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The Blizzard of 1888

Let it snow, let it snow, let it...Stop!

The Blizzard of 1888

Without moonlight to guide us, our path was lit by the illumination of farm lights. We walked through the hills of St Olaf the night before Thanksgiving.  It was a surprisingly pleasant evening for a walk, temperatures near 30 degrees, very little wind, the drizzle was nearly over.  We had to watch our footing carefully, a layer of ice covered all surfaces.  A mild night for late November.  But still, I thought of our comfortable family room where we had read The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin.  Because we homeschool most of the books we read are biographies, history, historic novels, and of course, National Geographic. We read in the warmth of our wood stove during the winter months.  As we walked, I recounted the the Blizzard of 1888. January 12, 1888.

They buried themselves in haystacks, huddled together in darkened classrooms, or froze to death on the prairie while searching for shelter.  These were the fates of the children caught in the blizzard.

After weeks of bitter cold temperatures, moderate warming was a welcome relief.  Farmers ventured out to replenish supplies of hay and visit town to conduct business.  Children, lightly dressed, walked to school. They were eager to see friends, play outdoors, and enjoy the comparatively balmy weather. Temperatures approached near 40 degrees Fahrenheit on January 12, 1888.

There were twenty-two weather stations, overseen by the Signal Corp, scattered throughout the country in 1888.  Weather was recorded and sent by Western Union to data stations; it was analyzed, graphed, and translated.  This information was relayed to sixty “Flag Stations”.  On this day, though, the message to fly the “cold wave” and “blizzard” flags never reached the volunteer flagmen. Warnings never came, or it arrived too late for the pioneers and settlers of the Dakotas and Nebraska.  They were caught off guard. Iowa fared better, the storm didn’t rage here until dusk, when chores and errands were done for the day.

In the Dakota Territory, the lunch hour had just passed.  Children were returning to their desks when the wind began to howl in an eerie wail.  A dark cloud descended rapidly from the northwest.  Within minutes the sun disappeared; by all accounts nightfall had arrived.  Ice crystals and snow blasted the clapboard and sod buildings.  Snow swirled in through every crevice.  The wailing wind was deafening.  Gale force winds of fifty miles per hour gusted to nearly eighty.

Many pioneers who had lived through the blizzard of 1873, and the “snow winter” of 1880, where thousands of cattle froze to death on the prairie, had never seen a storm arrive with such speed or violence.  Visibility was so poor you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face.

Many teachers, not much older than their students, released school. These children became disoriented and couldn’t find their way home.  In other schoolhouses, teachers kept their students inside. Praying for rescue they clung together for warmth, surrounding cold stoves that had exhausted their supply of coal, school books, and desks.

In Keokuk, Iowa the temperature plummeted 50 degrees in eight hours.  Company B, Second Regiment from Davenport, Iowa was headed to Des Moines to escort William Larabee in his inauguration parade.  Larabee was beginning his second term as Iowa’s governor.  Company B, trapped by the storm, did not arrive.

Parents anxiously awaited the arrival of their children.  Groups of men braved the elements in rescue parties to search schools and bare prairies.  Hope of finding loved ones faded.  Mothers stood in doorways calling out for their children.  When their voices were exhausted they rang cow bells or beat pots with spoons hoping the sound would act as a beacon bringing their children home.  The wind chill was now 30 degrees below.

Farmers, walking their cattle to water or out gathering hay from their stacks were caught by the storm.  They knew from experience to get “under the storm”; visibility was better close to the ground. They crawled to find shelter.

The weather term for such a storm is anticyclone.  Winds spiral inward toward the center of low pressure in a counter-clockwise pattern.  The lowest air pressure was over Iowa and Nebraska.  Higher pressure over North Dakota and Montana caused a vacuum effect over the mid-section of the country.  Cold rushing air caused great friction and static build-up.  Snow thunderstorms raged across the plains.  A phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire created static build-up. The air was electrified. Sparks emitted from people when they approached their stoves and caused hair to stand on end. The shocks were so fierce and the pioneers were so afraid they refused to add fuel to fires.

     …People who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very  often find their prayers answered. –Harold Kushner

On Friday, January 13, 1888 the air was bitter cold but the skies were clear.  Relieved students and teachers were grateful to be found alive.  One teacher, who had ventured outdoors with her seven students found safety inside a haystack.  They huddled together, prayed and sang songs; most of them suffered frostbite. They were alive, barely. Another teacher acted swiftly when the storm tore the door of their schoolhouse from its leather hinges; she nailed the door shut.  Moment’s later part of their roof blew away.  Tying a makeshift rope out of torn cloth, she tied her students together. Walking in a line, eyes frozen shut, they hit the side of a building.  Other unfortunate children caught in the storm were found frozen to death.

Between 250 and 500 fatalities littered the prairies, most of them children. Countless survivors of the initial storm succumbed to infection when frostbitten limbs were later amputated.  Still others perished from pneumonia.

Today we seem prepared for any malady Mother Nature may affront us with.  We have cell phones, GPS, four wheel drive, medical and rescue assistance, and accurate weather forecasts.  A false sense of security blankets our instinct to avoid dangerous situations. On Saturday night, when our truck came to rest at the side of the road (no longer able to compete with the ice), we packed our gear, commenced on our night hike. We discussed survival skills and common sense ideas…like staying home.


©Glenda Plozay, Forest Hill Farm Products,LLC

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