I could not help but notice that at a school bus stop this morning there was a young person wearing shorts, with no jacket, hat or mittens. It is a Minnesota January and it is cold! Going outside in the winter not dressed for the weather demonstrates even less common sense than fashion sense. Let me tell you, there can be very bad consequences for not dressing warm in the winter.
Did you hear on the news this morning about a meteorological phenomena called a “Bomb Cyclone.” This type of weather event is not new, but it is still dangerous and deserving of respect. Well over one hundred years ago there was another “Bomb Cyclone” a winter blizzard or “White Hurricane” that hit Minnesota and its neighboring states on January 12, 1888. It was named the “Children’s Blizzard.”
The day of the Children’s Blizzard began with an unusually beautiful coppery colored sky. Folks who had been trapped for months by severe cold and snow inside of dark windowless sod houses or drafty wooden homes emerged into the bright daylight to be caressed by a soft warm “velvety” breeze from the south. The morning only seemed to improve with each passing hour. Soon, the temperature had risen above freezing and in some areas into the 40’s and 50’s.
“Carl Saltee, a 16-year-old Norwegian immigrant in Fortier, Minn., remembered that “on the 12th of January 1888 around noontime it was so warm it melted snow and ice from the window until after 1 p.m.”
This beautiful January morning energized everyone. After being housebound for so long almost everyone found a reason to head outdoors. Adults found work to do, and for the first time in weeks children went to school.
Schools in those days were mostly one-room country schools. I actually went to one of those when I was in first grade. It was a long walk across a field and neighbor’s cow pasture, filled with cows, to get there. I remember being cold a lot. My grandmother braided a rug for me to have under my desk to help keep my feet warm. Also, there were no indoor toilets we had to use outdoor outhouses which were back behind the school building. Trudging through snow drifts with a full bladder and parking your little bare butt on a frosty cold splint-laden wooden toilet seat in sub-zero temperatures is an experience not soon forgotten.
The children in 1888 also had to walk to school. Yes, they, too, used out houses to go poop at school and at home. No, there was not any toilet paper. Most of these people were so poor that they couldn’t afford paper for school lessons. They certainly would not throw the precious commodity down an outhouse hole. Leaves, grass, hay or corn cobs roughly served the purpose. Poison Ivy leaves were identified at a young age and were to be avoided at all costs.
Not knowing that a horrible storm was coming and with the weather so warm, many of the youngsters shed their heavy winter coats and boots to enjoy the freedom of traipsing across the prairies with no hats or mittens and sporting lighter attire and footwear. Undeterred by the presence of a teacher and the prospect of actually learning something, the students arrived at school excited to see and play with their friends. Soon they were all inside, at their desks and reciting lessons.
Today computers, radars and even satellites in outer space are used to help the National Weather Service predict weather. Weather forecasts, watches and warnings are communicated immediately to the public on cell phones, computers, television and radio. Even with all of the current state-of-the-art technology, weather reports are not always accurate, nor do people heed weather alerts. But, imagine living in a time where the only mass communication was Morse Code, telegraphs and newspapers.
In 1870 the government assumed responsibility for weather data collection and forecasting. That would be only five years after the Civil War ended and still six years before George Armstrong Custer was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Soldiers from the signal corps were in charge of weather predictions.
Weather data was collected by observers who measured air pressure, wind speed and temperatures several times a day, then telegraphed their data to district offices. The district office would then decide whether or not to issue any weather warnings. For some reason no Cold Front Warning was issued by a human for the Children’s blizzard.
Cats on the other hand did try to warn their humans about the impeding catastrophic change in the weather. Cat owners reported that the morning of the storm their felines acted very strangely and began chasing their own tails or spinning. Obviously mimicking the spin in the atmosphere.
What made this storm so dangerous? The time of day it struck, its viciousness and the utter lack of a warning. The blizzard raced across more than 780 miles in 17 hours as it slammed into Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Colorado, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Temperatures fell almost 100 degrees in 24 hours. The temperature dropped 18 degrees in just the first three minutes of the storm. Snow drifts were quickly 20-25 feet deep.
One minute the sun was shining and then,
“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 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 as dark as a cellar, and one could not see one’s hand in front of one’s face.”
Wind speeds were measured at above sixty miles an hour in Minneapolis and gusted to over eighty miles an hour. Roofs were blown off. Homes collapsed. While there was still plenty of light fluffy snow left from an earlier storm to blow around,
“This was not a storm of drifting lace snowflakes, but of flash-frozen droplets firing sideways from the sky, an onslaught of speeding ice needles moving at more than 60 miles per hour. Even without the whiteout conditions — climate experts call this zero/zero visibility — many people couldn’t see because the microscopic bits of ice literally froze their eyes shut.”
To see, frozen eyelids had to be torn open or torn off.
There was no escaping the power of the storm,
As Newspaperman Charles Morse, founder of the Lake Benton News in Lake Benton, Minnesota reported,
“It was astonishing the manner in which this fine stuff would be driven through the smallest aperture. My sleeping quarters were on the second floor leading off a hallway at the head of the stairs. … On arriving home I found the wind had forced open the door and the stairway was packed with snow, and when I reached my room I found my bed covered with several inches of snow which had filtered over the threshold and through the keyhole.”
The great tragedy of the blizzard was that most of those who died were children who were caught in the storm walking home from school and farmers. It is estimated that over 235 people died, 213 were children. Seventy people lost their lives in Minnesota.
Many people, even those walking very short distances, became lost in the blinding snow and froze to death. People were actually found frozen to death standing up. The Minneapolis Tribune reported that recovered bodies were frozen so solid that they “give forth a metallic sound” when struck. Both humans and animals died from suffocation. There were so many fine ice crystals in the air that it was impossible to breathe.
Many of the dead were found right away. Some bodies were not discovered until spring when the snow melted. Others were never found, because wolves ate them.
Teachers, parents and other brave souls did their best to save lives.
“By forming in parties of ten each, taking a long rope and marching across the prairie in line, the villagers today found all the lost school children except one”
“Schoolteacher Seymour Dopp in Pawnee City, Nebraska, kept his 17 students at school when the storm began at 2 p.m. They stayed overnight, burning stockpiled wood to keep warm. The next day, parents made their way over five-foot snow drifts to rescue their children.”
“In Great Plains, South Dakota, two men rescued the children in a schoolhouse by tying a rope from the school to the nearest shelter to lead them to safety.”
Minnie Freeman, a teacher in Nebraska, successfully led her students to shelter after the storm tore the roof off of her one-room sod schoolhouse. Another teacher wanted the parents of her students to know that they were safe inside the school so she had the children continuously ring the school bell all through the night.
Others were not so lucky.
“Lois Royce found herself trapped with three of her students in her schoolhouse. By 3 p.m., they had run out of heating fuel. Her boarding house was only 82 yards away, so she attempted to lead the children there. However, visibility was so poor that they became lost and the children, two nine-year-old boys and a six-year-old girl, froze to death. The teacher survived, but her feet were frostbitten and had to be amputated.”
“Ten-year-old Johnny Walsh of Avoca, Minn., froze to death trying to find his house.”
“Six children of James Baker froze to death while trying to make it home from school near Chester township, Minnesota. They were found with their arms entwining each other in the snow.”
Many times the rescuers themselves perished in the blinding storm.
“Norwegian immigrant Seselia Knutson became frantic when her husband, Knut, was trapped out in the blizzard. She went out to look for him and became so confused she froze to death under a sled just 40 steps from her front door.”
There were animals that rescued people from the storm.
Bear Claws the Heroic Dog
“Omaha Indians Charley Stabler and Rough Clouds were hunting and trapping muskrat and beaver along Beaver Creek near Genoa, Neb., with Stabler’s dog, Bear Claws. The young men took shelter under a tree, and snow drifted over them.
Stabler awoke the next morning. Rough Clouds was dead. Bear Claws was missing. Stabler could not break out of the tomb of ice and snow.
About noon Jan. 15, Stabler heard his dog whining and digging over his head. They both dug frantically and broke through the crust of snow. Stabler, with the dog at his side, crawled toward a dim light in the distance and fell against a farmhouse door. The farm family took him in and cared for his frozen hands and feet.
Bear Claws went on to the Omaha camp where he whined and whimpered until some of the men followed him to the farmhouse. The dog later led the men to the place where Rough Cloud’s body lay. Tracks in the snow showed that the dog had made many trips back and forth, trying to bring help to his master and friend.”
Leader of the Herd.
“A girl named Mary was out with the family cows in an Antelope County, Neb., field of corn stubble.
One of the old cows led the herd, and when it was time to take the cattle in, Mary would hold the old cow’s tail to walk home and the others would follow. The old cow started for home when the blinding storm hit. Mary grabbed the tail and was safely guided home.”
Old Blind Horse
“Theodore Peterson of Oakland, Neb., had been to the mill at Lyons to grind wheat for flour when he was caught in the storm. He was driving a wagon hitched to an old blind mare and another horse. The blind horse had been over the road many times without seeing it, so Peterson loosened the reins and let her find the way home.”
The Children’s Blizzard left its mark on the hearts, minds and bodies of many of its victims. Families forever mourned the loss of their loved ones. Towns would toll their school and church bells each year on the anniversary of the storm. Many people bore physical scars from their tangle with the bomb cyclone of January 1888. Wooden legs, finger-less hands and missing ears announced that they had won the war and survived the blizzard, but had lost the fight with frostbite.
It’s effects also were forever remembered by your great-great-grandparents who actually survived that storm. As a child I remember being told about a blizzard so bad that people lost their way trying to get from their barn back to their house and died wandering around in their field. That is why from then on whenever winter set in, a rope was strung between our farmhouse and barn.
So when your mom and dad ask you to wear a coat, and put a hat and mittens in your backpack do it. It is always better to be prepared and safe than lost in a prairie and sorry.
Then, too, if I ever see you kids waiting for a school bus wearing shorts without even a coat on a Minnesota January morning, I will conclude you are issuing a dare to look ridiculous. I will accept the challenge and carry it out during your very next school event. It will involve Grandpa’s Elmer Fudd hat and his rubber boots…the ones with the buckles.
Stay warm and toasty,