The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin
Chapter Six <1st half>: Explosion
(p.123) An hour after station agent Brown received the telegram from Bismarck warning of the storm, Lieutenant Woodruff arrived at his office in downtown Saint Paul. Sergeant Lyons reported smartly that it was the warmest morning of the week, 2 below at the 6 A.M. observation, fully 23 degrees warmer than the day before. Woodruff and McAdie got to work immediately on the morning indications. They had an hour and a half to go through the stacks of telegrams from the outlying stations, draw the five maps, prepare the cyclostyle, the same routine as the day before, the same as the day after.
Woodruff was gratified to see that his indications from the previous night had “verified,” particularly in the northwest. Temperatures had indeed risen in advance of the low, just as he anticipated. And behind the low, up in Montana, cold air was spilling out of Canada, 2 below zero at Fort Assinniboine, with winds blowing out of the north at 28 miles an hour. Eight below and snowing in Helena.
(p.124) There was no question now in Woodruff’s mind: a cold wave warning was warranted for Dakota and for Nebraska later in the day. It would blow hard, and the snow would drift heavily, and then the temperature would fall, in a long arc sweeping from northwest to southeast, the classic path for an advancing cold wave. By nightfall, western Dakota would be scoured by arctic winds. Woodruff knew what it felt like when that blade of cold penetrated. He had not forgotten his winters at Fort Keogh. Woodruff took a fresh sheet of tissue paper and quickly covered it with black ink:
Signal Office War Department, Saint Paul, Minnesota: January 12, 1888, 10:30 AM Indications for 24 hours commencing at 3 PM today: For Saint Paul, Minneapolis and vicinity: warmer weather with snow; fresh easterly winds. For Minnesota: snow warmer followed in northern part by colder fresh to high variable winds becoming northerly For Dakota: Snow warmer followed by colder with a cold wave, fresh to high northerly winds A cold wave is indicated for Dakota and Nebraska tonight and tomorrow; the snow will drift heavily today and tomorrow in Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The words “cold wave” in the indications triggered a set of special procedures. The instructions were clear and exact in the military way. Newspapers and the Associated Press wire service received the daily indications as a matter of course, but now extra telegrams must go out to the Signal Service stations in Minnesota, Dakota Territory, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Chicago, some twenty-two stations in all, as well as to the principal railroads serving the region. Professor William Payne had also arranged with Woodruff (p.125) to have cold wave telegrams sent to the sixty “flag stations” that he had set up through his Minnesota State Weather Service; although, as Payne noted sourly, “the service as rendered by the Western Union Telegraph Company, in many instances is very poor,” with the result that his volunteer flag displaymen frequently did not receive Woodruff’s indications or received them late.
In any case, when and if the messages arrived, displaymen at the flag stations and observers at the Signal Corps observation stations were immediately to hoist the black and white cold wave flags, six-by-eight-foot white rectangular sheets with a two-foot black square centered in the middle, and keep them flying until Woodruff instructed them to take them down. That was the procedure, and on January 12 it worked as well as it was expected to. The forecast was substantially correct. The messages were coded and transmitted and duly received. The orders were obeyed. Word went out, the official word as sanctioned by the Signal Office of the War Department. But by the time the procedure went into effect, it was too late to matter.
In the central Dakota boom town of Huron on the frozen James River, Signal Corps observer Sergeant Samuel W. Glenn was violently ill that morning, so ill that he was late getting the 7 A.M. observations off to Woodruff in Saint Paul and Greely in Washington. This was a most unusual occurrence. Sergeant Glenn was not one of those slipshod, shady observers who pawned the barometer to pay off poker debts, or shook down local businessmen for cash, in exchange for weather data. Far from it.
For Glenn, monitoring the weather was both a career and a mission, and rare was the occasion when he failed to perform his duty as the observer in charge of the Huron Signal Corps station punctually and precisely. To the extent that a town as young and raw as Huron could have (p.126) institutions, Sergeant Glenn was one of them. It was he who inaugurated the downtown office on Third Street, near the opera house six and a half years before, taking his first observation at 5:35 A.M. on July 1, 1881, when the town, in the words of one settler, was nothing but “long lines of weather beaten square-fronted stores, tar-paper covered shacks with one way roofs, sod houses, tents, wagon camps, saloons galore, no churches or schools, and streets hub deep in mud most of the time.”
Since the Signal Corps building was then still under construction, Sergeant Glenn had to climb a ladder to get up to his office. Now, some 118,500 observations later, Glenn was still at it, five observations a day (the three standard Signal Corps readings, plus two more for local records) taken with his four thermometers, two barometers, one anemometer with a self-registering attachment, one anemoscope, rain gauge, telescope, and field glass.
Sergeant Glenn kept his arsenal of instruments in perfect order, wrote meticulously and faithfully in the station’s journal of any unusual local meteorological phenomena, and received the highest praise from the Corps inspectors dispatched each year from Washington. In fact, Lieutenant John C. Walshe had inspected the Huron station on November 26 and 27, shortly before meeting with Woodruff at the Indications Office in Saint Paul, and pronounced it exemplary.
Glenn’s lapse on the morning of January 12 actually had less to do with his illness than the cure. As he noted in the station journal, he had been sick on and off since January 3, with an undisclosed ailment, and had been receiving “medical advice and medicine from Dr. Alford.” Before dawn on January 12, Glenn had unwisely taken too much of Dr. Alford’s medicine on an empty stomach, alcohol may well have been the primary ingredient, and the reaction was swift and terrible. While Glenn languished in bed, somebody, presumably the station assistant, was dragged to the office at 6 A.M. Central time to check the thermometers and rain gauge outdoors, and the barometers and anemometer register mounted on the station wall.
(p.127) The observations, though sent late, do exist, and Glenn was far too upstanding an observer to have fabricated them. Atmospheric pressure 28.21 inches of mercury and falling; temperature 19 degrees; wind out of the south at 24 miles an hour. Though Glenn was an hour late getting the telegrams off, not a single reading was missing. (He later supplied headquarters with a certificate signed by Dr. Alford attesting to his illness.) By midmorning, the effects of Glenn’s medicine had worn off sufficiently for him to climb out on the roof of the Huron station. Having noted the rapid fall in the barometric pressure, Glenn concluded that the region was in for a gale. Before it hit, he wanted to inspect the anemometer to make sure the wires connecting it to the register inside were in good order. He also, frankly, wanted to see the storm blow in, always a spectacle out on the prairie. And so at 11:42 A.M., Central time, Sergeant Glenn went out on the roof to have a look around.
Sixty seconds later, he came within a whisker of getting blown off. Glenn must have had his pocket watch open in his hand, because he recorded to the minute in the station’s journal what occurred in the atmosphere in the moments that followed: “The air, for about one (1) minute, was perfectly calm, and voices and noises on the street below appeared as though emanating from great depths. A peculiar ‘hush’ prevailed over everything. In the next minute, the sky was completely overcast by a heavy black cloud, which had in a few minutes previously hung suspended along the western and northwestern horizon, and the wind veered to the west (by the southwest quadrant), with such violence as to render the observer’s position very unsafe.”
“The air was immediately filled with snow as fine as sifted flour. The wind veered to the northeast, then backed to the northwest, in a gale which in three minutes attained a velocity of forty (40) miles per hour. In five minutes after the wind changed the outlines of objects fifteen (15) feet away were not discernible.”
(p.128) The Signal Office in Washington supplied observers like Sergeant Glenn with thick volumes of lined blank pages in which to keep the station journals. Months of the year and days of the month were preprinted on the quarto pages, three days per page with about three inches of blank space for each day. Sergeant Glenn wrote “disastrous storm” in the margin next to the three inches allotted to January 12, 1888, filled the blank space to overflowing, and then, at his own initiative, pasted into the journal nine additional handwritten pages. It is an invaluable account of the violence that tore the atmosphere over Huron, starting at 11:42 A.M. that day, and the suffering that living creatures on the ground endured for weeks afterward.
Sergeant Glenn had his two barometers to alert him that something powerful was coming his way. But out on the prairie and in the one-room country schoolhouses, and along the flimsy, flammable main streets of the quick-built railroad towns, the blizzard took people utterly by surprise. To those standing outside, it looked like the northwest corner of the sky was suddenly filling and bulging and ripping open. In account after account there runs the same thread, often the same words:
There had never been anything like it. Settlers who had lived through the blizzards of 1873, and the recurring storms of the Snow Winter of 1880-81, and the vicious blizzards that had killed so many cattle just the previous winter, none of them had ever seen a storm come up so quickly or burst so violently. “My brother and I were out snowballing on a bank,” remembered Allie Green, a fifteen-year-old boy in Clark County in eastern Dakota Territory. “We could see the blizzard coming across Spirit Lake. It was just as still as could be. We saw it cut off the trees like it was a white roll coming. It hit with a 60 mile an hour wind. It had snowed the night before about two or three inches. It just sucked up that snow into the air and nearly smothered you.”
(p.129) It was like a “gray wall,” said H. G. Purcell, a schoolboy in neighboring Codington County, who stood in awe on a ball field at the edge of town as the storm bore down from the northwest. “We were all out playing in our shirt sleeves, without hats or mittens,” remembered a South Dakota schoolboy. “Suddenly we looked up and saw something coming, rolling toward us with great fury from the northwest, and making a loud noise. It looked like a long string of big bales of cotton, each one bound tightly with heavy cords of silver, and then all tied together with great silvery ropes. The broad front of these cotton bales looked to be about twenty-five feet high; above them it was perfectly clear. The phenomenon was so unusual that it scared us children, and several of us ran into the schoolhouse and screamed to the teacher to come out quickly and see what was happening.”
When the storm reached the schoolhouse a few moments later, it hit “with such force that it nearly moved it off its cobble-stone foundation. And the roar of the wind was indescribable.” “The sky was inky,” wrote a teacher at the Rosebud Indian Agency in Dakota, just north of the Nebraska line. “Lilia [another teacher] ventured a few yards out of the front door at its beginning, and was near not getting back. The wind struck her with such violence as to bring her head down to her knees, and take away her breath. She said she was near falling on her face, and she knew that if she fell she would not get up again.”
Norris E. Williams, a schoolteacher in Jerauld County, west of Sioux Falls, was standing in front of his schoolhouse with a group of students during the late-morning recess when the storm descended: “I was just saying that I ought to dismiss school and go to Woonsocket for coal when a sudden whiff of cold air caused us all to turn and look toward the north, where we saw what appeared to be a huge cloud rolling over and over along the ground, blotting out the view of the nearby hills and covering everything in that direction as with a blanket. There was scarcely time to exclaim at the (p.130) unusual appearance, when the cloud struck us with awful violence, and in an instant the warm and quiet day was changed into a howling pandemonium of ice and snow.” Darkness fell, “darkness that might be felt,” as one farmer wrote. “You could hardly see your hand before you, or draw your breath, and that with the intense cold roaring wind and darkness, it would appall the stoutest heart.”
Many wrote that the onset of the storm was preceded by a loud roar, like an approaching train. It was a roar they not only heard, but felt, vibrating in their gut. That sound was the wind at the knife edge of the cold front, smashing the snow to powder. Dr. Louis W. Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and an expert on snowstorms, compares what was happening on the ground, as the cold front came through, to the smoke and ash roiling through the canyons of lower Manhattan after the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001:
“It was not a laminar flow in which the currents move in parallel layers, but a flow moving in turbulent eddies. The turbulence behind this front must have been incredible. The air was rolling over at the same time that it was coming down. The effect was like putting the snow and ice in a grinder. The turbulence pulverized the snow to talcum powder, as it entered the last mile or so of the atmosphere above the ground.”
That morning, the four classrooms of the Groton School were full for the first time since Christmas, on account of the balmy weather. Perhaps a hundred children in all had walked from the houses lining Main Street to the two-story schoolhouse set optimistically beyond the fringe of settlement. As usual, eight-year-old Walter Allen had gotten to school early. As the row monitor of his classroom, (p.131) he had important duties to perform. And so even before his father W.C. Allen left for his law office next door on Main Street, or his two older brothers headed out to their jobs at the sole remaining Groton newspaper, Walter ducked behind the family’s house and cut across the backyard toward school.
On a mild morning like January 12, the walk from the Allen house to school was nothing, even for an eight-year-old. As long as Walter stayed away from the deep drifts that massed behind buildings and fences, he was fine, and anyway, once he got beyond the outhouses tucked discreetly in back of the Main Street homes, there were few structures of any kind until he reached the school. Not a single tree varied the monotony or broke the wind, though, for once, that morning the wind wasn’t a problem.
The vestibule of the school where the children hung their wraps and stowed their wet shoes was less jammed than usual, since the weather was so mild. Some kids had dispensed with cloaks and overcoats altogether, their wool stockings and homemade linsey-woolsey and calico dresses and petticoats, or thick shirts and trousers, would have been warm enough on such a mild morning. One girl remembered slipping out of the house in a short cape made from the bottom of an outgrown coat, before her mother spotted her and insisted on the heavy coat.
“My brothers wore little homemade denim jackets. No scarves, mittens or overshoes, for it promised to be a fine winter’s day. Long before I reached school, I was carrying my cape in my hand.” It was hard on a day like that to be in school at all, but finally the teachers managed to herd all of them inside and get them settled, children ranging in age from five or six to fourteen, divided among four classrooms in the two-story frame schoolhouse.
Walter, in his coveted front-row seat, opened his desk and took out his slate, his erasing rag, and his prize possession, a delicate little perfume bottle. All the kids kept corked bottles of some sort in their desks to use in cleaning their slates, they’d pour a bit of (p.132) water from the bottle onto the slate and scrub it clean with a rag. Walter cherished the glass perfume bottle not only because it was so pretty and fine to look at, but because the stopper in its neck allowed him to squirt out just a few drops at a time. No one else in his classroom had anything like it. The morning began like every other, with recitation and chanting in unison of a passage from their “reader,” very likely one of the McGuffey readers that were then almost universal throughout the Midwest.
Hear the children gayly shout, “Half past four, and school is out!” See them, as they quickly go, Tripping homeward o’er the snow. Thus these little children go, Tripping homeward o’er the snow; Laughing, playing, on their way, Very happy, glad, and gay. There are many children whose parents are too poor to send them to school. Do you not pity them? Take good care of your new book, and give your old Reader to some child who is too poor to buy one.
Around 10:30, the chanting in Walter’s classroom abruptly ceased. Everyone had gotten up to look out the windows at the sky. The windows and doors rattled as the wall of shattered crystals slammed into the school. In an instant, the droning orderliness of the classrooms dissolved. Walter watched his teacher leave the room to confer with the other teachers and then return quickly. They had decided to dismiss school for the day and send the children home. Walter’s teacher had to shout over the roar of the wind that the row monitors were to get the wraps and distribute them as quickly as possible, then the children were to get dressed and go (p.133) home. This took perhaps ten or fifteen minutes.
But by the time the kids from the four classrooms were ready to go out, the storm had grown much worse. The teachers realized that they could not, that they must not, send the children out in these conditions. The youngest were hardly more than toddlers; the oldest were only fourteen. Somehow these excited, terrified kids had to be controlled and kept in school until it was safe for someone to go for help. Visibility was so poor that none of them saw the drays approaching, wooden platforms mounted on bobsleds and dragged by horses, the nineteenth-century winter version of a flatbed truck.
Five drays in all, each one attended by two men and drawn by two horses. They drove through the snow in a kind of ghostly procession, one dray right behind the other, so that none would stray from the road and get lost. For the teachers at their wits’ end, the drays were a godsend. With transport and men to help, it was just a matter of getting the kids lined up and counted and then marched out the door and onto the drays. Again, Walter and the other monitors were called on to get their rows ready. The monitors must go last, after the other kids in their rows had filed out, one by one.
The air, when they finally got outside, was a shock. The air itself seemed to be streaming sideways in billows of grit. The snow felt like frozen sand against their eyelids and nostrils and lips. They couldn’t face into the wind or open their eyes, even for a second. The wind was blowing so hard that if you fell you couldn’t get up again. But to the kids it didn’t matter. Being out in a storm powerful enough to shut down school and bring ten men out from town to rescue them was a tremendous lark, and the children fairly poured outside and down the rickety schoolhouse steps, everybody shouting over the wind and shoving and edging sideways or backward toward the drays. The wood of the drays was already rimed with snow and frozen solid as rock, but for the first couple of minutes, none of them felt (p.134) the cold through their thin clothing. They piled on in masses of bodies, and they had each other for warmth and a bit of shelter. There was much gleeful screaming as the schoolhouse emptied.
Walter took his responsibility as monitor very seriously. Not until his entire row was accounted for, assembled, and marched outside would he even dream of leaving the school. So he was one of the last ones out. The drays were nearly full by now, there was just room for him at the back of one. Walter scrambled up, the teachers did a final head count and shouted to the drivers that it was all right to start. The men snapped the reins and the five drays began creaking forward, one after the other in the storm, just as they had come out from town.
They hadn’t gone ten yards when Walter suddenly hopped off. He had just remembered his precious water bottle. He knew enough about weather to realize that the water inside the fragile perfume bottle would freeze as soon as the schoolhouse stove went cold, and then the ice trapped inside would burst the bottle. Without thinking, Walter dropped from the dray and rushed up the wooden steps, down the hall to his room, grabbed the bottle from his desk, and ran back out. Only then did his thoughts catch up with his body.
The drays had been barely creeping when he jumped off. He had assumed that they would still be in front of the school when he got back, or at least close enough to run after and overtake. Ordinarily, he could see for miles out here. Surely someone would spot him standing there and stop the dray and wait for him. But that’s not how it worked out. In the seconds that it took Walter to get his bottle, the drays had vanished without a trace, out of sight in the whiteout, out of earshot in the screaming wind.
“The world is full of nothing” ran inanely through Walter’s mind. And now he experienced that little seizure that tightens around the heart when you first realize you’ve taken a step that you cannot reverse. Snow clogged his nostrils and coated his eyelashes. Snow (p.135) blew down the neck of his coat and up his sleeves. The air was so full of powdered ice crystals, and it was moving so fast that Walter had trouble filling his lungs. The exposed skin of his face and neck felt seared, as if the wind carried fire not ice. A cottony numbness spread through his body and brain. It did not occur to Walter that he could still take shelter in the schoolhouse. Though he could barely see or breathe, he decided to set out for home. Once he had made that decision, a door shut behind him. After a dozen steps into the storm, he could not have returned to the schoolhouse if he wanted to.
Countless witnesses wrote that visibility was so poor at the height of the blizzard that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It’s tempting to dismiss this as hyperbole or a figure of speech, but there is in fact a meteorological basis for these claims. Dr. Louis Uccellini notes that the smaller the particles of the ice crystals, the worse visibility becomes, and there are numerous accounts of how the snow that day was as fine-grained as flour or sand. “There is a phrase used in blizzards of ‘zero/zero’ visibility,” says Dr. Uccellini, “which means you can’t see up or horizontally.”
This would explain how a woman near Sioux Falls froze to death with her key in her hand, just steps from her door. And the husband and wife who both perished while blindly circling each other in their farmyard. And David Fyffe, the crusty Scottish cattleman in southwestern Minnesota, who was only able to traverse the 101 feet from his barn to his house (he was very precise about the distance), because by pure luck he stumbled on one of the bobsleds he tied up at the iron pump that was exactly halfway between. Had it not been for that fortunate accident he “would never have been heard of,” Fyffe wrote in his memoirs.
“There was no house nearer than a mile or more.” A young Norwegian farmer, trapped in his barn in Dakota when the storm blew up, described how he “focused his mind on where the house stood in line with the barn,” and then set out into the wind with hands out in front of him. It was (p.136) only when his fingers caught in his wife’s clothesline that he knew where he was. A homesteader in Buffalo County, South Dakota, wrote of a neighbor who was staggering, lost between barn and house, when he tripped over a snowdrift and fell against the house. The thud of his body hitting the house was loud enough to be heard over the storm and brought the family out to rescue him.
So it’s hardly surprising that eight-year-old Walter Allen became confused and disoriented when he rushed out of the school clutching his perfume bottle, and found himself alone in the storm. Even worse than the whiteout was the agony of his eyes when he tried to see through the snow. The fine hard pellets blew into his eyes and made them water. Walter cried, and the snow mixed with his tears until it formed a crust between the upper and lower lids.
Instinctively, he reached up to brush the crust away with the back of his hand. Soon his eyeballs were inflamed, which further distorted his vision. The pain became so acute that it felt better to let the ice crust build. Tears and blowing snow melded together, and sealed his eyes shut tightly. There was no way to break the seal except by tearing the tender skin. Once Walter’s eyes were gone, the rest of his face went fast. A mask of ice covered the exposed skin of his face, except for holes at the nostrils and mouth.
Snow penetrated his clothing and froze into an armor of ice around his body. All of this happened in moments. Walter stumbled. The sizzle of driving snow hummed in his ears, and the frozen needles cut his face and throat. He knew he was lost. It was probably only a matter of minutes before he collapsed, whether in a gust of wind, or because his feet became too frozen to bear his weight, or from simple exhaustion, we’ll never know, and Walter himself didn’t know either. Strangely, once he was down, everything was better. On the ground, the snow was softer and the wind didn’t blow so hard. Walter curled up in the snow and surrendered.
(p.137) The south wind had been in Johann Albrecht’s face as he walked across the rutted fields to the schoolhouse, though it was soft for a winter wind, and carried a smell of something damp and foggy. A fine January day, which only made his mother’s tears and pleas more baffling. Peter, his younger brother, had given in, so he would spend the day at home listening to their mother cry, and looking after Anna and the two baby brothers.
But Johann was glad to be going to school, the English school, as his parents called it. No matter how dull the lessons or how repetitive the eternal chanting, school was better than farm chores. Two recesses a day, which was more than he got at home working for his father. With any luck, the Graber and the Kaufmann boys would be there, too, and they’d have enough strong arms for a proper snowball war. The snowballing got fierce when the Schweizer parents of Rosefield Township let all their sons attend school.
For a thirteen-year-old boy like Johann Albrecht, who had walked these southern Dakota fields all his life, the prairie didn’t offer much to look at, especially in winter. To the west, the land heaved slightly so that a low rolling ridge blocked the horizon. The vista to the south went on forever. The plowed farm fields were either deep in drifts or crusted furrows, according to the whims of the wind. The saplings that his father and the other Schweizer farmers had planted in their timber claims, cottonwoods given to them by the government, mulberry trees, ash, elm, hackberry, were like crooked poles rising out of the snow.
Everything else was sky, sky that seemed to revolve around you in slow circles when you walked out under it alone. Somehow you always felt a little foolish about singing or talking to yourself, for fear somebody was watching or listening, though, of course, that was even more foolish, for who on earth could see or hear you out there except God? There would have been but two columns of smoke in view, one from the neighboring farmhouse, and one from the school, both of (p.138) them curling slowly toward Johann as he walked into the southerly wind.
The school, like the Salem Church that the Schweizer families had built a few years earlier, was the simplest, starkest building possible, four rectangles capped by two triangles, and a roof laid over the top. The door opened under one of the triangles on the west side, and inside the door there was a tiny vestibule where the children hung their wraps on hooks. Two steps and you were standing in the classroom, a stove in the middle, crude wooden desks for the children, a dull light glowing at the small windows that had been cut into the long north and south walls.
And at the front of the room, Mr. James P. Cotton, the American teacher who boarded with Johann Albrecht’s family. It never ceased to amaze Johann how Mr. Cotton always seemed so much larger and more important in the classroom than he did at their house. This was his world, and here his word was law. Not a word of German could be spoken as soon as they crossed the threshold, though, of course, John, as he was called in school, and the others cheated sometimes.
Sure enough, when Johann reached the schoolhouse, he saw that the Kaufmann boys and the Graber boys were already there, the other two families lived closer to school than the Albrechts; indeed, the Grabers were so close that the school was practically within shouting distance of their farmhouse. But surprisingly, they were the only other pupils in attendance that day.
Seven boys altogether: strapping Johann Kaufmann and his two younger brothers, Heinrich and Elias Kaufmann; Peter and Johann Graber, sixteen and fourteen, and their eleven-year-old half brother, Andreas, three of the fourteen children who filled the Graber house. And to round out the number to seven, Johann Albrecht himself, still known in the little Schweizer settlement as the baby who had been born on board the steamship City of Richmond during the great migration of 1874.
When Mr. Cotton asked Johann why his brother Peter was not (p.139) with him, Johann had to explain shamefacedly about the bad feeling his mother, Maria, had that morning, and how soon after Mr. Cotton had left the Albrecht house for school, Maria had insisted that the boys stay home. Peter, weak of will, had listened to their mother, so Johann came alone, with his father’s permission. School was too important to miss. Mr. Cotton nodded his head. What was there to say? They had some strange ways, these Russian Germans. But at least they raised their kids to obey and to show respect; Mr. Cotton would grant them that much.
When the blast rocked the north wall of the school at around 11:00 in the morning, the boys and their teacher all turned to look at the north windows as if they had been summoned by a trumpet call. As everywhere, the wind and the darkness came almost simultaneously. The school windows went from pearl to charcoal as the cloud of snow enveloped them, not so much falling as slamming sideways.
Within minutes, the wind had sucked the warm air out of the uninsulated building. Powdery snow began sifting in through every crack in the walls and around the window frames, and spraying against their faces. Soon there was fine snow hanging in fringes from the maps on the wall, and eddies of snow snaking across the floorboards. Even a few feet away from the stove, it was so cold that the snow didn’t melt. White cobwebby drifts mounted in the corners.
Instinctively, the younger boys looked to their older brothers to see what to do. Heinrich and Elias Kaufmann knew that Johann would take care of them. Their kindly mother, Anna, always told them that if anything happened, they must listen to Johann. He and Peter Graber were practically men. They would know what to do in a storm like this. Probably better than an outsider like Mr. Cotton.
Johann Albrecht, with no brother at school, turned to Mr. Cotton. But the teacher would not meet his eyes. He just kept looking (p.140) over at the rattling windows and shaking his head. With the wind roaring in their ears, and the room going colder every minute, there was no question of trying to teach any longer. But what should they do? Usually he gave the commands and the boys obeyed, no questions asked. But now Mr. Cotton was asking the two older boys for advice, and then arguing with them.
Johann Kaufmann and Peter Graber drew together. They must stay in school and wait for their fathers to come for them. That was what they had always been told to do in a blizzard. Keep under shelter. Remain where you were. Stay together. But no. Mr. Cotton had made up his mind. They must leave the school and go to the nearest house, where they would find food and warmth. All of them would go together to the Grabers’ place, less than a quarter of a mile away, a few hundred paces. They would take shelter with the Graber family and wait out the storm there.
Mr. Cotton ordered them to get their wraps from the little vestibule and get ready. The Schweizer boys looked at each other with long faces and shook their heads, but they obeyed as they had been raised to. The two older boys went outside first, each one wincing as if slapped when he stepped into the wind. When all eight of them were outside in the storm, they huddled for a minute behind the south wall of the schoolhouse, which was the only place they could stand up straight. But even there, in the lee of the building, they had to hunch their shoulders and drop their faces against the onslaught of tiny crystals. Then they set out, one by one, into the wind.
As soon as they were outside, Mr. Cotton’s authority vanished, as if it had been torn from him by the wind. Within a few paces, the boys had split into two groups. Peter Graber and Johann Kaufmann, the two sixteen-year-olds, went first, and three of the younger boys went with them. Heinrich and Elias Kaufmann stayed close to their brother Johann, as they knew their mother, (p.141) Anna, would want them to. Johann would take care of them and see that they got home safely.
Johann Albrecht fell in with this group, too. He was thirteen, almost as old as Johann Kaufmann and Peter Graber. They didn’t need the teacher to find their way to the Grabers’ house. They weren’t babies. Andreas and Johann Graber got separated from their older brother, Peter, and ended up with Mr. Cotton. Later Andreas would have a hard time explaining what happened. It all went so fast, and it was so difficult to see anything with the wind lashing needles of ice in his eyes.
They had started out together, staggering one after the other into the wind, but then their brother Peter, and the Kaufmann boys and Johann Albrecht, somehow got in front. One moment they were there, ghostly shapes a few paces ahead. The next moment they were gone and there was nothing where they had been but the stinging white. The drifts were already too deep for Andreas to walk through. Andreas began to flounder in the snow and his hands ached with cold. He couldn’t see Mr. Cotton or his brother Johann anymore.
They were going on without him. He couldn’t see anybody. Andreas panicked and shouted for Peter to come and help him. But instead of Peter, Mr. Cotton and Johann appeared. As they loomed out of the snow, Andreas heard Mr. Cotton calling ahead to the five other boys to wait for them. But there was no answer that Andreas could hear over the wind.
Mr. Cotton told Andreas and Johann that the other boys must already be at the Graber house. Peter would know the way home. He must have led the others there. The house couldn’t be far. The five boys would be there waiting for them. So they staggered on, Mr. Cotton in the lead, and the two younger Graber brothers behind.
Strangely, Andreas did not feel the cold anymore. In fact, he felt a kind of warm glow spread through him. So he didn’t cry when Mr. Cotton stopped and (p.142) turned around and shouted that they must have missed the farmhouse. He wasn’t scared when his brother Johann wailed in German that they were lost. Maybe they could make it back to the school—but which way? If they had passed their house, then what? Where was the next house? Or even a barn? Mr. Cotton turned slowly to peer in every direction. Nothing.
It was the row of spindly trees that saved them. Andreas’s father had planted the trees soon after he settled in Dakota. Most of the Schweizer farmers did the same, an orchard of fruit and nut trees near the house, just like the ones they had in the Ukraine. For an instant, the air cleared enough for them to see the end of a row of his father’s fruit trees. Andreas now knew exactly where they were. The row began at the house and ran due east. All they had to do was follow the line of saplings back to the house.
It was the kind of lucky stroke people always called a miracle. Had the storm not abated just at that moment, they never would have seen the trees, never would have realized that the storm had forced them well east of where they meant to be. Had it not been for the trees, they would have continued drifting east with the storm, until the wind finally blew them to the ground. Luck. Pure luck.
As soon as they got inside the farmhouse, Mr. Cotton asked the Graber parents, “Are the other boys here yet?” Andreas’s mother and father shook their heads, they didn’t understand. So Johann shouted the same question in German. Peter and Susanna Graber stared wide-eyed at the two boys. Andreas knew it was a foolish question. This was no mansion with rooms to hide in. If their brother Peter, and the Kaufmann boys, and Johann Albrecht had made it to the house, there would be no need to ask.
(p.143) Those who were fortunate enough to be inside when the storm came up, faced the same dilemma as passengers on a ship who have just seen one of their fellows fall overboard. To stay indoors and do nothing seemed heartless, but to venture forth on a rescue mission was likely to be fatal to the rescuer, and useless to the lost. What would be the good of another soul wandering blind in the storm? So the settlers kept candles burning through the night at their windows, or they stood at their doors shouting, or ringing bells, or beating on kettles or washtubs with hammers or spoons.
They strained to hear cries for help over the wind. They prayed. They prayed for the nineteen-year-old teacher Etta Shattuck, in the house where she boarded in Holt County. Etta had made her plans clear before she left the house late in the morning. She had already closed her school. Tomorrow she was heading back to Seward to rejoin her family. Once she collected her final wages, she would go. That was why Etta had walked out that morning, to get her order signed so she could be paid her twenty-five dollars.
If it hadn’t been for that, Etta would have been inside and safe when the blizzard struck. The man at whose house Etta boarded stood at his door and shouted for as long as his lungs held out. He knew which way she had walked, he had seen her disappear. But there was no question of going after her. Didn’t he have a wife and children of his own to think about? Etta was a strong and sensible girl, very settled for nineteen, religious, too. She knew every hymn in the hymnal, it seemed.
When it got darker and colder, and she still didn’t come back, he and his wife prayed that Etta had found shelter. That was the best they could hope for. But that’s not what happened to Etta Shattuck. Etta was not far from the house where she boarded when the storm blew up. There was a forty-acre pasture around the house that the farmer had fenced in, and Etta was still inside the fence-line. That was lucky, for fences were rare in that part of the country. Eventually, if she kept going in a straight line, Etta would hit the (p.144) fence. And then, no matter which way she turned, the fence would lead her back to the house.
All she had to do was hold fast to the fence and follow it around the pasture. If she kept her wits about her, the fence would save her. Etta knew this, and when she reached the fence, she followed it as best she could. But then she began to doubt. It was hard to think straight with the wind slamming against her head. She had been following the fence for what felt like miles, and still no sign of the house. Surely she had come too far.
She began to be confused, and confusion made her desperate. The fence was not guiding her but trapping her. In her bewilderment and rising panic, Etta made a move she could not reverse. She bent over, put her hands and knees on the snow, and crawled under the fence. Two steps and the fence was gone, as if it had been erased. Now she was in open country with no barrier or landmark for miles. The odds of stumbling upon a farmhouse or sod hut in zero visibility were essentially nil.
At the mercy of the storm, Etta drifted with the wind and prayed. The habit of prayer had taken hold strongly since she became a Christian at the age of sixteen. She prayed and sang hymns. Etta knew God had a reason for unleashing the blizzard. God, who brought the storm, would guide her steps to safety. God would not let her die on the prairie. She prayed to God to give her shelter. And sure enough.
A haystack suddenly loomed before her. By the time she reached it, Etta was nearly giddy with fear and exhaustion. She was too weak to dig in very much. She had no pitchfork, and her hands were frozen. Etta managed to scrape off some of the hay and make a cavity for herself. But it was shallow. When she fell into the hay, the cold was still biting at her legs. She pulled her legs up and covered them the best she could. She knew she needed to burrow in deeper, but she couldn’t. Her hands didn’t work, the fingers wouldn’t close. She couldn’t summon the strength to get up again. Etta prayed to God to watch over her.
(p.145) In Huron, 130 miles due north of where Etta Shattuck lay in a haystack, Sergeant Glenn was now jotting down the wind velocity every few minutes, 11:45 A.M. (Central time): 42 miles per hour; 11:47 A.M.: 48 miles per hour; 12:15 P.M.: 57 miles per hour from the northwest; 1:30 P.M.: a maximum sustained speed of 60 miles per hour. He estimated the gusts at 80.
Five minutes after the wind reached 60 miles an hour, Glenn received Woodruff’s telegraph to hoist the cold wave flag. There must have been a problem on the Huron line, or a backup at the local Western Union office, because most of the Nebraska and Dakota observers had received their telegrams an hour earlier, 12:30 P.M. Central time in Crete, Nebraska; 12:20 at North Platte; 12:20 at Bismarck, where a gale had been blowing since 5:30 in the morning.
In Omaha, Sergeant George M. Chappel, the Signal Corps observer in charge, wrote in the station journal that the arrival of the cold wave warning at 12:40 P.M. was “not far enough in advance of the cold wave to enable this office to get the warning telegraphed to the northern and western portion of the state before the blizzard had struck there.” “Not far enough in advance” was putting it mildly.
In Moorhead, in far northwestern Minnesota, fifteen minutes after Woodruff’s telegram arrived at 12:30 P.M., Private Frank L. Harrod noted a “sudden and fierce change of wind from south to north,” followed by “heavy blinding snow.”
On a map, the advance of the cold front looked like the lobes of a glacier advancing out of the northwest. By 1 P.M., it had covered almost all of Dakota Territory, the western two-thirds of Nebraska, and the northwestern fringe of Minnesota. Over the next two hours, the front picked up speed as it spread inexorably over the most (p.146) populated section of the prairie. Only three Dakota Signal Service stations had failed to hoist their cold wave flags by now: Huron and Yankton, where Woodruff’s message arrived late, and Rapid City, way out in the Black Hills, where the telegraph lines were down, and the message didn’t arrive until the following afternoon.
But it made little difference. Nobody knew about the flags except those who lived within sight of the stations, and even then, visibility was so bad as to render the black square at the center of the white flag invisible, unless you were a few feet away. In all the hundreds of accounts written by those who endured the blizzard, there is scarcely a mention of the appearance of the cold wave flag. Though Greely boasted that the system of cold wave warnings operated “to the general satisfaction and frequently great advantage of the public,” the public never breathed a word of gratitude, or complaint.
Whatever Greely believed, the people of the region knew they were on their own when a blizzard hit. Particularly the schoolteachers, many of them barely older or more educated than the children they taught. As the blizzard broke against the northwest walls of their schoolhouses, every teacher faced the same choice alone: stay in the school with the children, or send them home? According to Sergeant Glenn, those who chose the former were “principally persons familiar with the western storms, and who fully appreciated the danger of going over the open prairie in a ‘blizzard.’ ”
But not all of those who left or dismissed the children were ignorant or careless. Some took the children out into the storm only after their fuel was “exhausted,” wrote Glenn, and “it became a question of freezing where they were, or in the attempt to find other shelter, more comfortable; others started out supposing they could go in safety, but were soon bewildered and lost.”
Minnie Mae Freeman was one of the many teenage teachers who faced the question of freezing or fleeing in the storm. She had sixteen pupils, some nearly as old as she was, at her country school-house, (p.147) near Ord in the Loup River region just east of the Nebraska Sand Hills. It was a sod building, unusual for a schoolhouse on the prairie, with a crude door attached by leather hinges, and a roof of tar paper with sod laid over it.
Around noon, the first blast of the storm tore the door off the leather hinges and blew it into the schoolroom. A couple of the boys helped Minnie get the door back up, whereupon it blew in again. This time she had them nail it shut all around. Minnie knew she had enough coal to heat the soddie schoolhouse all night, and she was determined to stay put and keep the children inside.
When a gust ripped off a piece of tar paper at the top of the roof where the sod had fallen away, Minnie realized that they would all eventually die of cold if they tried to stay. The family with whom she boarded lived half a mile north of the school, and she decided that the best plan was to take the children there for the night. According to some accounts, she found a length of rope, and tied the children one to another before setting out. Others insist the roping up was pure myth, fabricated later to glorify the teacher.
A student named Emma Lee, who was present that day, wrote that Minnie had the children crawl out through the south window, since the door was nailed shut. “The nearest house was not quite a quarter of a mile away,” recalled Emma. “We could have gone there with the storm at our backs. However we were told to stay with the teacher and go to her boarding place, which was a half mile away, and we had to face the storm. We were not tied together in any way, as has been erroneously stated so many times.”
Several of the smaller students stumbled and fell on the way, and at one point Minnie fell. Minnie Freeman always insisted that she deserved no special attention, that she had done what anyone would do. But in fact, many older and more experienced teachers failed to act as quickly and as sensibly. All of Minnie’s students stayed together and made it safely to the two-room sod house where she boarded.
continue to the second half of Chapter Six …