Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blizzard of 1888

This is a timely reminder of the extremes that Mother Nature can throw at us in the winter time. I think that folks caught a whiff of this out on the plains this winter.

The abrupt temperature inversion is a long way from beginning to recover, and the record shows that it will take many years. In fact, the sun is perhaps slightly cooler and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is long gone. This is a new development that is a clean break from the preceding north hemispheric warming that lasted twenty years.
As I posted last winter, it began with the heat blow out into the Arctic of 2007 that likely discharged the driving energy of the PDO.

We can now expect a further measured drop in global temperature and also more this coming winter or two before this has run its course. I do not want to say that this will continue for at least a decade, because we do not know, but it certainly is setting up for it. The historical record slants the probability strongly in that direcrtion.

We will soon be talking at how much cooler 2008 was when the numbers are released and this winter will be dragging into the spring, just like the good old days.


The Blizzard of 1888

Walt Sehnert
Monday, January 19, 2009

Note: The January meeting of the Buffalo Commons Storytellers produced many good stories about the great Nebraska Blizzard of 1948-'49. Since the blizzard stories proved so popular, it seemed appropriate to bring back some stories about another great Nebraska Blizzard -- in 1888.

The Blizzard of Jan. 12-13, 1888, one of the greatest tragedies that ever hit the State of Nebraska, has been referred to as the "School Children's Blizzard," as it trapped so many children in country schools across the state. The storm was widespread, reaching from the Rockies, across the Midwest, and as far south as Mississippi. A later storm, in March of 1888, hit the Northeastern part of the country, and New York State. That storm was not as severe, but affected more people. It is more often reported, and cited as a great tragedy, which it certainly was, even though loss of life was not as great a factor as the Midwest storm.

Strong winds made conditions especially trying in the Midwest. In that day women's and girls' skirts were full and reached nearly to the ground. In those strong winds the skirts wrapped tightly around the legs, making progress difficult. The temperature fell in 24 hours from an unseasonable 70 above zero, to almost 40 below zero. The Colorado River, in Texas, was frozen one foot in depth, the first time in memory that that phenomenon had happened. The winds were so strong that voices were not audible, barely six feet away.

Snow, as fine as powder (which people caught in the storm referred to as "ice dust") was propelled by the wind into minute cracks in buildings. Snow drifted into barns where horses in stalls continually stomped it down, till they were three or four feet above the ground. Stock, in the open, drifted with the wind, straying over drift covered roads and fences -- drifts packed so tightly that cattle could easily cross, as if the obstruction never existed. But cattle also exhibited a homing instinct, and cattle bearing into the storm toward home suffocated from the powdery snow packing into their nostrils.

Across the Midwest some 235 lives were lost in the Blizzard of 1888. In Nebraska there are conflicting reports of deaths, but apparently somewhere between 40 and 100 deaths were attributed to the great storm. For a great number of years the "Blizzard of '88 Club" was very active. Survivors met annually, usually in Lincoln, to swap stories about their experiences. Babies born during those two days seemed to have special status, even into old age, and obituaries often carry a reference to that person as "The Blizzard Baby."

As is the case in any widespread disaster -- tornadoes, floods, fires, and blizzards, stories of tragedy, heroism, and ingenuity are repeated again and again, in various locations, involving different names.

In the Plainview, Neb., cemetery there is a monument erected by a teacher, Loie Royce to the memory of three of her pupils. Miss Royce was a teacher in a rural school north and east of Plainview in 1888. The morning of the blizzard she had nine pupils in school. As the blizzard worsened, Miss Royce sent six of the older students home. Some reports say that she ran out of fuel at the school, some say that there was still fuel for the stove. At any rate, sometime in the afternoon Miss Royce started out, with her three youngest pupils, Peter Poggensee, 9, Otto Rosburg, 9, and Hattie Rosburg, 7, for the nearby farm home where she boarded.

Mrs. Ella Rosburg Martin, a younger sister of two of the victims, was not yet of school age at the time of the blizzard. In a story in the Plainview Diamond Jubilee, 1886-1961, Mrs. Martin offered this account of the events of that day, regarding Miss Royce and three of her pupils. "Unable to face into the storm, the four drifted to the southeast and became lost. Peter Poggensee died first, about 6 in the evening. About midnight Otto Rosburg became still. The little girl, being plump survived until daylight. Wrapped in her teacher's arms, she kept repeating, over and over,

'I am so cold, Mama. Please cover me up.'"

Conrad Rosburg, father of the children, and H. Lorenz found them in the morning. Loie Royce was alive, but her feet were frozen so badly that they had to be amputated above the ankles. It is thought that she became panicky and so left the schoolhouse.

Said Mrs. Rosburg Martin, "My folks were restless after that and moved around a lot. I don't believe they ever got over the deaths of my brother and sister."

At a farm south of Wisner, in Northeast Nebraska (the family farm of my wife, Jean) young Harry Leisy managed to string a rope from the barn 60 yards to the house, which he used to keep from getting lost in the swirling snow, as he traveled that short distance back and forth to the barn. Using this rope he was able to keep a regular milking and feeding schedule for the animals in the barn, during the two days of the blizzard.

Some years ago, the late Harry Culbertson, a railroader from McCook, related his story about the Blizzard of '88. Harry was attending a country school near Culbertson in 1888. For a mid-January day it was extremely mild and sunny, though there was a lot of snow on the ground from previous storms. That morning Harry decided to take his shot gun, as he walked to school, to get in a bit of hunting on the way.
He had managed to bag a couple of quail (or some small bird), and as he neared the schoolhouse, he buried the birds and his shotgun in the snow beside a certain fencepost, not wanting to take either the birds or the shotgun with him into the school building.

Though all morning there was an unusual amount of electricity in the air, the snow did not start until near 1 p.m. The snow began as large silky flakes, but soon turned into a fine powder, which was propelled by strong winds into a full-blown blizzard. The teacher of the school was young, but capable.
She dismissed the school and sent the older children home, but kept the younger children with her. She managed to keep them close and together they made it to a nearby farm place where they spent the night.

Harry had a mile or so to go to reach home. Even though the storm was raging, and the temperature had dropped dramatically, he was not worried, as he knew he could follow the fence all the way home. He said that conditions were worse than he at first believed, and he should have been more concerned, but with the confidence of youth slogged on. The worst part was that he could not see the buildings of his farm and would have gone past had there not been some sort of farm machine near the fence, which he recognized and that enabled him to get his bearings. When the winds abated slightly he caught sight of the lantern in the kitchen window of his home, which allowed him to make it to the house and safety.

School did not resume for a week, and some of the youngsters were gone for longer than that. The subsequent drifts completely covered the fence that Harry had followed on his trip home that day. It was late in March before he made his way back to the spot where he had left his shotgun and the two birds he had bagged the morning of the storm. He was much relieved to find that a little oil and cleaning was all the gun required to be restored to prime condition, and the two birds were still frozen solid. He laughed as he told how he had taken them home, thawed them out, cleaned them, and the family had eaten them for supper that night -- only two and a half months late.

Source: Plainview News Diamond Jubilee, 1886-1961

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