Strahorn, Dell (1854-1925)

  • By Barbara Fleischman Cochran
  • Posted 5/12/2005
  • Essay 7315

The author of this People's History, Barbara Fleischman Cochran, was a regional historian in Spokane, author of Exploring Spokane's Past, and a member of the faculty at Washington State University. She prepared this piece on the life of pioneer writer and author Carrie Adell (Green) "Dell" Strahorn for The Pacific Northwesterner Vol. 27, No. 4 (Fall 1983), pp. 50-55. It is here reprinted by permission.

Dell Strahorn: A Pioneer With Style

Our image of the Victorian lady is one of a helpless female protected by her husband, surrounded by her children, and completely absorbed in the management of her large, well-appointed, befringed, and cluttered mansion. That she could spend a night with 26 men in one room, and retain her modesty, that she used a gun when necessary, and that she rode the cow-catcher of a train over the Continental Divide doesn't fit the pattern. Yet Carrie Adell (Green) Strahorn was a Victorian Lady. She was refined, cultured, well-educated, womanly, home-loving, modest, and completely devoted to her husband and his career.

When circumstances required that she ride astride rather than the preferred side-saddle, she always kept a long skirt in her saddle bag which she donned immediately upon descending. Women's lib wasn't even around the corner as Dell never saddled her own horse, and for most of her life there was a male cook in the kitchen or at the campfire. This she accepted graciously with nary a twinge that it should be otherwise.

An Illinois Childhood

Born January 1, 1854, Dell grew up with two sisters in Marengo, a small town in northeastern Illinois. Her father, a noted surgeon, had established a liberal home atmosphere that did not embody the usual Victorian restraints. His daughters were permitted to pursue their own abilities. One daughter graduated from Woman's Medical College of Chicago, and became well known in the Chicago medical profession as well as in literary circles. Carrie Adell, the middle child, had an excellent singing voice and studied under some of the outstanding American and European teachers. She was also a graduate of the University of Michigan.

Marriage to Robert Edmund Strahorn in 1877 began a life for Dell far removed from the concert stage. Bob, a former newspaper reporter, was a newly hired public relations man for the Union Pacific Railroad at the time of its development of the west under Jay Gould. Gould wanted wholesale emigration west of the Missouri River so that businesses would be established and tonnage waiting to be shipped before his railroad got to those remote areas. It bothered Gould not one twit that this was opposite to the usual order.

He knew that Strahorn had the talent he needed, so he hired Bob to report graphically and statistically on the resources of the West, to be compiled into a book and leaflets, maps, folders, and an eight-page monthly paper. He expected Bob to write half-a-dozen other books on the territories and states of the west in great detail -- all for the purpose of enticing settlers to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. This was perhaps the biggest public relations job ever undertaken, but at 25, Bob Strahorn had boundless ambition.

In order for Dell to accompany him, Strahorn had to get permission and passes from the company. The thought of a woman, especially a refined lady like Dell, enduring the rough roads and trails, the unknown dangers from Indians, all kinds of weather, the terrain from mountains to alkali deserts, the more often than not crude and primitive housing conditions was enough to make the company officials blanch. Some of the area was still listed on maps as "unexplored." But Strahorn was insistent -- and so was Carrie Adell. Thus began their "stage coach honeymoon" which this husband-wife team fused into a lifetime partnership. In fact, Dell always referred to her husband as "Pard."

Salary was something Bob completely forgot to ask about, and Dell, Victorian lady that she was, assumed her husband would take care of her, and never gave finances a thought. As Bob was long on courage, confidence, and expedients, they headed for Salt Lake City with only 10 dollars to cover the next three months' expenses.

To Montana by Stage

Dell's first trip into Montana came the next year when the Bannock Indian War in southern Idaho was at its height. Although travel through the Blackfoot country had been forbidden, Pard booked passage on the first stage coach going to Helena. Every available space was jammed with mail and express, which had been held up for several days. This left room for only three people on the rear seat of the old Concord stage. A fellow from New York was the third passenger. With barely enough room to sit in a perfectly straight position, they pulled out at 9 p.m. for the five day-and-night ride to Helena. The men were armed, not knowing what to expect.

The dinner stop the next night was at a tiny cabin with an inscription over the door: "Hotel de Starvation, 1000 miles from hay and grain, 70 miles from wood, 15 miles from water, and only 12 inches from Hell." It was probably no exaggeration.

The news wasn't exactly cheerful. The stage ahead had been attacked by Indians and burned, the driver killed and the horses stolen. Nevertheless, the Helena stage continued on its journey.

The midnight stop furnished no fresh horses as the tender claimed the Indians had run the horses off. To Dell it seemed just as likely that he was afraid to go out into the open ground to bring them in. His report was even worse: Indians had been seen on the road ahead at 5:00 that afternoon. A consultation was held. As it was a bright moonlight night, they felt any attack could be spotted soon enough to allow them to mount the horses and escape. This would be preferable to holing up in this flimsy shack, which could easily be set afire. On they drove.

It was a night of fear and terror, one the Strahorns long remembered. The side curtains were rolled up so they could see as far as possible, but it also let the clouds of dust roll into the coach. The fine alkaline dust filled their eyes, ears, and nostrils while cutting into their skin. Every flap of the curtain, the horses' hoofs striking a rock, the lurch of the coach, every shadow of the sagebrush made taut nerves even jumpier. From time to time Indian fire signals could be seen at different points. They could be racing headlong into an ambush! When morning finally came, the dawn was greeted with great relief

As they pulled into the next home station, it became obvious why they'd been free from attack the night before. The place was fairly bristling with soldiers, settlers, freighters, stock-tenders, and travelers crowding the limited accommodations. Despite advice against doing so, the Strahorn's stage continued on through the deserted country. Two days after leaving the Indian war grounds, they pulled into Helena. After an experience like that, one can only wonder if Dell sometimes questioned what she'd gotten herself into. If she did, she never voiced her fears.

This indeed, was the Frontier in the late 1870s and early 1880s. By means of the stagecoach the Strahorns traversed and researched Colorado, northern Utah, southern Idaho, Montana, touching into Oregon and eastern Washington. They went to Dillon, Deer Lodge, Bellevue, Rubv Camp, Leadville, Lake City, Gunnison City, Central City, Boise City, Canyon City, Virginia City, Nevada City, Diamond City, Baker City, and Salt Lake City; then on to the Bitter Root Valley, and Hell Gate Valley; to Fort Benton, Fort Hall, Fort Ellis and Fort Walla Walla; to Ogden, Oneida, Black Foot, Helena, Missoula, Laramie, Pueblo, Santa Fe, Georgetown, Denver, and Challis. They covered Idaho Springs, Soda Springs, and Colorado Springs and Spokane Falls.

They traveled into towns so recently thrown together that the hotels had been built of green lumber. As the boards dried, they shrank leaving gaps between them. Since the Strahorns carried their own bed linens, they frequently had to hang sheets, clothing, or newspapers on the walls to give Dell a shred of privacy from the curious eyes in the cubicle next door.

Writer of the West

They spent several winters in Omaha where Pard sorted through his copious notes and wrote his book. Dell also wrote for the newspapers. In a humorous vein her columns described the romantic history, the social status, pastimes, and conditions of the people already in the new land, and the grandeur of the scenery. Throughout it all she wove the ridiculous and amusing episodes. One year 45 articles were published in the Omaha Republican as well as in other Eastern newspapers. She used two noms de plume: Emerald for her maiden name of Green, and A. Stray for Adell Strahorn.

Dell was the first white woman to tour Yellowstone National Park. As there were no roads in the park, it was necessary to travel by horseback. Although it was already October, the party camped out without tents. They followed the same old Indian trail General Howard had used three years earlier while chasing the Nez Perce. By the time they reached the east side of the park, snow had begun to fall. A speedy trip to the great Falls on the Yellowstone River preceded a rapid exit before another storm hit them.

It was seven in the evening before they arrived back at the west entrance after riding 40 miles through snow and rain. Dell was so stiff it took three men to help help her off her horse. They had ridden 85 miles in two days and 125 miles in the past three. Dell had used a man's saddle to which she was not accustomed, as the trails were considered too dangerous for a side-saddle.

Even so, this indomitable woman was not about to stay behind and miss something the next day even though she was so lame that tears rolled down her cheeks and she wanted to scream with pain. With a lot of help and a large amount of agony, Dell managed to get back into the saddle. They rode 25 miles that day, but Dell remained on her horse to eat lunch. She was afraid if she got off, she'd never make it back on. Even Bob admitted that "of all our horseback ventures that 400 mile jaunt through Yellowstone Park was the worst." However, both Strahorns revelled in its virgin freshness of unmatched wonders. It is no wonder Bob and Dell were so successful in their portrayals of the West. They never lost their enthusiasm, wonder, or awe.

The Road to Spokane

The Strahorn's first visit to Spokane came late in the year of 1880. Although Dell thought she was going to have a week's rest in Walla Walla, she soon found herself on a stage bound for Lewiston and points north. Upon reaching Spokane Falls, they camped out, although most of their meals were taken at California House. Actually, they spent little time in town, as they visited Medical Lake and bathed in the soapy water, rode out to the Little Spokane River, and viewed Lake Coeur d'Alene and Fort Sherman. Their time was limited, as they wanted to return to the Snake River in order to catch a boat to Portland before a freeze.

To speed up the return trip, they traveled by horseback. Somewhere near Spangle they got off the road and ran into a band of migratory Indians. Several young men searched the Strahorns' saddle bags looking for whiskey. They carried none. One man found something he recognized: Dell's medicine case. He led her over to a tepee where an Indian woman was writhing in agony. Dell shook her head, but the fellow was adamant. The only thing Dell could think to do was to give the woman a large dose of bicarbonate of soda accompanied with a bit of dramatics and many earnest prayers for help.

One or the other worked, because after the simple remedy came back up, the woman was relieved of her stomach cramps. Dell and Bob were not restrained from mounting their horses, but before they could leave, the large Indian said: "Spokane," pointed to the sun, made a circle in the dirt and to the point overhead. Then indicating himself and saying "Spokane" again, he pointed out five or six ponies and two blankets, and then indicated Dell. As near as the Strahorns could figure out, he said he would be in Spokane at noon the next day to buy Dell, for whom he would give Pard a certain number of horses and blankets. With that, the Strahoms left rapidly in the opposite direction.

From Boosting to Building

After six strenuous years, Bob's publicity work (some have called it propaganda) was finished. He entered upon his second career: that of empire building. In his unpublished autobiography, Robert Strahorn stated:

"From the time of completion of my fact-finding trip of 1877 to the Northwest, I became so imbued with its vast and varied resources, and so enthusiastic over the peerless possibilities of the future of the region, that I could not help but bombard my superiors all the way up to Mr. Gould himself, to build the Oregon Short Line between the Union Pacific's tracks at Granger, Wyoming and the 0. R. & N. at Huntington in eastern Oregon for the connection to Portland."


Strahorn was soon asked to make confidential reports on the traffic possibilities and to advise them on the merits of possible routes. No longer employed by the Union Pacific, in 1883 Strahorn with three others formed the Idaho and Oregon Land Improvement Company to build and service some of the towns along the route of the Oregon Short Line now under construction.

Thus Dell found herself looking at where her new home was to rise, Caldwell, Idaho Territory. In front of her stretched the stark white, desolate glare of alkali, some grey sagebrush and greasewood bushes. There wasn't a house or a road, grass, trees, or water. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Her courage was at a low ebb, but she knew her sobbing had to be buried so deep her sweetheart would never know it was there. Success hung on laughter and courage. Carrie Adell was no Pollyanna; she became exhausted, discouraged, depressed, and homesick for her close-knit family, but only in private. Never did she let her husband know.

As General Manager and Vice President of the Improvement Company, Bob plunged into obtaining rights of way, building irrigation works, roads, bridges, telegraph lines, hotels, houses, and depots. The work still required constant traveling, and Dell was right with Bob. In their "brood" of children, as Dell referred to them, were the newly located towns of Shoshone, Hailey, Mountain Home, Caldwell, Payette, and New Weiser in Idaho, and Ontario, Oregon.

Building a Town

Late the next year the Strahoms moved to a homestead claim a mile outside Caldwell, which they affectionately named: "Sunnyside." The women in Caldwell, all seven of them, formed the Presbyterian Society for the purpose of building a church. Mrs. Strahorn was the first president and remained in that office until the church was dedicated. By piecing many quilts for fairs, putting on dinners, concerts, and socials, those dedicated ladies raised enough nickels and dimes to build their church. Dr. William J. Boone, a just-graduated missionary, accepted the job as pastor. With those same determined women, Boone established the College of Idaho at Caldwell. He always gave Dell credit for being a Founder. The Strahoms remained life-long supporters of the school. After Dell passed away in 1925, Bob built a library for the College as a memorial to her.

One of the Strahoms' neighbors was Frank Steunenberg. Many a time Pard and Frank leaned on the Steunenberg gate to finish a chat. It was this same gate that Harry Orchard later bombed in retaliation for Steunenberg's calling out the Militia during the labor disputes of 1899 in Coeur d'Alene, killing the former governor.

By the fall of 1891 the Strahoms returned to the east, living in Boston and New York for the next seven years. Never one to remain idle, Dell resumed her study of voice. Bob engaged in security brokerage in Boston, selling municipal warrants of Western states and towns to Eastern investors. However, Bob felt the greatest result of those years was the contacts he had made with bankers and powerful lending institutions and the understanding of the inner workings of large-scale financing.

Spokane Again

Claiming that the Eastern climate was bad for him, Bob and Dell returned to the West, locating this time in Spokane. The year was 1900, and Bob sensed that that the Milwaukee Road, Canadian Pacific, and Union Pacific Railroads would soon be entering Spokane, at that time served only by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Great Northern Railway. Believing that the three new lines should use one passenger depot, Bob induced Edward H. Harriman of the Union Pacific to build the Union Station, a magnificent edifice that served Spokane for more than 70 years.

In 1902, Bob bought J. J. Browne's home on West First Avenue, commissioned K. K. Cutter to remodel it at a cost of $100,000, and presented it to Dell as a silver wedding anniversary gift. "Strahorn Pines" was the first house in Spokane to have hot water steam heat, and included a bowling lane, nine bedrooms, and 10 fireplaces.

Dell moved into the very core of fashionable society. She thought nothing of giving elaborate receptions for 400 people. Parties at their home were planned to the most minute detail with printed dinner menus in the form of a game or rhyme, and hand-painted scenic place cards.

Perhaps the climax of Dell's activities was the writing and publication in 1911 of a book describing those early years in the unfolding West: 15,000 Miles by Stage. It went through three printings, and contained 48 chapters and 237 photographs (including one of the Strahorns on the cow catcher of a train going over a 650-foot trestle built on spidery-thin, steel legs 150 feet above the canyon floor). Dell's book also contained 83 drawings and illustrations by a personal friend, Montana artist Charles Russell. So well received was the book that Harvard University asked Dell if she would collaborate with them in preparing another book on the West. Unfortunately, it is not known whether or not this project was ever carried out.

Bob was so proud of Dell that he hosted a dinner party in the Hall of Doges above Davenport's Restaurant on the 19th of September, 1911. Since this was the occasion of their 34th wedding anniversary, Strahorn presented his wife with a six-page tablet of sterling silver pages. On the cover was a stage coach embossed in gold. Each guest signed the book -- 174 in all.

Last Years

Most of the last five years of Dell's life were spent in San Francisco, although they maintained their home in Spokane. Each September they returned to Spokane to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

At the age of 71, Carrie Adell Strahom died in San Francisco on March 15, 1925, after a year of poor health. She was credited with being the first white woman to completely explore and describe Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park in north central Colorado. She was one of the first persons to depict the wonders of Alaska. At the time of her death a number of Northwest newspapers carried articles and editorials on her life. Perhaps the New York Times summed it up best when they described her history-making effort in creating homes and communities as "Mothering the West. That's quite a title. But then, Carrie Adell Strahorn was quite a woman!"


The author of this People's History, Barbara Fleischman Cochran, was a regional historian in Spokane, author of Exploring Spokane's Past, and a member of the faculty at Washington State University. She prepared this piece on the life of pioneer writer and author Carrie Adell (Green) "Dell" Strahorn for The Pacific Northwesterner Vol. 27, No. 4 (Fall 1983), pp. 50-55. It is here edited by David Wilma and reprinted by permission.

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