'Schoolhouse blizzard' of 1888 that hit this area was sneaky and deadly
This story was originally published in the Detroit Lakes Tribune, Dec. 13, 2015.
Hear Paula Quam read this story:
Rarely do weather events ever have the opportunity to truly sneak up on us. We start getting weather alerts on our phones, TV and radio days before a storm even begins to roll in. We have the advantage over Mother Nature; we get to prepare.
But we haven’t always been so lucky to have this state of the art technology to predict dangerous storms. One day, long ago, early Midwesterners experienced a bout of unseasonably warm January weather that threw them a deadly curveball, but unlike us, they had no idea what was about to hit them.
The deadly ‘Schoolhouse Blizzard’
It was Jan. 12, 1888. Pioneer settlers around Minnesota, North Dakota and the rest of the Great Plains region had been dealing with some harsh, snowy, winter weather. So when they woke up that day to find it was an unseasonably warm, sunny day, it was certainly a welcomed treat.
The warm day brought everybody outside; people ventured into town, and housebound kids readily bounded off to school. Little did they know, an incredible storm was headed in their direction. Their false sense of security left them vulnerable to what was about to happen.
That warm weather drifting over the area from the Gulf Coast that seemed so welcoming, turned out to be an aggravating element to the situation when it collided with Arctic air pushing down from Canada. For Minnesotans and people throughout North Dakota and Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa, it happened very, very quickly.
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“Even in a region known for abrupt and radical meteorological change, the blizzard of 1888 was unprecedented in its violence and suddenness,” wrote David Laskin, author of the book The Children’s Blizzard. “One moment is was mild, the sun was shining, a damp wind blew fitfully out of the south - the next moment frozen hell had broken loose.”
It was reported that when the blizzard struck in the early afternoon, temperatures in Western Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota plummeted from above freezing to roughly -40 degrees. Moorhead was recorded at -47 degrees. Flash-frozen droplets of hard flakes were firing from the sky sideways with the 60 mile-per-hour winds, pelting and surprising people who were out and about.
The blizzard was so heavy, people reported struggling to see in front of their own faces. Eyes were literally being frozen shut, as already ample snow on the ground whipped around.
School was just letting out when the blizzard struck, so many school children were just walking home - or trying to. Many kids had reportedly left home that warm morning without mittens or hats. Some lost their way and never made it home. Others were luckier, as teachers in some little schoolhouses made the decision to keep their students there to wait out the storm.
Even that proved challenging, though, as they struggled to keep warm in the frigid temperatures. The roof of one schoolhouse in Nebraska even reportedly blew off in the violent storm. Another Plainfield, Neb., teacher, Loie Royce, tried to lead three children to the safety of her own house less than 90 yards from their school when they became lost. All three children died and Royce’s feet became so severely frostbitten they had to be amputated.
Six siblings in Chester Township, straight north of Fosston, Minnesota, were on their way home from school when they became stranded in the storm. They were found frozen to death with their arms entwined around each other in the snow. All of the young victims is why the event was later dubbed “The Schoolhouse Blizzard” or “The Children’s Blizzard.”
Weather experts say there was almost zero visibility in this storm and very few landmarks in the rural areas, which proved deadly for many people, even as they were steps away from shelter without knowing it. Some froze to death in their own yards, becoming too disoriented to even find their houses. Alexandria man Hanley Countryman was walking home from town with 40 pounds of provisions when he became disoriented and lay down in the snow to die just 150 yards from his house.
Although it is estimated that somewhere around 235-250 people died in the Blizzard of 1888, it is still today unknown exactly how many it was. Some victims were not found until the spring when the snow melted. Others became victims of the storm even after finding shelter, ultimately succumbing to illnesses like pneumonia and infection from amputations. Some estimates put the final death toll upwards of 500 people.
Much was learned from the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. The U.S. Weather Service, then called The Signal Corps (which at the time was a newly formed governmental service run by U.S. soldiers), made great advancements following the tragedy. Toned-down warnings of the time took a more serious tone and school administrators were no longer lulled into a false sense of security based on the sky above them.
It was a hard lesson that Mother Nature taught that day - that warm, welcoming, winter weather in these parts is often times nothing more than the calm before the icy, cold storm.