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Published January 31, 2021

For many children today, a snow day is an exciting thing. With schools closed, they get to stay warm inside and play their favourite video games! However, kids haven’t always had it so easy, and one particular snow day in 1888 would prove to be shockingly deadly. 

Source: Unsplash

While cities on the coasts were flourishing, the Great Plains of America were still very much a frontier land; many settlers there lived in shacks or homes made from sod, trying to scrape out a new life.

They had been drawn to the vast prairies by the promise of free land. The Homestead Act of 1862 meant that all you had to do was live and farm on the land for five years, and 160 acres would be yours. For many Old World families, this was an offer that was hard to refuse. Successive generations splitting their land between eligible sons had often shrunk them to the point where they were barely sustainable, or meant that younger sons had nothing to inherit. Letters and brochures from America promised huge expanses of fertile land, favourable weather and more. 

“Indeed, it may be justly claimed as one of the most beautiful climates in the world, and one best adapted to the enjoyment of long and vigorous life,” proclaimed one such pamphlet.

Source: Unsplash

In some cases, whole communities emigrated together, such as the Swiss-German Mennonite, or Schweizer, families who left Ukraine to settle near Yankton in Dakota in 1874. In other cases, small families or even individuals travelled out West, looking to make their new life in the New World.

The journey wasn’t easy for any of the immigrants. Steerage accommodation on ships crossing the Atlantic was all that most could afford, and it was frequently packed, dirty, and rife with disease. Approximately one in ten would not make it to America alive. Then, the journey out to their new land was just as rough.

Norwegian immigrant Aagot Raaen wrote later,

“In New York we lost heart again. We could not speak the language. We were driven like cattle onto trains that took us to Wisconsin and Iowa. We came from Wisconsin and Iowa to Dakota in covered wagons; we came through a country that had no bridges and no roads; we often travelled for days without seeing anything but prairie. But we again arrived. Empty-handed, we started to work.”

Each family chose their spot, registered their claim and set about making their 160 acres their own. It would be exceptionally hard work, especially for those who arrived too late in the year to lay in their first crops.

And the letters and brochures that had sold them the American Dream had said nothing about prairie fires, or the grasshoppers which would frequently swarm in and destroy an entire crop, or the extremes of weather found on the prairie – particularly the winter blizzards.

But there was no turning back for those who had sold everything to get this far, so they simply had to work harder. The children were no exception; as soon as they were old enough they would be expected to work the farm just as hard as their parents.

They did, however, get to go to school, once the harvest was done and if their parents could spare them. Communities set up schoolhouses, often simple one-room buildings where children of all ages would be taught together, sometimes by teachers not much older than the pupils.

Source: Unsplash

In January, 1888, 19 year old Etta Shattuck was one of those young teachers. She lodged with a family in Holt County, Nebraska, and taught a handful of pupils in the Bright Hope school district. At least, she had; she had closed up the school due to the harsh winter weather, and was about to travel to Seward to rejoin her parents. Homestead life hadn’t suited the family. She just had to get a signature from the district superintendent, so she could claim her last pay.

When she set out on the morning of Thursday, the 12th of January, that didn’t seem like it would be a troublesome task. 

Although the preceding weeks had been dreadfully cold, that day was fine and bright. Many of the settlers who later wrote memoirs noted this. Josephine Buchmillar Leber was one:

“That morning was the most beautiful morning I had ever seen. Sun shone bright. It had snowed the night before. The snow flakes layed loosely on drifts, just like loose feathers, and as I remember it seemed the sun shining on the snow, caused a golden reflection on the snow.”

Thomas Pirnie was another:

“…the air was like that of an April morning, with just a breath of breeze coming out of the southwest. I happened to be the first one of our family to go out. I quickly returned inside and called out so all could hear me, “Oh come folks and see what a beautiful morning it is. It is 32 above. We’re going to have a January thaw.” Cousin Hugh and myself took a shovel and a pan of chicken feed to the barn, expecting to soon dig our way into the sod barn of which only the roof pole were visible above the great snowdrifts that almost filled the deep ravine.”

It seemed like an exceptionally fortunate respite from the freezing winter, and an opportune moment to get work done. Time, as Pirnie said, to dig out the barn, fetch in more hay, run errands to neighbouring homesteads or nearby towns, and for children to go to school.

After weeks of it being painfully cold outside, it would have been a delight to be able to go out without bulky coats or capes. One girl recalled,

“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.”

Unfortunately, this pleasant weather was not to last long, and when the change came it was sudden and devastating. 

Fifteen year old Allie Green, in Clark County, eastern Dakota territory, was snowballing with his brother when it happened.

“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.”

Others described it as a “gray wall”, or “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 Nebraska State Journal said:

“At 3 o’clock came the most decided weather change that has ever been noted in Nebraska. The snow was falling in a white cloud, with hardly a breath of air to move the flakes from the places where they found lodgment. Suddenly it grew darker, and with a rush the north wind came down upon the startled city. It lifted the snow from the streets, picked it from the roofs of buildings and the branches of trees and hurled it here and there in the most reckless fashion. Within four minutes after the first rush of air from the north was felt it was impossible to see even the outlines of buildings across the street. The change from a steady, quiet “down east” snow storm to a howling western blizzard was practically instantaneous. The temperature fell about 20° in a few hours.”

The timing of the blizzard’s approach through southern parts of Dakota territory and Minnesota, and into Nebraska, could hardly have been worse. It struck when the children were already at their schools, and labourers out in their fields making the most of the short hours of daylight. 

Teachers had to decide quickly whether to keep the children in the schoolhouse, or send them home. The schoolhouse offered shelter, but they were not generally built for warmth. They had limited fuel to keep the fires burning, and the only food and drink would be whatever meagre lunches the children had brought. With the blizzard likely to outlast their resources, many teachers decided the children would be safer at home.

In most cases, that was true – but they had to get there first.

A contemporary illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Source: Wikimedia Commons

At Groton in Dakota, the four-room, two-storey schoolhouse had been built half a mile from the town’s Main Street; standing all by itself, the terrain offered no protection at all from the storm. The teachers, then, must have been immensely relieved to see five drays – large horse-drawn carts – appear through the snow. The men of the town had come to get the children. They were counted as they climbed aboard, and then they set out for home.

They didn’t realise that one child, eight year old Walter Allen, had jumped off. He had left something behind in the classroom, and thought he would be able to run back and grab it, but by the time he got back to the entrance, the drays had disappeared into the snow.

They probably weren’t far away, but the blizzard had reduced visibility to quite literally zero. Many survivors would later say that they couldn’t see their hand in front of their face. The snow was not only falling heavily, but it was also made up of particles so fine that they turned the entire world into a blur of white nothingness. Modern researchers have compared it to the dust clouds which flooded New York when the World Trade Center fell.

Not only that, but being in the storm would rapidly make visibility even worse. The cold and the wind would sting your eyes, making them water – and then they would freeze.

The prickling, stinging cold would quickly give way to numbness, which was even more dangerous. One farmer, Norwegian Ole Tisland, was said to have rubbed so hard trying to remove the ice from his eyes that he had rubbed right down to his cheekbones.

When exposed to such biting cold, your body tries to protect its most important parts. Blood flow to the extremities is reduced, in order to preserve the vital organs. Unprotected fingers and toes will quickly succumb to frostbite. The most deadly effect of the cold, however, is mental. It is stupefying, and can lead even the cleverest, most sensible and most experienced people to make poor decisions.

Little Walter Allen could have returned to his classroom, where he would have been able to shelter until he was missed. Instead, he headed out into the storm – either hoping to catch up with the drays or just to make his own way home. He didn’t get very far before the cold sapped all his strength, and he fell down on the ground.

He was indeed missed when the drays eventually reached town, and a group of men, including Walter’s father and brother, came back to search. Finding no sign of the boy, Walter’s father was persuaded to return home, but 18 year old Will stayed behind. Crawling on the ground where the visibility seemed a little better, he found Walter and dragged him the half mile home. Both boys survived.

For most of the teachers, however, there were no drays coming; they were on their own. 

Minnie Freeman was another teenage teacher, and her story was to become one of the most famous tales of the storm. As summarised in the Nebraska State Journal:

“She teaches a school in the vicinity of Ord. When the big blizzard of Friday last came along it blew the door of the school house off its hinges and then lifted the roof from the walls. The brave school mistress tied her thirteen young charges together, took the smallest one in her arms and set forth in the fearful storm to seek shelter. They were blinded and buffeted by the merciless north wind, they were tripped up in the drifts and blown down between times, but they struggled along together, and finally reached a sheltering roof where the nearest patron of the school lived, to be welcomed from the very jaws of death. It was the pluck and level head of Minnie Freeman that saved those thirteen lives.”

She was lauded in the newspapers for her actions, receiving gifts and marriage proposals, being the recipient of a charitable fund and even immortalised in song – “Thirteen were Saved; or, Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.”

However, the truth of the tale may not be quite as told; one of the pupils, Emma Lee, later wrote,

“The nearest house was not quite a quarter of a mile away. 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.”

String or not, Freeman and her pupils all survived, which is probably why their story became so popular. Many other prairie teachers had a more depressing experience.

Near Plainview, Nebraska, a Miss Royce, whose first name is given variously as Lois, Louise and Louie, had just three pupils that day, aged seven, eight and nine years old. At about 2pm, she set out with them to try and reach a house that was only a hundred metres away – about the length of a soccer field. The Omaha Daily Bee told their story under the heading, “Died in the Teacher’s Arms”:

A contemporary illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Having her hand full to keep the little ones from being blown away, and blinded with snow she soon found herself lost with three small children in the terrible storm. They wandered in vain to find shelter. At last the children were completely tired out they all laid on the snow in dispair[sic]. The teacher tried to shelter the little ones with her wraps but early in the night one of the boys passed away in death. Later the other little boy died and about morning the little girl died in the arms of her teacher.”

When the storm abated enough to see, Royce was able to find the house – now about 150 metres away, as they had wandered further from it while lost – but her feet were badly frozen and would eventually need amputation. The newspapers picked up Royce’s story, too, and added her to the list of heroines who should be given charitable funds.

In Jerauld County, South Dakota, Miss May Hunt faced a similar dilemma with her seven pupils. The blizzard reached them about noon, but they had hung on in the schoolhouse until early evening, when their fuel ran out. Like Miss Royce, she knew that there was a house not much more than 100 metres away – and like Miss Royce, she and her pupils got lost trying to find it. According to David Laskin in his book “The Children’s Blizzard”, her oldest pupil Fred Weeks had scouted the route when Hunt suggested they go, but by the time the children were all ready to brave the storm, it had got worse. He could no longer find the way, and they all tumbled into a gully that lay between the school and their destination. 

“Somehow they all got up out of the gully and reassembled. Eight of them counting May Hunt. Again Fred went first… if the wind relented even for thirty seconds maybe they could make out the Hinner house. They knew it sat on a rise just above the gully – a stone’s throw away. With every step they expected to catch a glimpse of the house through the gray horizontal snow. By now the sun had set and what little light remained was quickly draining out of the air.

It is hard to fathom how children who walked to and from school a half mile or more every day became exhausted to the point of collapse while walking a hundred yards that afternoon. Hard to fathom until you consider the state of their thin cotton clothing, their eyelashes webbed with ice and frozen shut,the ice plugs that formed inside their noses, the ice masks that hung on their faces. This was not a feathery sifting of gossamer powder. It was a frozen sandstorm. Cattle died standing up, died of suffocation before they froze solid.”

A contemporary illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Wessington Springs Herald reported that they “missed the house by less than 4 rods” – about twenty metres – but ran instead into a flax stack west of the house. With no other options available, they dug into the stack and tried to shelter there as much as they could.

“They spent the night in singing songs, reciting declamations and cracking jokes. They all possessed heroic spirits, but that of Fred Weeks deserves special mention; he busied himself making the others comfortable, or as much so as possible by digging a hole in the stack and banking and covering it and inciting them to be cheerful.”

It was dawn the following morning by the time they were able to see the house, which had been so close but yet so far away all night. By that time, however, all had suffered frostbite to some extent. Fred Weeks had voluntarily taken the spot at the opening of their little straw cave, checking every so often to see if the storm had abated, and as a result had bad frostbite on his feet and fingers, and Miss Hunt was reported to have badly frozen feet and one cheek affected. 

But it was fifteen year old Addie Knieriem who suffered the worst. She had gone to school that day in thin shoes which were nowhere near suitable for walking through a blizzard. Although Miss Hunt had wrapped them in scarves before they left the school, Addie’s feet had got wet through when they fell into the gully, then whatever heat was left in them had leached out during their long vigil in the stack. 

According to the Wessington Springs Herald, which later advertised a charitable fund to help the girl,

“Her sacrifice was made while protecting the life of one of her schoolmates, a little girl of six years, whom she held upon her knees until circulation was retarded, and her feet became numb and frozen.”

Doctors today would struggle to save feet so badly frostbitten; with the medical technology available to homesteaders in 1888, there was no chance. She had one foot completely amputated, and lost all the toes on the other foot. She survived, however, and learned to walk again with a wooden foot, thanks in part to the newspapers’ charity fund.

If these stories sound terrifying, it’s even harder to imagine the situation that other children found themselves in – lost in the blizzard with no-one at all to guide them.

Lena Woebbecke was just eleven years old, and had already had a tough life. When she was just five years old, smallpox had killed her father and left her scarred. Her mother had remarried twice, had more children, and decided to send Lena away to live with – and work for – relatives in another part of Seward County, Nebraska. This area was known locally as the Bohemian Alps because it was hilly terrain, full of ravines, and largely populated by Czech and German immigrants. 

Like so many others, Lena was at school when the blizzard arrived, half a mile from the Woebbecke house. Most of the other students lived south of the schoolhouse, but Lena and one of the older boys were to the north, past steeper terrain. When the teacher decided to dismiss school, that boy was supposed to see Lena home, while the rest of the students went south together. 

Laskin, in his account, says that Lena spoke little English and didn’t talk much to the other German children either; her teacher “couldn’t tell if she was backward or hard of hearing or just headstrong.” Whatever the reason was, the boy went home along the road, while Lena set out across the rough terrain, taking the route that she knew.

Somewhere along the way, she realised she was lost. She turned back to try and find the schoolhouse again, but wasn’t able to make it. She fell to the ground, with only her cloak for shelter. 

The Nebraska State Journal later wrote;

“She became conscious at daybreak and found herself frozen fast to the ground. After some effort she got up, saw the distant smoke of a chimney in the direction of the Webbeke {sic} house, and again started homeward. Her limbs were so badly frozen that she could scarcely walk. By travelling and falling, and dragging her body along, she managed to cross the hill again and descended on the other slope, but she had now become so stiffened by the cold that when within about sixty rods of the house she gave up all hope and sat down to die. A deep gulch and high snowdrift intervened between her and her destination…”

Mr Woebbecke, the Journal reported, had gone to the school that day to fetch Lena, but arrived too late.

“Next morning he took a horse and started in search of her. When starting out he looked across the ravine and saw an object resembling a human form lying on the hillside. He yelled to her “Lena”. She, recognising the call, thereupon held up her hands, in one of which was her reader, and in the other she held her dinner pail. Mr Webbeke hitched his horse and scrambled over the snowdrift to her rescue. He found her numb and speechless… The unfortunate pupil lay in a stupor until toward evening of that day. After several days a physician was called to her bedside. On January 27 her right foot was amputated above the ankle. her left limb is severely frost bitten but can probably be saved. She is now suffering from considerable pain in her head.”

While the Omaha Daily Bee championed the funds for the heroic teachers, the Nebraska State Journal led a campaign to raise money for Lena. It went into a trust for her; despite her injuries she survived, graduated school, attended college, married at 24, but sadly died at age 25; the cause of her death is unclear.

Less fortunate were the Westphalen sisters, Eda aged 13 and Matilda aged 8. They were sent home from their school near Scribner, Nebraska, and faced a walk which was about a mile long, but downhill. However, the blizzard blew against them, and sent them off track. 

On the Friday, the day after the blizzard, some seventy-odd men went out in the bitter cold, searching for the girls. They found tracks, but the girls themselves weren’t found until around midday on Monday, the 16th of January. They lay face down on the side of a hill, two miles east of their home. Matilda was found wrapped in several layers of Eda’s clothing.

While nothing could be done for the girls, the papers embraced their tragic story, and raised funds for a monument in their honour. A rather maudlin poem about them also made the pages of the papers, reading, in part:

"Search the realm of song and story, and discover if you can,Braver, grander, nobler action, in the history of man,Than the silent heroism of this child, who in her woe,
Wrapped her cloak about her sister, as they struggled in the snow."

Seven boys from the Schweizer community near Yankton, Dakota, set out from their school with their teacher, a Mr Cotton; however, in the blinding storm they were separated. Mr Cotton and two boys named Graber were saved when they spotted some trees that the Graber family had planted – they ran in a line towards the farm. However, the Graber’s other son Peter, two boys from the Kaufmann family and another boy named Johann Albrecht were missing. 

They wandered for hours, lost and freezing, before finally curling up together in the snow.

It was the following Sunday before they were found. David Laskin described the scene in his book.

“At first, the men stopped in horror when they saw the dark patches of cloth against the snow. Johann Kaufmann cried out, “O God, is it my fault or yours that I find my three boys frozen here like the beasts of the field?”It was terrible beyond words to pry the children off the ground. At first, it was impossible to separate the bodies, the boys had died so near each other. Johann Kaufmann had to carry his sons  Johann and Elias together because the older boy died with his arms around his younger brother.

Night was falling by the time Johann returned home. Anna stood at the door with her three little blond children and stared as her husband carried the three bodies inside… Johann set the rock-hard bodies on the floor next to the stove. Anna looked at her dead sons and began to laugh. She couldn’t help herself. Her husband and her two little boys turned to her in disbelief but Anna didn’t stop. It would be days before they could get the bodies into coffins. Anna laughed. Emma was still a baby… but Julius and Jonathan were old enough to understand that those frozen blocks next to the stove were the dead bodies of their brothers. For the rest of their lives, the two brothers would never forget the peals of their mother’s agonized laughter.”

And it was later that same Sunday that a farmer named Daniel Murphy went out to his haystack. He and his hired hand were busy shovelling snow off the stack to get to the hay when they heard a tiny voice. They had found Etta Shattuck. 

Her short trip to get a signature for her wages had turned into a three-day ordeal. Lost in the blizzard she had, like Miss Hunt and her students, stumbled across a haystack and dug her way inside for a meagre amount of shelter. However, while Fred Weeks had been able to find a pitchfork to dig into their stack, Etta had only her bare, frozen hands. 

Initial reports of Etta’s rescue were quite positive. The Nebraska State Journal wrote on the 21st of January:

“The joyful news reached here last night… that Miss Shattuck had been found Sunday at about 5 p.m. in a hay stack, alive and in good spirits. One foot and leg were somewhat frozen, but it is said not seriously.”

The article described how the pious young woman had prayed and sung hymns throughout her ordeal, and that “mice began to keep her company and occasionally nibbled her hands by way of sociability.”

As the days passed, however, it became increasingly obvious that her injuries were more severe than first thought. On the 26th of January, it was reported that she was on her way to Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska, accompanied by her father and sister and carried on a cot. 

“She displayed a good deal of pluck and said she didn’t believe she would have to suffer amputation of her feet, though her father and sister were very much afraid the doctors would determine upon that course.”

They did; a report in the Omaha Daily Bee the following day reported that she had had both her legs amputated, and that the operation was successful. 

There were charitable funds for Etta, too; the Omaha Daily Bee led the call for donations, and on February 2nd it was reported that they had raised $1,691.16 for Etta, as well as $473.41 for Louise Royce, $318.11 for Minnie Freeman, $30.55 for the Westphalen girls’ monument and $60 for a special fund to help others affected.

Etta’s fund alone at that point would be worth over $46,000 dollars today, and it continued growing to total $3,752.01.

Sadly, she would not live to receive it. On February the 6th, 25 days after the blizzard began, she died, either from her injuries or from an infection caught in their wake. The money raised for her was given to her family; she had, after all, been their sole breadwinner.

It’s unknown exactly how many died in the blizzard, or like Etta Shattuck in its aftermath due to infections related to it; estimates range between 250 and 500. In addition, there were many who suffered terrible injuries from frostbite, and lived on with missing fingers, toes, ears, or worse. 

Tragically, not only were many of the victims children, but they had often died heartbreakingly close to shelter. If they had just had enough warning, they might all have been safe beside their hearths. If only the blizzard could have been forecast.

In fact, it had.

Meteorological services at the time were under the auspices of the Army, and there was an indications office in Saint Paul, Minnesota, manned by first lieutenant Thomas Mayhew Woodruff. He collected data from observation stations throughout the region in order to issue weather forecasts – at that time called indications – and to warn of blizzards and extreme cold on the prairie. 

At 12:15 am on the 12th of January, he issued an indication reading:

“Indications for 24 hours commencing 7am today…
For Minnesota: Warmer with snow fresh to high southerly winds becoming variable. For Dakota: Snow, warmer, followed in the western portion by colder weather, fresh to high winds generally becoming northerly. The snow will drift heavily in Minnesota and Dakota during the day and tonight; the winds will generally shift to high colder northerly during the afternoon and night.”

Of course, weather can change quickly, and new indications were issued at 10:30 am.

“Indications for 24 hours commencing at 3pm today…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.”

His use of the phrase “cold wave” held a very specific meaning: his instructions told him that this “implies that the temperature will fall below forty-five (45) degrees, and that in twenty four hours and abnormal fall of fifteen, or more, degrees will occur.”

This triggered special procedures; the indications would now be sent to all the signal service stations and railways, as well as the usual distribution to newspapers and weather observers. 

Special warning flags would be raised to let people know that a cold wave was coming.

Of course the obvious problem with this as a warning method is that you have to be able to see the flags. In addition, although made at 10:30, those indications were for “24 hours commencing at 3pm today”. 

3pm is when the blizzard hit Lincoln, Nebraska, having already barreled through Montana and Dakota at around 45 miles per hour. Some of the signal stations received the warning just fifteen minutes before the weather changed – and some not until after the blizzard had already arrived.

To be fair to Lieutenant Woodruff, he didn’t have the technology that modern meteorologists have; he relied on observations from different points across the region being telegraphed to him; if they weren’t on time, or if they weren’t accurate, his indications would suffer as a result. And those observations were taken only every eight hours – and a lot could change in that time.

He could, perhaps, have issued the warning earlier; he would have known and recognised the pattern he was seeing. The temperature and barometric pressure readings that he got showed that an area of high pressure was shifting south east, with an area of low pressure behind it. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his paper, “Cold Waves and Their Progress”, Woodruff had written that “a fall of temperature succeeds or follows an area of low barometer, and a rise precedes such an area, and that, in general, the reverse is true of an area of high barometer.”

In other words, he could see that the rising temperatures – that lovely mildness on the morning of the 12th – was from the passing of the high pressure area and the approach of the low. And he knew that the low would bring a fall in temperature. He could also see that it would bring strong winds.

On the 11th, he had a report of sharply dropping pressure at Fort Assinniboine in northern Montana – but since the readings in Helena, central Montana, were still stable, he didn’t think the cold front was moving yet. He would wait until the temperature fell in Helena before issuing the cold wave warning. 

At six am on the 12th, the temperature in Helena dropped from 40.5°F to 9° below zero; 4.7°C to -22°C. Four hours later, Woodruff issued the cold wave warning based on this fall – but it was too late.

He might have acted sooner if he’d had readings coming in from anywhere further north, as he would have had a wider view of the weather patterns forming. He might have acted sooner if he’d had more details, sooner – but taking the readings and transmitting them was all done by hand, as was the process of collating them into a forecast.

The lessons were not learned quickly enough to prevent further disaster – just a couple of months later, the Great Blizzard of 1888 swept across the East Coast, paralyzing New York City, and once again the Signal Corps had failed to forecast it in time, in part because the New York office was closed from midnight on Saturday until 5pm on Sundays. These failures would eventually lead to the transfer of meteorological services from the army to the government.

Today, meteorologists have instant access to weather readings and satellite data, and can see these patterns forming in real time. Computer simulations can more accurately predict the path of cold fronts and extreme blizzards, and warnings of such dangerous weather can be transmitted instantly into our homes on TV, radio, internet and mobile phone messaging, ensuring that everyone in the affected region has as much notice as possible.

We can’t stop blizzards on this scale from happening, but we can predict them with more accuracy, meaning that it’s unlikely this many people would ever be caught unawares again. In addition, modern heating and better clothing technology can lessen the risk; higher, more urban populations mean that you’re less likely to be lost away from shelter. For those who are caught out, you’re more likely to receive prompt medical assistance, and we have learned a lot about treating frostbite, so you’re less likely to lose your extremities – or your life.

That doesn’t mean the risk is gone; merely lessened. So, listen out for those weather warnings, and when the advice is to stay home, stay home.

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Sources, References and Further Reading

‘Lifeless in the Snow’ : The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888 – Readex Blog

125 years ago, deadly ‘Children’s Blizzard’ blasted Minnesota


Children’s Blizzard, 1888 –

Blizzard of January 12, 1888 – History Nebraska

The Children’s Blizzard – January 12, 1888

The Children’s Blizzard in the Black Hills Country –

Blizzard brings tragedy to Northwest Plains –

The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888

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