LAUREL — Despite injuries to numerous participants and several spectators, Laurel city officials were beaming with pride Thursday after a wildly successful “Running of the Bison” event.
“It was fantastic,” said Laurel Mayor Mark Mace, who came up with the idea for the dangerously alluring event, which he hopes will become an annual affair. “Sure, some people were hurt, but we’re a tough bunch, and everyone agreed it was great for Laurel.”
The herd of 30 bison, loaned to Laurel for the day by cable news magnate Ted Turner, thundered into town down East Main Street, after being unloaded from cattle cars in the Laurel train yard.
Driven by a group of volunteer cowboys from Brockway, the shaggy behemoths charged through downtown Laurel while 15 to 20 local daredevils ran for their lives ahead of the unpredictable and surprisingly fleet animals.
Mostly dressed in white pants and shirts and sporting red bandannas—a nod to Pamplona, Spain, where the “Running of the Bulls” dates back to the Middle Ages—the runners alternately provoked and dodged the infuriated bison.
“It was awesome!” said Bill Jensen, a senior at Laurel High School, whose white T-shirt bore several large blood stains. “I was kicked by one buffalo and another grazed me with a horn, but who cares? That was, like, better than 10 football games!”
Mace, himself a former rodeo clown and an avid demolition derby competitor, said it was his understanding that 13 runners were injured. Two of them were gored and were taken to Billings Clinic by air ambulance. A spokeswoman for the clinic said only that their injuries were “serious but not life-threatening. And one had his bandanna shredded.”
At least three spectators were also injured, according to Laurel Police Chief Rick Musson, who had urged the Laurel City Council not to grant a permit for the event, which shut down East Main for nearly three hours, starting a little before noon Thursday.
Two people suffered minor injuries when a runaway bison gored the beer cooler they were sitting on, throwing them into the air with toss of his massive head. A third spectator, reportedly a boilermaker at the CHS refinery in Laurel, fractured his elbow when he slipped on a fresh “bison pie” and fell violently to the ground, Musson said.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” Mace said, unable to restrain himself in response to that report.
Most of the other runners who were injured were trampled by one or more bison, and Musson said it was “miraculous” that nobody was killed, or even badly mangled.
The trampling was witnessed by Last Best News photographer John Warner, who took photos of the bison being unloaded in the rail yard before speeding downtown to position himself at the corner of Main and First Avenue, just above the railroad underpass.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Warner said. “Five or six guys, who were well ahead of the herd, just laid down in the middle of street. I hear they do that in Pamplona, because regular bulls will jump over obstructions. But the bison didn’t get the memo. They just ran right over these guys.”
One of the trampled runners, who appeared to be inebriated, kept hoisting up his T-shirt to show anyone who was interested a deep hoof print just to the left of his navel.
“It’s like a tattoo!” he said, still overcome with emotion. “It hurts like hell, but how cool is that?”
“All in all,” Mayor Mace said, “it was well worth it. Our goal was to have a good time and to show the people of Reed Point that their little sheep drive was pretty pathetic, and I think we succeeded on both counts.”
The mayor’s reference was to the Great Montana Sheep Drive, held in Reed Point every summer since 1989. People in the plucky railroad town of Laurel have long resented the notoriety Reed Point has gained, but it took Mace to grab the bull by the horns, as it were.
With the blessing of the City Council, Mace approached Turner, owner of the Flying D Ranch outside Bozeman, and asked if some of the flamboyant billionaire’s lumbering ruminants might be used to stage a “Running of the Bison” in Laurel.
“He stepped right up,” Mace said, standing next to an ebullient Turner, who watched the event from in front of his favorite Laurel eatery, Café Mabel’s. “Ted here understands and appreciates the spirit that we show in Laurel, and he provided the bison at no cost.”
“It was my pleasure,” Turner said, sipping on a bottle of Michelob Ultra, just like an ordinary Laurelite. “I do what I can to support can-do towns like Laurel, and to show people that bison, just like sheep and cattle, have a part to play in contemporary Montana.”
Turner laughed and added, “If I was 10 years younger, I’d a been out there myself, being chased by those bison. It reminded me a lot of yacht racing, though on dry ground, but without boats and with animals. Very exciting.”
Things got really exciting when one bison crashed through the plate-glass window at Mabel’s, located at 801 E. Main. Before the shaggy beast could do any further damage, café owner Mabel Torres clocked the creature between the eyes with a plastic serving tray, upon which the bison turned around and jumped through the broken window to rejoin his marauding compatriots.
Laurel City Councilwoman Emelie Eaton, who initially sided with Musson in opposing the event, said she had been converted to an ardent supporter.
“I hope we do this every year,” she said. “In fact, I think it would be great if we could have some wolves running alongside the bison, nipping at their flanks. That would put us on the map.”
City officials said there may have been as many as 10,000 spectators, stretched out for nearly two miles on either side of East Main Street. Other people watched from atop Main Street buildings, while a crew from the National Geographic Channel filmed the thrilling event from a giant boom over Main just north of the railroad underpass.
The Brockway cowboys, under the leadership of Chad “Boots” Whittaker, had some trouble driving the notoriously independent-minded bison out of the east end of the Laurel train yard, but once underway the iconic creatures hurled themselves down Main Street as planned.
The cowboys expertly directed the bison under the railroad tracks, up First Avenue and then down the south side of the railroad tracks, where they were coaxed back into waiting cattle cars. Two of the bison, however, were unaccounted for as this story was being written. Mace said he was confident they would be found somewhere or other.
He also reflected on how lucky the city was to have scheduled the run to start at 1:30, just after a long rain shower finally ended.
“People thought we were fools to have this in March, but I’d say we did just fine,” Mace said. “Next year, though, to play it safe, we’ll probably have it on April 1st.”