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The Children's Blizzard of 1888
The Children's Blizzard blasted the American Plains beginning on 12 January 1888. As we shall see, the storm had its greatest impact on children in portions of Nebraska and South Dakota. Therefore, it was later dubbed the Children's Blizzard, the Schoolchildren's Blizzard or the Schoolhouse Blizzard due to the high proportion of children numbered among the storm's victims. Winds accompanying the storm whipped snow into the air, limiting visibility to near zero which made even the shortest journey difficult at best. But the real killer in this storm was the frigid air advancing behind the low pressure system to replace the spring-like conditions that preceded the storm.
Note: To simplify matters, I will refer to locations using their current political names. At the time the storm hit, the US states of North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, as well as Idaho and Oklahoma had not yet been admitted to the Union. The two Dakotas were known as the Dakota Territory and Oklahoma, Indian Territory. The Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were then part of the Northwest Territories and would not become provinces until 1905.
The Weather Scene: Prelude
January typically is frigidly cold in the regions of western Canada north of the 60th parallel and east of the great mountain ranges of British Columbia. There, when the sun is visible in the sky, its low altitude barely provides heat to the Earth's surface, and during the long winter nights, much of the earth's surface heat radiates outward into space, dropping the temperature to extreme values. This region is the breeding ground for most of the extreme bouts of cold weather that are experienced further east and south in both Canada and the United States. The cold can become especially brutal when those arctic air masses have time to mature in their natal grounds.
In the winter days of late 1887 and early 1888, the chilling fields of the Canadian Northwest were particularly intense, and a great mass of arctic air slowly expanded southward and continued to cool over the snow-covered plains. Fort Simpson, on the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories, registered a temperature of minus 35 oF (minus 37.2 oC) on 3 January. A nudge from upper level winds began to push that air southeastward. (Note: since both Canada and the US used the imperial measuring system at that time, I will report temperatures and other measurements in those units with metric equivalents in parentheses.)
By the start of the second week of January, the cold air mass sat over the western Canadian Prairies. Its frigid temperatures were reported from Medicine Hat, Alberta, less that 100 miles from the Montana border minus 18 oF (minus 27.8 oC) on 5 January and from Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan, north of the Montana[North] Dakota border: minus 14 oF (minus 25.6 oC) that same day. In the late 1880s, weather observations were few across the North American continent and even sparser in the western lands away from the coast.
At this time, the US Army Signal Corps proved the weather services for the nation including a daily weather map series begun in 1871. With observations sparse west of the Mississippi River, we cannot have the pinpoint accuracy of today's observational and analysis techniques, but we can see the broad features of the march of weather across the continent. The following discussion derives from information on those weather maps archived for us by the NOAA Central Library's U.S. Daily Weather Maps Project.
A small storm system developed over western Colorado on 5 January bringing some of that frigid air behind it into Montana, Wyoming and . Helena, Montana reported a morning temperature of minus 18 oF (minus 27.8 oC). The storm brought snow to the northern and central Plains as it rapidly moved into the Great Lakes region. On the heels of the storm, the frigid ridge of high pressure dropped temperatures to minus 12 oF (minus 24.4 oC) in Valentine, Nebraska, and likely much colder in the lee of the Rockies. By the morning of the 8th, the 0 oF (minus 18 oC) isotherm extended from the MinnesotaWisconsin border south into Kansas and back to the Rockies. The region reporting minus 30 oF (minus 34.4 oC) temperatures extended over much of Montana. Fort Custer, Montana reported a morning temperature of minus 32 oF (minus 35.6 oC), and Fort Buford, Dakota Territory observed minus 36 oF (minus 37.8 oC).
The cold air mass continued to slip southeastward, extending the 0 oF (minus 18 oC) isotherm into western Wisconsin and Illinois and covering all of Kansas on the 8th with the 32 oF (0 oC) isotherm reaching almost to the TexasLouisiana Gulf Cost. Fort Totten, Dakota and Helena both reported -30 oF (minus 34.42 oC). Shreveport, Louisiana reported a chilly 32 oF (0 oC) while Galveston, Texas was but 10 F degrees (5.6 C degrees) above freezing. With the high pressure center moving over Iowa on the morning of the 9th, the frigid temperatures lessened some in the southern regions of the American mid section, but remained cold along the Canadian border. Fort Buford reported a low of minus 42 oF (minus 41.1 oC). By the morning of the 10th, the pocket of extreme cold hung across the upper Missouri Valley. Bismarck and Fort Buford both registered minus18 oF (minus 27.8 oC). A new low pressure cell formed over Wyoming and began streaming warmer air from the Gulf region into the central Plains. Valentine saw a jump in the mercury of 24 F degrees (13.3 C degrees), and in Helena and Fort Custer, the rises were 40 and 38 F degrees (22.2 and 21.1 C degrees), respectively.
The morning of 11 January, saw a region of low pressure slipping across the Montana border from Alberta. Over the western Gulf Coast, a mass of unseasonably mild tropical air moved out from the Gulf waters and streamed northward over Texas and Oklahoma. The morning temperatures on the Plains remained cold as the pool of cold air north of the border remained intact. The proximity of these two very different air masses could be likened to a match next to a powder keg. High above the surface, a strong jet stream most likely blew over the boundary between the two air masses, pushing the match ever closer to the powder. The result would be an explosive storm system that would make history.
The Children's Blizzard
The low pressure cell that arose in the lee of the Canadian Rockies may have originally formed over the Pacific Ocean. Weakened and depleted of its great moisture content as it passed over the Coastal Range, the various mountain ranges of interior British Columbia and finally the Rocky Mountains, the storm's remnants settled briefly over in the Alberta plains. It was about to be reborn.
Often this region east of the Rockies produces storms, known today as Alberta Clippers, that race almost due east across the Great Plains and Great Lakes toward the Atlantic Coast. They usually drop only a little snow but usher in cold arctic air in their wake. The storm that arose on 11 January had many characteristics of an Alberta Clipper, though its track over the next two days dipped further south than usual. The morning of 11 January saw its center located just west of Medicine Hat, Alberta, and by evening it had descended to eastern Montana. By the morning of the 12th, the storm cell was centered near the junction of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. Its central pressure was under 29.50 inches Hg (998 mb). The daily weather map's synopsis for the past 24 hours stated: "A storm of considerable energy has moved southward into Colorado. Indeed, several sites ahead of the storm reported a drop in barometric pressure of about half an inch (~17 mb), while behind the storm in Montana, the pressure had jumped a similar amount.
Though fronts were not yet a part of meteorological analysis, we can roughly place a warm front from the low center extending northeastward from north of Valentine, Nebraska and west of Huron, Dakota. The cold front likely stretched southwestward east of Cheyenne, Wyoming and between Denver and Las Animas, Colorado. At the morning observation, Denver was still relatively warm, but the wind blew from the north, and skies were clear. Snow was falling in Helena and Fort Custer, Montana behind the low, and in North Platte, Nebraska; Concordia, Kansas; and Bismarck, (north) Dakota.
Denver's morning temperature was 38 oF (3.3 oC), 26 F degrees (14.4 C degrees) warmer than the previous day. North Platte, Nebraska was 30 F degrees warmer (16.7 C degrees), and Omaha jumped 34 F degrees (18.9 C degrees). Yankton, Dakota reported a 30 F degree (16.7 C degrees) temperature rise. Further east, the temperature rise was even higher: St Vincent, Minnesota saw the mercury jump 52 F degrees (29.8 C degrees) in a day. Duluth and St Paul both registered 24 F degree (13.3 C degrees) rises. In the cold air behind the low, Helena reported -8 oF (minus 22.2 oC), a 30 F degree (16.7 C degrees) drop from the day before. Winds around low began to pick up, Bismarck, Dakota reported a 36-mph wind speed and Fort Custer, Montana, 32 mph (51 km/h).
The storm moved at a breakneck pace during the day, from Montana in the early hours of the 12th, it crossed the Dakota Territory from midmorning to early afternoon, reaching eastern Nebraska at mid afternoon. By 10 pm, it had reached western Wisconsin heading northeast into upper Michigan. The rapid rise in temperature overnight was soon followed by an even more rapid plummeting of the mercury in the storm's wake.
In Huron, Dakota, the winds around noon on the 12th, began to rise to storm fury. Sergeant Samuel W. Glenn, the Signal Corps observer at Huron, a conscientious weather observer, recorded the wind speeds every few minutes as the cold front swept across the region. From 42 mph (51 km/h) at a quarter to twelve (CT), the wind rose with each passing minute, 57 mph (91 km/h) at 12:15 pm, then a building-shaking jump to 60 mph (96 km/h) at 1:30 pm with a gust to 80 mph (128 km/h). At Moorhead, Minnesota, just before one in the afternoon, Private Frank L. Harrod wrote: "sudden and fierce change of wind from south to north." Then "heavy blinding snow."
The scheduled observations at 2 pm EST (1 pm CST) showed the magnitude of the cold front as it passed. North Platte reported winds of 40 mph (64 km/h) from the northwest and a temperature of 2 oF below zero (minus 18.9 oC) a drop of 30 F deg (16.7 C degrees) over the past eight hours (giving a wind chill of -32 oF (minus 35.6 C)). Huron, Dakota observed a NW wind of 44 mph (71 km/h) with the temperature at -2 oF (minus 18.9 oC) (windchill, -33 oF (minus 35.6 C)) a drop of 21 F deg (11.7 C degrees) in eight hours. Ahead of the front in Omaha, the temperature registered 27 oF (minus 2.8 oC) and winds blew from the southeast at 9 mph (14 km/h). The front passed Omaha just after 4:15 pm and drifting snow accompanied the dropping temperature, which the next morning would register 16 oF below zero (minus 26.7 oC).
As the front raced eastward at around 60-70 mph (96-112 km/h), those who saw it reported the sky blackened suddenly as if night had descended, and after the wind had shifted to the north, it was impossible to see buildings across the street or the homestead yard due to the blowing snow. When the front passed Crete, southwest of Lincoln, Nebraska, the observer, Signal Corp Private C.D. Burnley noted with the wind shift, "the temperature fell 18 F degrees [10 C degrees] in less than three minutes. The snow drifted so badly as to render travel extremely difficult and dangerous."
In Leavenworth, Kansas, the temperature dropped 29 F degrees (11.7 C degrees) in seven hours, but faster and greater drops were recorded elsewhere: Helena saw a descent of 50 F degrees (27.8 C degrees) in about four and a half hours; North Platte dropped 32 F degrees (17.8 C degrees) in thirteen hours; and Keokuk, Iowa, an amazing 55 F degrees (30.6 C degrees) in just eight hours.
The litany of "fierce winds," "blinding snow," "heavy drifting," and "bone-chilling drops in temperature" repeated across the Plains states and into the northern Mississippi Valley as the storm system rushed toward Sault Ste Marie and the Canadian border. By dawn of the 13th, the blizzard had subsided across Dakota, Nebraska and western Minnesota, but the cold stayed. Not only did it stay, but it sprawled out across the American midsection as a large arctic air mass dropped out of northern Canada across the American west and then continued southeastward to touch most of the American territory.
By the morning of the 13th, many areas had seen a temperature drop of 20 F degrees (11.1 C degrees) or more from the previous morning. (Because of the extreme conditions, many of the reporting stations in Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska did not file observations on time.) In Montana, Helena and Fort Custer registered temperatures below minus 20 oF (minus 28.9 oC), while in Dakota, Bismarck and Fort Totten, with the mercury hovering near minus 30 oF (minus 34.4 oC), had dropped more than 30 F degrees (16.7 C degrees) since the previous morning. North Platte, Nebraska had lost 44 F degrees (24.4 C degrees) in a day to a numbing minus 16 oF (minus 26.7 oC). Omaha had a similar drop to -16 oF (minus 26.7 oC). To make matters worse, the low temperatures in Dakota were accompanied by winds reported at 30 mph (50 km/h). This combination resulted in a windchill temperature (using today's equation) of around minus 67 oF (minus 55 C), a temperature where frostbite can occur in 5 minutes.
The banner headline in the on 13 January edition of the Denver Evening Times read:
"An Awful Blizzard The Worst Storm of the Season in the North Grown Men Lost in the Storm Little Children Herded with Ropes Terrible Degree of Cold."
The accompanying article reported Denver saw but little snow though the low temperature fell to minus 18 oF (minus 27.8 oC) with 60 mph (96 km/h) winds. (If they occurred together, the windchill would have been in the minus 60 F range (minus 51 C).) It further reported: "Downtown the streets were deserted except by those absolutely compelled to be around, and windows of business houses and stores bore thick, frozen coats of icy winter's withering breath." The paper reported that in the Dakota Territory, Fargo shivered at minus 47 oF (minus 43.9 oC) and searches continued for missing schoolchildren in Huron.
The Human Impacts of the Blizzard
In the days before high-speed weather warnings, the suddenness of the blizzard caught many unaware and unprepared. In part this could be blamed on the return of relatively warmer weather following the cold that covered the region the week before. Rebounding temperatures often follow the passage of a cold air mass when southerly winds establish on the back side of the cold anticyclone, and this was especially true in this situation as the southerly winds brought sultry air from the Gulf of Mexico.
The second factor which heightened the impact of the blizzard was the timing of the event across much of the region. It came during the daylight hours while children sat in school and adults worked outdoors or travelled to and from town. Had the front passed through in the evening or overnight, most residents would have been relatively safe in their homes.
David Laskin, in his well-researched book The Children's Blizzard, places some of the blame on the inadequacies of the fledgling weather forecasting service. He places most of that blame on the bureaucracy of the Army Signal Corps, those in charge of the preparation and dissemination of "Indications" as forecasts were called at that time. Based on Laskin's research, the task of providing the regional forecast fell on the shoulders of Lieutenant Thomas M. Woodruff, stationed at St Paul, Minnesota. (For a complete analysis of Woodruff's response to the situation and the impacts of the blizzard, I strongly recommend Laskin's book.)
Woodruff was not a trained meteorologist by today's level of accreditation, few in America were. In fact, today's high school weather buff likely knows more about the workings of the atmosphere than perhaps all but a few individuals in 1888. The state of the science and art of forecasting were in the early days of development. But, as I said in my review of The Children's Blizzard:
"...would a perfect forecast have made any difference? There was no CNN or Weather Channel or even local radio to fill the airways with warnings, and many of those affected by the storm would have had no way to receive those warnings posted [on local bulletin boards] they live too far from town. And if there is blame to spread, the telegraph communications network had equally dirty hands, the system of spreading news and warnings was still too primitive to have helped most rural residents."
The cold blast, teamed with high winds and blowing snow that extinguished visibility past a few yards, took, by most accounts, around 230 lives (other accounts push the total to 500 or more), almost all the result of exposure to the elements. Perhaps 100 of those were children. Thousands were caught outdoors or, as the case with the schoolchildren, some distance from home on foot or horseback. All were accustomed to dealing with bad weather conditions, but few had experienced conditions such as these.
With hindsight, we can see many instances where poor judgement lead to death or injury from the blizzard conditions. There were also many instances of heroism, and several came from the quick actions of youth caught in extreme conditions. I document but a few here, leaving those thirsty for more detailed heroic tales to obtain a copy of Laskin's book.
When the blizzard struck the many small communities around the region, schools were still in session. Some teachers panicked at the raging storm and dismissed their classes, often relying on the children to find their way home in the blizzard. In other cases, such as in the school of Seymour H. Dopp in Pawnee City, Nebraska, they stayed in the small schoolhouses until the storm abated. Rather than send the seventeen children home, Dopp kept them overnight in the country schoolhouse, Stockpiled fuel kept the building warm during the frigid night. The following morning, worried parents negotiated the snow-drifted roads toward the schoolhouse seeking their children. Relieved, they found all safe, but hungry at the school.
That afternoon, Dopp returned to his home in Table Rock to find the teacher at the school in that community had made a different decision. His 11-year-old daughter Avis and her classmates had been released from school. She, and undoubtably others, suffered frostbite from the cold exposure on her one-block trek home.
The newspaper in Wahoo, Nebraska ran an article datelined February 10, 1888 about the heroism of a Colon school teacher. Only 17 at the time, Miss Alma Carlson kept her students in the schoolhouse into the evening rather than risk their lives in the raging storm. Miss Carlson herself, however, attempted to reach her nearby boarding house for food and light to bring back to the kids. But once out in the swirling snow and biting winds, she became disoriented and lost. Stumbling on a haystack, she began to tear down the stack to make a shelter from the cold.
When she did not return to her boarding house that night, the owner ventured out to determine what may have happened to her and her students. The article reports that "For an hour he wandered about unable to find the school house. When he arrived there he found the children alright, but their teacher was missing." Carlson was able to see the light, and after nine hours buried in the hay, she stumbled out and returned to the school. "[A]s she fell into the door, [she] said, ‘my hands and feet are frozen,' and then fainted."
"In spite of all this, Miss Carlson has continued her school every day....She will lose the nails of her right hand and perhaps the ends of some of her fingers. Her right foot is still very sore, swollen and painful."
The students in Plainfield, Nebraska were not as lucky as those in Colon or Pawnee City. By mid-afternoon, the schoolhouse there had run out of heating fuel, and teacher Miss Lois (or Loie or Louise, depending on the newspaper) Royce made a fateful decision. Three pupils huddled with her in the cold schoolhouse (six others had gone home for lunch and not returned due to the storm). Royce decided to take the three with her to her boarding house. The decision was not totally unreasonable, for it was located but 82 yards (75 metres) away. Once outdoors, however, the raging blizzard closed in on the small party, and they became completely disoriented. Wandering in the frigid wind, she and the students began to feel the effects of the cold. One boy died, and Miss Royce decided to sink to the ground and cuddle the remaining two children to her body for warmth. By daylight, the two students, a boy and a girl, were dead and the teacher frozen of body and numb of mind. She would lose both feet by amputation.
The students of Miss Minnie Freeman of the Midvale school in the Mira Valley, Nebraska faired much better. Like Alma Carlson, she was still in her teens, the same age as several of her students. They had enough coal on hand to weather the night, but the winds tore the leather door hinges and blew it in, not once but twice. Then an extreme gust ripped off a corner of the tar-paper and sod roof, leaving a hole. Expecting the entire roof to go at any time, Freeman determined it was impossible to remain with her seventeen pupils in the schoolhouse and decided to lead them to her boarding place, about a half mile from the school.
They left the schoolhouse through a south window. Miss Freeman lined her students together in single file and tied them together with rope (though one student later denied this had happened), placing herself at the head of the line. Despite the driving winds blowing sheets of ice and snow over them, the small party eventually reached the farmhouse safely.
Afterward, the Omaha Bee proclaimed in a bold headline:
A Heroine of the Storm
Minnie Freeman thus became a national hero with her image rendered in wax throughout the nation. Reportedly, she received 80 proposals of marriage through the mail. Lyon & Healy, a Chicago music publisher, released a song about her deeds: "Song of the Great Blizzard 1888, Thirteen Were Saved or Nebraska's Fearless Maid." Many years later, one of those students Mrs Ellis of St Paul, Nebraska, then 78 years old, penned a poem in tribute to Freeman's heroism:
'Midst driving winds and blinding snows,
Fierce and loud the awful storm,
See them falling as they go;
Preëminent her name shall stand,
Other stories of rescue and tragedy arose from the storm. In Great Plains, Dakota, two men tied a rope to the house closest to the school and headed into the storm. Once there, they tied off the rope and used it as a guide back. All children were thus led to safety. In Runningwater, Dakota, Mrs. Wilson left her schoolhouse with nine children, but they never made safety. All were later found frozen on the prairie.
The Friesen Family in 1883. Front: Anna (mother), Isaac, Peter, and Jacob (father).
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