters were full of accusations about everyone in authority. He accused them of murder, theft, poisoning elk, etc., but usually he accused them of sexual crimes. He never accused me of any crime, but he referred to me as “Blackie”. At first I wondered why. In my youth, when my hair was black, I had at times been called “Blackie”, but that was before my hair turned gray. He finally stated in one of his letters I was called “Blackie” because I was married to a Negro. My wife was a blonde Norwegian!
I came to the forest in 1954. I read Moreland’s history and the stack of letters he had written to the Forest Supervisor. I concluded that, in spite of what the hospital people had said, the man was definitely insane and dangerous, and should be in a hospital.
About a month after coming to the Forest, I took part in the State Land Board trip down the North Fork. This was sponsored by A.B Curtis of the Clearwater and Potlatch Associations. We boarded rafts at the mouth of Beaver Creek and started downriver. On the way down, Curtis was kidded about the Ridgerunner and some of the things he had said about Curtis. This aroused the interest of the party and when we came near Moreland’s shack someone proposed we go ashore and see him. I protested, but no one gave heed. As we neared shore Moreland fired a shot with a .22 pistol. He must have fired into the dirt because no bullet hit the raft or the water, nor did I hear it hit the woods on the opposite side.
In spite of the shot we went ashore and Curtis walked up to Moreland. By this time Moreland had taken the cartridges out of the .22 six-shooter and pulled out the pin that holds the cylinder in place. He said he had lost the pin and was looking for it. Curtis questioned him about some of the statements he had made, but all he got out of the Bill was that the statements were true. He said he wasn’t shooting at us when he fired the shot. We left, but one of the party who stayed a little longer to look at Bill’s garden saw him take the lost pin out of his shirt pocket and replaced it in the cylinder.
In March 1956 I received word from a local pilot that someone was at the Canyon Ranger Station which the Forest Service did not occupy during the winter months. Suspecting that it was Moreland, Ranger Cowles flew there in a helicopter and caught him in the residence. He was eating Forest Service food, which he said he was entitled to since he was a Government Agent.
Again he had neglected to take the cap off the chimney. The house was so badly smoked up that it had to be redecorated. All the dishes were dirty and garbage scattered about. He was feeding Forest Service hay to the elk and deer. He had shoveled the snow off the buildings which was unnecessary since the were designed to carry the snow load, but this made a favorable impression on the judge.
He was arrested and flown to Orofino. The judge took the matter very lightly. He felt that anyone in the mountains during the winter should have the privilege of entering Government cabins. Moreland was in the county jail for 60 days and was then released. He returned to the “Milk Creek Ranger Station”.
Following Moreland’s release I asked the assistance of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney. They were very cooperative and assured me that they would be glad to handle the case. In discussing the case with the U.S. Attorney I told him that it was my opinion that Moreland was insane and that our efforts should be directed toward getting him into a mental institution instead of putting him in prison for a short time and then allowing him to go back to his former way of life. The Attorney agreed.
During the winter of 1957 Moreland stole a powersaw from the Skull Creek cabin, a .45 pistol and clothes from an employee at Canyon and other equipment and food supplies. The FBI agents flew in by helicopter to his place and searched it. They recovered the saw and the pistol, but the numbers were filed off. They recovered other property. The pistol was sent to Washington and there identified as having the same numbers as the one that was stolen. That fall Moreland was arrested for grand larceny.
When he came up for trial he refused to enter a plea and refused legal advice. Assistant U.S. Attorney Whittier then suggested to the judge that Moreland was not mentally competent to understand the gravity of the charge and suggested that he be given a mental examination.
He was examined by several doctors who reported that Moreland was suffering from malnutrition and was insane and dangerous. He was committed to the mental hospital.
Moreland escaped in May 1959 and returned to his old shack, but Hall landed his helicopter there and persuaded him to return to the hospital.
About two years later the hospital released Moreland. He returned to the locality of the Canyon Ranger Station. One day the District Ranger met him on the trail and stopped to talk to him. The Ranger introduced himself and Moreland gave a different name. The Ranger asked him if he wasn’t Moreland and he said he was, but Moreland had become a bad name so he had taken a new name. The Ranger then asked him if he planned to stay in the area. Moreland replied that he came back to see if the country was like he remembered it or if he had merely been dreaming. He said that he did not plan to stay. That was the last time Moreland was seen in the Clearwater country.
source: A History of the Clearwater National Forest 1981 – Chapter 24 pgs 158-166
By Ralph S. Space Clearwater National Forest Supervisor, 1954-1963
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“Charlie Smith trapped Isabella and Collins Creeks. His homestead at the mouth of Milk Creek was his base.”
pg 139 (ibid)
“Only one homestead was listed on the North Fork at the mouth of Milk Creek. It was later abandoned and is now under Dworshak Reservoir.”
pg 54 (ibid)
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Moreland and Milk Creek Cabin
courtesy Robert Campbell