Dartmouth marks 50th anniversary of tragic plane crash
HANOVER, N.H. - Handmade snowshoes in a Dartmouth College office are more than rustic wall decorations.
They break a trail through time to the heartbreaking story of two doctors fighting for their lives in shoulder-high snow and brutal cold after their small plane dropped into the thick of New Hampshire's unforgiving wilderness 50 years ago this weekend.
It was a drama that mobilized hundreds of searchers, captivated the state, and left enduring lessons about outdoor survival.
This weekend, family members returned as Dartmouth remembered Drs. Ralph Miller and Robert Quinn at an airstrip built years ago in their honor near a cabin dedicated to them on college wilderness property in northern New Hampshire.
On Feb. 21, 1959, Miller and Quinn crashed during a snowstorm in the Pemigewasset Wilderness northeast of Lincoln - still one of the most remote and rugged areas of the White Mountains.
Miller, 60, the pilot, and Quinn, 32, both Dartmouth Medical School professors and doctors at Mary Hitchcock Hospital, had flown north for medical calls. They disappeared while returning to Lebanon Airport, on the Vermont border.
The search initially was hampered by several days of bad weather. Eventually, dozens of military and private aircraft covered a huge area, based on several hundred tips about possible sightings the day the plane disappeared.
Ground teams, including hundreds of Dartmouth students, took to the woods.
Jim Baum helped coordinate the search as a sophomore member of the Dartmouth Outing Club. He remembers trying to sort out conflicting clues.
"It was the overwhelming feeling of the phone ringing and ringing and people trying to be helpful, but there was a frustration that it was not helpful because there were stories [of sightings] all over the Upper Valley," said Baum, 70, of Morris, Ill.
Crews organized by Dartmouth and the hospital continued searching, but authorities called off the official search after eight days, concluding the men could not have survived that long in the below-zero temperatures.
They were correct. Quinn and Miller did not survive eight days. Searchers who found the wreckage more than two months later discovered the doctors had lived for four.
The first hint they had survived came when a search party hiked toward the wreckage, which had been spotted by air on May 5. Before reaching the site, they found what they believed was a trapper's knife on a trail.
But Miller's son, Dartmouth student Ralph Miller Jr., immediately knew otherwise.
"He said, 'Oh my God. It's my father's knife,' " recalled Charles Barry, then a rookie conservation officer. "He knew if it was down there . . . they had to have walked down there."
At the wreckage of the Piper Comanche, they found the doctors' bodies - Miller beneath a wing and Quinn a couple of hundred feet away. But they also found a stack of firewood, remnants of a fire, two pairs of homemade snowshoes and a plastic bottle containing notes detailing the doctors' ordeal.
Miller wrote that the plane's carburetor had iced up, causing the crash. The two also described making the snowshoes, cutting firewood, and trying to hike out. And they told of their mounting despair.
In one heartbreaking note, Miller wrote how the two headed out on their snowshoes the day after the crash, "but the road petered out and we returned with enough energy to secure wood for the night."
It turned out the trail resumed about 100 yards farther away, on the other side of a gully, leading another .8 of a mile to a cabin with food, blankets, and firewood.
They were closer to the cabin than the crash site, a detail that haunted Quinn's son, Geoffrey, now a doctor in San Francisco.