Blizzards: Furies of Nature

Dorothy Rieke
16 Min Read

Today, the Great Plains is an area of great resources and beauty. Nevertheless, during past days and even current times, because of its size and location, this area has been the scene of severe weather disasters which often seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Those now living in the Great Plains generally survive whatever weather Mother Nature produces because modern technology aids in dealing with such conditions.  However, years ago, early settlers with few resources had difficulties dealing with severe thunderstorms, tornados, and blizzards.

Because of the location of the Great Plains and the differences in elevation, those living in that area experience a great variety of weather, including blizzards. When a blizzard occurs, the north/south-oriented Rocky Mountains can isolate the lower atmosphere over the Great Plains from warm air over the Pacific. The endless arctic nights allow air over the Canadian Arctic to cool rapidly creating bitterly cold air that plunges south and contributes to blizzards.  In other words, blizzards occur when the Rocky Mountains block warm air from the Pacific from reaching the interior while channeling cold air from Canada southward. The Gulf of Mexico provides the moisture necessary for cloud and snow formation.  History tells us that a mild, sunny day in a mild winter can convert to be the scene of one of the worst blizzards ever experienced.

Blizzards are counted among the top ten worst natural disasters. Years ago, settlers suffered in the cold winds and heavy snows of blizzards. Down through the years, these storms have taken a terrible toll in the form of destruction of homes, deaths of animals, as well as many human lives. Perhaps, this is because of the suddenness of these storms and complacency created by the warm weather that precedes them.

In 1873, the Easter Sunday Blizzard lasting three days, caused destruction and loss of lives. This blizzard, like many others, began on a balmy day but soon was the scene of ferocious winds, rapidly falling temperatures, and heavy snow.

Because the snow was so deep and so cold, many were forced to stay in their homes wrapping themselves in blankets and burning whatever possessions they had in fireplaces to keep warm.  Nebraskan General A. V. Cole related, ”The storm raged for three days and the snow flew so it would not be faced. The house shook, but weathered the blast, for if it had not we all would have perished.”

One of the greatest hardships for settlers was the loss of their livestock. Thousands of cattle were left outside, and much wildlife perished in the deep snow.

Some families managed to survive using every resource available. A farmer in Clay County, Nebraska, housed his 8-member family, one hog, one dog, his chickens, and four head of cattle in one room. Of course, the heat generated by the animals and perhaps milk given by the cattle played a role in the survival of that family.

During the winter of 1880-1881, because blizzard followed blizzard throughout the winter until March, many settlers were snowbound the entire winter. Railway trains were stopped by drifts, two-story homes had snow up to the second-floor windows, and many city streets were blocked with drifts. Because the first snow began in October, many crops were still in the fields. That cut down on food supplies.

On February 2, a second massive blizzard struck which lasted for nine days. At this time, some streets were filled with drifts to the tops of some buildings and tunneling was the only way to get around in towns and on farms where farmers needed to care for livestock.

Another blizzard in 1886 took its toll on the lives of those unprepared for the harsh winters of the Great Plains. Some Easterners were “greenhorns” when dealing with blizzards. One man wearing a lightweight linen overcoat froze to death in this storm. In his pocket was a folder that described Kansas as the “Italy” of America. Evidently, he believed, according to propaganda, that Kansas was a place of sunshine and light rain. He never expected to experience such freezing weather.

During this same storm, a range steer in Lane County, Kansas, burst through the wall of a sod house. The family killed and skinned the steer providing much-needed food.

The winter of 1887-1888 was another time featuring ice storms, snowstorms, and sub-zero temperatures. Towns in Minnesota had 20.5, 39.5, and 33 inches of snow in December.  Then on January 5, 1888, a massive sleet storm coated snow drifts keeping most people indoors.

There seemed to be a reprieve on January 12, 1888, because that day began as a “fair weather” day. It was like a spring day in mid-winter because the air was mild, and the sun was shining. People began working outside their frame homes, sod houses, and dugouts.  One man walked to the straw stack to get straw to replenish the twisted straw he burned for heat in his stove. A ten-year-old boy walked one mile to visit a neighbor.

What these people had no way of knowing was that one of the worst blizzards ever recorded, the School Children’s Blizzard, would soon strike with a massive cold air mass, violent wind conditions, and extreme temperature drops endangering the lives of many living on the Great Plains.

This mass, while racing across the plains, caught many settlers by surprise.  Even if they were prepared, survival was difficult in those days, especially during violent weather.  An incredible drop in the mercury brought snow and howling winds which created white-out conditions in which the ground could not be differentiated from the sky. The temperatures dropped to near 40 degrees below zero.

Also, the so-called snowflakes were not normal.  Instead, they were similar to “speeding ice needles” racing at more than 60 miles per hour.  Many people out in this storm “could not see because microscopic bits of ice literally froze their eyelids shut.”

Most of the “early day” schoolhouses were hastily built structures with gaping walls and tar paper roofs constructed in the excitement of westward settlement. They were not built to withstand the winds and snows of blizzards.

The really bad thing about this deadly storm is that it began in the middle of the afternoon just as schoolchildren were leaving their schoolrooms for their homes. Some teachers kept the children in schools fighting to keep them alive for the two-day duration of the blinding storm.

My Grandmother, Amelia Jones, was teaching in a rural school. Luckily, the husband of the family where she was boarding, came in a wagon pulled by horses.  All the children were loaded into the wagon. The snow was so thick that breathing was difficult. The driver could not see to drive the horses, however, the horses, using instinct, found their way to their home barn, and, using ropes to tie the children together, all made it to the house safely.

One teenage teacher kept the sixteen or seventeen (stories differ according to number) children safe in the schoolhouse staying awake all night and keeping the stove warm by burning books and furniture. When there was no more fuel, and the wind had destroyed part of the roof in this school, the teacher tied her students together and safely led them to the nearby house where she stayed.

In one area, students trying to find shelter took refuge in a haystack. Eighteen hours later they were rescued by Daniel Murphy and his hired man.

Many adults also suffered the effects of this storm. One German immigrant walked to town on the day of the storm. His body was not found until a week later. He left three children and his wife who was expecting another child.

Austin Rollag described his experience: “About 3:30, we heard a hideous roar… At first, we thought that it was the Omaha train which had been blocked and was trying to open the track. My wife and I were near the barn when the storm came as if it had slid out of a sack. A hurricane-like wind blew so that the snow drifted high in the air, and it became terribly cold. Within a few minutes, it was dark as a cellar, and one could not see one’s hand in front of one’s face.”

Carl Saltee, from Minnesota, remembered that, “A dark and heavy wall builded (sic) up around the northwest coming fast, coming like those hevy (sic) thunderstorms, like a shot. In a few moments, we had the severest snowstorm I ever saw in my life with a terrible hard wind, like a hurrycane (sic), snow so thick we could not see more than 3 steps from the door at times.”

Even those people who made it home during the storm faced multiple problems. One newspaperman, living on the second floor of a building, went to his apartment to find the front door forced open by the wind and the stairway filled with snow. When he reached his room, the bed was covered with several inches of snow which had filtered over the threshold and through the keyhole.

Someone reported, “For years afterward, at gatherings of any size in Dakota or Nebraska, there would always be people walking on wooden legs or holding fingerless hands behind their backs or hiding missing ears under hats.”  Laskin

Some land was buried under 30-foot-high drifts of snow which did not melt until June.

Another severe blizzard, named the Great Blizzard of 1888 or Great White Blizzard of 1888, occurred on March 11 through 14th. This severe blizzard covered the Atlantic provinces of Canada as well as the area from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine in the United States.

Some reports stated that the day was mild before the blizzard arrived. Soon, however, the storm began and lasted one and a half days. Snow drifts averaged 30 to 50 feet created by winds moving up to 80 miles per hour.

Transportation was not possible because of the high snow drifts. Some say that this storm was partially responsible for the creation of the first underground railway system which opened nine years later in Boston.

The telegraph system was also disabled isolating Montreal and other northeastern cities. Trains could not travel because of drifts of snow.

Blizzards!  These storms often bring the beauty of sculptured snow and glittering ice, but they also are capable of destroying hope, dreams, and even lives. The strong winds, blowing snow, and sleet as well as freezing temperatures are life-threatening to all living creatures. Those blizzards of past days were more deadly than they are today because, at this time, people have gained knowledge of blizzards from others’ past experiences. Today, observing weather reports and having advance warning of such weather blunts conditions and promotes preparedness. We who live on the Great Plains know how greatly blizzards can impact lives. Blizzards are, indeed, nature’s furies.


Living through Blizzards ‘Way Back When

Those living through blizzards often had some health problems. The following relates “cures” for common complaints during winter weather from an 1889 NonPareil Practical Cookbook (Note: Some of the spelling in the cookbook was not right according to today’s English.)

Chilblains.  An inflammation followed by itchy irritation on the hands, feet, or ears resulting from exposure to moist cold. Roll the affected parts in linen bandages, sew up well, and dip several times daily in a solution of half a fluid ounce of tincture of capsicum and one fluid ounce of tincture of opium.

Night Cough.  A drink of warm milk with whiskey in the proportion of one tablespoon of liquor to two of milk, and as much sugar as will dissolve. Also a tablespoon of rye whisky, thoroughly sweetened with rock candy.

Cough Syrup.  Break a stick of liquorice and quarter of a pound of hoarhound candy with quarter of a pound of gum arabic, pour over them one pint of boiling water. Shake before using.

Earache.  A few drops of laudanum or belladonna mixed with almond oil and heated to blood heat. dropped in the ear or on a piece of cotton. If pain is very severe, wring a flannel cloth from hot water, apply over the ear and cover well with another flannel. Inflammations are better subdued with hot than cold water applications.

Sore Throat.  Chlorate of potash, pure and taken dry on the tongue every hour, day and night, if it is a severe case. Gargle with a solution of potash and water, make a pack with linen cloths wrung from cold water, put around the throat and cover with oiled silk or flannel. When taken off, wash the throat with cold water or alcohol.

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