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A Tale of Three Blizzards

By Daniel Hubbard | February 6, 2011

Like many people in the central United States, I’ve spent the last few days digging out. Clearing two feet of snow is a workout. This storm was a few inches short of being the worst in Chicago’s history. That title still belongs to the Blizzard of ’67.

One weather forecaster made an interesting observation in the hours before the storm hit. This was a storm that had been talked about for days. Few in the Midwest could have been unaware that a major blizzard was on its way. So much had been made of it that some complained that the media seemed out to scare people. Besides pointing out that the need to respect the expected twenty inches of snow with fifty mile per hour winds was hard to overemphasize, he said something that grabbed my attention. In 1967, weather prediction was not up to the task of warning people. The magnitude of the storm caught people off guard. With too little warning, expressways became littered with abandoned cars and cleanup was nearly impossible. As imperfect as today’s weather models are, they were easily good enough to let people know days in advance what was on the way and where it was going.

Before this storm hit, I was with a client. We kept an eye on the radar over the web and an ear on the radio for the reports that people further south were phoning in. Most reports went like this. “Hi, I’m calling from x and it seemed like just any other snow storm and suddenly ‘wham!’ The snow is coming down so fast you can’t see and the wind is really howling. You can’t see anything but white.” Over the radio you could follow the wall of snow northward just by listening to the changing locations of the callers. I knew exactly when I needed to leave and I got home as the wall of snow hit.

One other thing about 1967’s “Big Snow” made me think. That storm hit in the early morning of January 26th. Now, January is a perfectly reasonable time of year for a blizzard to hit. Two days earlier the temperature had hit 65ºF. That is not perfectly reasonable for a January day in Chicago. Apparently, it is often that way with big snow storms. Some of the energy that drives them comes paradoxically from unusually warm air—the kind of unseasonable warmth that would more tend to put a smile on your face than fill you with a sense of foreboding.

Last week I mentioned in an aside that there are things about how we view the past and the future that would have made no sense to our ancestors. Their view of the past and the future often make sense to us only with effort. There are so many things that we need to forget in order to see the world as they saw it. That brings me to the other blizzard of which I’ve been reminded.

The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard

The blizzard known as “The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” or simply “The Children’s Blizzard” came to mind as I listened to reports of the suddenness of the onset of this week’s storm. It also came to mind when I read about the Blizzard of ’67—how it had been so warm before it hit and how the aftermath was much worse than this years blizzard simply because predictions didn’t prepare people for what was coming.

The Children’s Blizzard of January 12, 1888 is probably the most tragic story there is among blizzards in North America. Before it arrived the weather was unusually warm. Perfect weather for boys and girls to joyously head for school without jackets or mittens. In many places the temperature was 30ºF warmer than the day before. Even temperatures that were 50ºF warmer occurred in places. Clearly, in the dead of winter on the Northern Plains, this was weather to be savored.

The residents of the Plains had no way of knowing what was in store. Weather forecasting was in its infancy. Data was passed from reporting stations by telegraph to St. Paul where it was mapped and analyzed so that an “indication” for the following day could be telegraphed out. The indication for January 12 called for nothing dramatic. Even if it had been accurate, how many of the people scattered across the homesteads to the west of St. Paul would have known what the telegraph wires carried that day? Without radio or the internet streaming live weather radar, what people knew of what the weather was doing at any given moment was limited to what they could see, hear and feel. Our world of awareness is electronically broadened far beyond that. What they expected rested with their own experience and some weather lore. We have The Weather Channel.

That day men and women were out tending to their chores and children sat at their school benches learning their lessons. When the storm hit, it his fast. Temperatures dove and high winds drove snow so hard that it became difficult to breath and impossible to see. Some teachers thought it would be best to send their students home as quickly as possible but many of those children never made it, freezing to death on the way. In other cases, they tried to wait out the storm. If there was enough fuel for the stove it could work but many of the schoolhouses began to blow apart and the decision was made to flee. The snow blew so hard that even though shelter was in some cases only yards away—less than a football field, less than some pass plays that take a few seconds—people became disoriented, lost their way and froze.

There are many heroic stories of people going out in search of loved ones. Some succeeded in finding their way only by following fence lines. Others sheltered in haystacks when they neither knew where they were nor could continue to search. Somewhere between 200 and 500 people died in the snow and wind that afternoon, at least 100 of them were schoolchildren trying to reach shelter. Who knows how many lost fingers or even feet to frostbite.

The people who settled the plains had many brutal lessons to learn. Many of those lessons were about the weather and unpredictability. My own ancestors may have experienced something of the Children’s Blizzard and certainly learned something about drought. Like so many others, a few years of Kansas weather was enough to drive them back east. This lesson though, was beyond even the imagination of the most seasoned of homesteaders.

The Times, They Have Been a-Changin’

It can be hard to truly see the world the way it was seen a century or two ago. Today, our weather disasters are not generally because we have no idea what is coming but rather that we cannot handle the magnitude of what nature has in store. We may not know exactly what will happen, but today an approaching blizzard is hard to miss.

The people who lived on the plains in the 1880s certainly knew a few things about severe weather and still a storm could kill them by the hundreds. They couldn’t see it coming. If anyone had seen it coming there was no way to spread the knowledge fast enough. The tools we have to experience and understand the world have changed so much since then. What has also changed is the ease with which we can spread understanding from place to place and person to person.

I think this is one of the most difficult problems to solve when it comes to understanding past lives. We can neither think of them as totally alien nor totally familiar. We are neither like them nor unlike them. It is as easy to overstate the differences as it is to deny the differences. We don’t understand them better by ignoring the gulfs between their lives and ours and what those gulfs mean, but at the same time we can’t deny that in many ways they were not so different. There is a subtle tightrope to be delicately walked if we wish to get to know them for who they were.

To get to know the people of the past, we need to immerse ourselves in their lives as if we were reading an engrossing novel. When it comes to our ancestors, it is often a novel we need to write for ourselves

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Topics: Forgotten History | 5 Comments »

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5 Responses to “A Tale of Three Blizzards”

  1. Michelle Goodrum Says:
    February 6th, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Interesting story. My daughter, who is in Colorado, had a similar experience recently with it being unusually warm when she left for classes one morning. She was caught completely unprepared for the snowstorm that hit later in the afternoon.

  2. Greta Koehl Says:
    February 6th, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Neither “totally alien nor totally familiar” – exactly! There are so many differences in our way of life from that of our ancestors, it’s simply hard to conceive of or remember them all. I’m glad you wrote about the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” in this post. Last week a colleague and I were discussing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, and at first I thought it must have been about the winter of 1888, but that is too late (the action takes place during the winter of 1880-1881); now I see that I was remembering this blizzard.

  3. Carol Says:
    February 6th, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Fascinating post, fully enjoyed the history and the lesson.

  4. Kay Strickland Says:
    February 7th, 2011 at 9:06 am

    A terrific post, for its history and its lesson. Thanks!

  5. Angie Says:
    February 11th, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Great post. A good lesson to remember.