On a damp Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of workers from Western Pennsylvania oil fields, given the day off to look for a missing girl, walked through the Allegheny Forest at armsâ€™ length. They traversed the tangled underbrush alongside police with bloodhounds, World War I veterans, Cornplanter Indians, coal miners, and assorted others whoâ€™d responded to the local mayorâ€™s call for 1,000 volunteers. They killed rattlesnakes and were careful not to drop a foot down into one of the hundreds of oil wells dug during the areaâ€™s petroleum boom in the 1870s.
But by nightfall, the â€œhaggard, sleep-robbed faces of scores of men,â€ as the Bradford Era newspaper described them, told onlookers the grim truth: another day had passed without finding the little red-haired four-year-old, Marjorie West.
Eighty years ago today, Marjorie vanished while at a Motherâ€™s Day picnic in the forest with her family. To this day she is the subject of one of the oldest unsolved cases recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorieâ€™s surviving relatives still hold out hope sheâ€™s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.
John Billman, at Outside, reports that 1,600 people went missing from our public lands without a trace.
[H]undreds or maybe thousands of people [ha]ve gone missing on our federal public lands. Thing is, nobody knows how many. The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, calls unidentified remains and missing persons â€œthe nationâ€™s silent mass disaster,â€ estimating that on any given day there are between 80,000 and 90,000 people acÂtively listed with law enforcement as missing. The majority of those, of course, disappear in populated areas.
What I wanted to know was how many people are missing in our wild places, the roughly 640 million acres of federal landsâ€”including national parks, national forests, and Bureau of Land Management propÂerty. Cases like 51-year-old Dale Stehling, who, in 2013, vanished from a short petroglyph-viewing trail near the gift shop at Coloradoâ€™s Mesa Verde National Park. Morgan Heimer, a 22-year-old rafting guide, who was wearing a professional-grade personal flotation device when he disappeared in 2015 in Grand Canyon National Park during a hike after setting up camp. Ohioan Kris Fowler, who vanished from the PaÂcific Crest Trail last fall. At least two people have recently gone missing outside the national forest where I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There are scores more stories like this.
The Department of the Interior knows how many wolves and grizzly bears roam its wildsâ€”canâ€™t it keep track of visitors who disappear? But the government does not actively aggregate such statistics. The Department of Justice keeps a database, the ÂNational Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but reporting missing persons is voluntary in all but ten states, and law-enforcement and coroner participation is voluntary as well. So a lot of the missing are also missing from the database.