The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin
On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent. Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon. The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar, and a wall of ice dust blasted the prairie.
Every crevice, every gap and orifice, instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything exposed to the wind. The cold front raced down the undefended grasslands like a crack, unstoppable army. Montana fell before dawn; North Dakota went while farmers were out doing their early morning chores; South Dakota, during morning recess; Nebraska as school clocks rounded toward dismissal.
In three minutes, the front subtracted 18 degrees from the air’s temperature. The evening gathered in, and temperatures kept dropping steadily, hour after hour, in the northwest gale. Before (p.2) midnight, windchills were down to 40 below zero. That’s when the killing happened.
By morning on Friday the thirteenth, hundreds of people lay dead on the Dakota and Nebraska prairie, many of them children who had fled, or had been dismissed from, country schools, at the moment when the wind shifted and the sky exploded.
Chance is always a silent partner in disaster. Bad luck, bad timing, the wrong chance at a crucial moment, and the door is inexorably shut and barred. The tragedy of the January 12 blizzard was that the bad timing extended across a region and cut through the shared experiences of an entire population.
The storm hit the most thickly settled sections of Nebraska and Dakota Territory at the worst possible moment, late in the morning, or early in the afternoon, on the first mild day in several weeks, a day when children had raced to school with no coats or gloves, and farmers were far from home doing chores they had put off during the long siege of cold.
But the deadly quirks of chance went deeper and farther than circumstance or time of day. It was the deep current of history that left the prairie peculiarly vulnerable to the storm.
For nearly all of the nation’s short life span, the grasslands at the heart of the country had been ignored, overlooked, skirted, or raced over. On maps, the words “Great American Desert” hovered vaguely between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, and the rest was left blank, or faintly labeled Indian Territory.
But then, after the Civil War, when the swelling cities of the East Coast settled down to the serious business of industrial capitalism, the Great American Desert was reborn and rechristened. Suddenly, this immense expanse of open land was not waste, but paradise. And like paradise, it was free, or all but free.
Railroad companies flush with millions of acres of government land grants promised new settlers the sky and sold them the earth at irresistible prices. Under the Homestead Act, the U.S. government gave every comer 160 acres free and clear, in exchange for the investment of a small filing fee and five years of (p.3) farming.
The dream of free land let loose a stampede. In the three decades after 1870, some 225 million acres of the continent’s heartland were broken, stripped of sod, and planted with crops, more land than had been “improved” in the preceding 263 years of white settlement in the United States. On the last frontier was enacted the greatest human migration the earth had yet endured.
It was late in the day to be an American pioneer. While Thomas Edison was making the first moving pictures in New Jersey, while electric lights shone from Chicago skyscrapers raised on steel skeletons, while Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Morgans, and Rockefellers were adorning their neo-Gothic and Renaissance palaces with the treasures of Europe, homesteaders in Dakota warmed themselves in sod huts, at fires of buffalo bones.
It wasn’t that the sodbusters didn’t know that elegant Pullman sleeping cars skimmed over the train tracks at the edges of their wheat fields, or that the future price of that wheat depended on tycoons in New York and the number of mouths to feed in Russia.
Whether they had come from Europe in the reeking steerage of immigrant ships, or boarded converted cattle cars in Chicago, Saint Paul, or New York, they had witnessed with their own eyes the newborn marvels of the industrial world. Someday, they believed, these marvels would be theirs. If they worked hard enough, if their children worked hard enough, the land in time would provide.
And so the settlers of the prairie banked on the future, and put their trust in land they loved, but didn’t really understand. They got down to work so quickly, they didn’t have time to figure out the vagaries of soil and climate, the cycles of the seasons, the fickle violent moods of the sky.
Deprived of both the folk wisdom born of deep familiarity with a single place, and the brash abstractions of the new science, the pioneers were vulnerable and exposed. There hadn’t been time to put up the fences. Children waded into tall grass and vanished. Infants were accidentally dropped in snowdrifts. Infections flourished in the primitive, unsanitary claim shanties.
(p.4) Coded messages hummed through the telegraph wires strung alongside the train tracks, but settler’s farms were too far from the offices where the messages were received and decoded to do them any good. When the cloud descended from the northwest and filled the air with snow, they had no warning.
Unaware of the risk, they wandered out in pursuit of a single precious cow and lost their way between sod hut and barn. Their fuel gave out, their roofs blew off, their animals suffocated. Their children froze to death in the furrows of their fields.
“All around no one knew of anyone else’s predicament,” wrote a Dakota pioneer after the storm, “so each acted as he or she thought fit, and people survived or died according to their temperament. You can’t preach about it. If a young fellow had every penny of his cash tied up in an uninsured herd of cattle, what would most of us have done? No one knew THEN that this was the day which was to be remembered when all the days of 70 years would be forgotten.”
One of the many tragedies of that day was the failure of the weather forecasters, a failure compounded of faulty science, primitive technology, human error, narrow-mindedness, and sheer ignorance. America in 1888 had the benefit of an established, well-funded, nationwide weather service attached to the Army, and headed by a charismatic general, yet the top priority on any given day was not weather, but political infighting.
Forecasters, “indications officers,” as they were styled then, insisted their forecasts were correct 83.7% of the time for the next twenty-four hours, but they were forbidden to use the word “tornado” in any prediction; they believed that America’s major coastal cities were immune to hurricanes; they relied more on geography and cartography than on physics in tracking storms; they lacked the means and, for the most part, the desire to pursue meteorological research.
“The (p.5) promise of a science of a profound interest to the scholar, and of vast usefulness to the people, is being rapidly realized,” wrote explorer and geologist Major John Wesley Powell of meteorology in 1891. “While the science has not yet reached that stage when directions can be successfully given at what hour it is wise to carry an umbrella on a showery day, it has reached that stage when the great storms and waves of intense heat or intense cold can be predicted for all the land, in advance of their coming, so as to be of great value to all industries of this land. All the discomforts of the weather cannot be avoided, but the great disasters can be anticipated and obviated.”
Mighty rhetoric, and many believed it. But in truth, when it came to weather prediction, government forecasters in the last decades of the nineteenth century were still relying more on empirical observations, and even proverbs of the “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” school, than on sound scientific understanding of the atmosphere.
Many of the “great storms and waves of intense heat or intense cold” escaped them altogether, or were mentioned in their daily “indications” too late, too vaguely, too timidly to do anyone any good. When it came to “great disasters,” they knew far less than they thought they knew. It was the age of confidence. Arrogance was epidemic.
The officer in charge of the experimental indications office that had been established in Saint Paul for the express purpose of predicting blizzards and outbreaks of extreme cold on the prairie did not entirely miss the January 12 storm. He knew before midnight on January 11 that it would snow in Dakota Territory and Nebraska the following afternoon, and get colder that night. His indications “verified.”
But they helped few, if any, people in the region escape or protect themselves. Warnings were not posted in time. No one reading the indications for that day would have guessed that an historic storm was bearing down on them. Those in positions of authority neither recognized nor cared about the forecasting failure. To the extent that knuckles got rapped as a result of the (p.6) storm, it had to do with sleet-covered sugar plantations in the Deep South, not frozen children on the prairie. It was the Gilded Age. Disaster meant financial ruin.
Even in a region known for abrupt and radical meteorological change, the blizzard of 1888 was unprecedented in its violence and suddenness. There was no atmospheric herald. No eerie green tinge to the sky or fleecy cirrus forerunner. One moment it was mild, the sun was shining, a damp wind blew fitfully out of the south; the next moment, frozen hell had broken loose.
The air was so thick with fine-ground, wind-lashed ice crystals that people could not breathe. The ice dust webbed their eyelashes and sealed their eyes shut. It sifted into the loose weave of their coats, shirts, dresses, and underwear, until their skin was packed in snow. Farmers, who had spent a decade walking the same worn paths, became disoriented in seconds.
The pioneers of the prairie, even those who had lived there only a few seasons, were accustomed to seeing hail rip open the bases of enormous black clouds, and winds of summer fire stream out of the west. They had crouched by their stoves for dark days and nights, while winter gales blew without ceasing. They had watched houses get sucked in whirling fragments up the bases of funnel clouds. But nobody had any idea that the atmosphere was capable of a storm like this.
The blizzard of January 12, 1888, known as “the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because so many of the victims were children caught out on their way home from school, became a marker in the lives of the settlers, the watershed event that separated before and after. The number of deaths, estimated at between 250 and 500, was small compared to that of the Johnstown Flood that wiped out an entire industrial town in western Pennsylvania the following year, or the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that left more than eight (p.7) thousand dead.
But it was traumatic enough that it left an indelible bruise on the consciousness of the region. The pioneers were, by and large, a taciturn lot, reserved and sober Germans and Scandinavians who rarely put their thoughts or feeling down on paper, and when they did, avoided hyperbole at all costs.
Yet their accounts of the blizzard of 1888 are shot through with amazement, awe, disbelief. There are thousands of these eyewitness accounts of the storm. Even those who never wrote another word about themselves, put down on paper everything they could remember about the great blizzard of 1888. Indeed, it was the storm that has preserved these lives from oblivion.
The blizzard literally froze a single day in time. It sent a clean, fine blade through the history of the prairie. It forced people to stop and look at their existences, the earth and sky they had staked their future on, the climate and environment they had brought their children to, the peculiar forces of nature and of nature’s God that determined whether they would live or die.
What follows is the story of this storm, and some of the individuals whose lives were ever changed by it. Parents who lost children. Children who lost parents. Fathers who died with their coats and their arms wrapped around their sons. Sisters who lay side by side with their faces frozen to the ground. Teachers who locked the schoolhouse doors to keep their students safe inside, or led them to shelter, or to death, when the roofs blew off their one-room schoolhouses.
Here, too, is the story of the Army officer paid by his government to predict the evolution of the storm and warn people of its approach. In a sense, it is a book about multiple, and often fatal, collisions; collisions between ordinary people going about their daily lives, and the immense unfathomable disturbances of weather.
To understand the causes and consequences of these collisions, it’s necessary to trace the elements involved to their sources and points of origin. To tease out from the detritus of the past how these particular families happened to find themselves in the path of the northwest wind on that particular day. To isolate the forces in (p.8) the atmosphere that conspired and converged to create the wind, and the deadly cold it carried in its wake. To see those atmospheric forces through the eyes of an Army forecaster, who had been trained to fight Indians, follow orders, and apply fixed rules.
“Everything changes; nothing does,” the poet James Merrill wrote in a poem called “After the Fire.” The effects of disaster, no matter how extreme, do not last forever. We bury our dead, nurse the wounded, rebuild, and get on with our lives. Today, aside from a few fine marble headstones in country graveyards, and the occasional historical marker, not a trace of the blizzard of 1888 remains on the prairie.
Yet in the imagination and identity of the region, the storm is as sharply etched as ever. “This is a place where blizzards kill children on their way home from school.” To understand why, and how, the deadliest Midwestern blizzard happened the way it did, is to understand something essential about the history of the American prairie; indeed, about the history of America itself.