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

When the storm hit, it caught so many settlers by surprise that between 250 and 500 people died that weekend, according to estimates by newspaper editors in several states.

Nobles County native Morton Bassett: "It was a beautiful day for mid-winter and no one even thought of what a change an hour's time could bring."
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The winter of 1887-1888 was ferocious and unrelenting.

November vacillated between ice storms, snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. December dumped mountains of snow: 20.2 inches in Moorhead, 39.5 inches at Morris, 33 inches at Mankato. Then on Jan. 5, 1888, a massive sleet storm coated the snowy drifts with treacherous ice, putting  scores of restless farmers and schoolchildren under house arrest but for the most essential chores.

Finally, though, on Jan. 12, 1888, the morning came with a gentle reprieve. The air felt mild and fine, and the warm sun teased people out of their frame houses, soddies and dugouts.

“The day dawned bright and clear and every object about the horizon was distinctly visible,” recounted the Jan. 16 evening edition of the Minneapolis Journal.

Carl Saltee, a 16-year-old Norwegian immigrant in Fortier, Minn., remembered that “on the 12th of January 1888 around noontime it was so warm it melted snow and ice from the window until after 1 p.m.”

‘A beautiful day’

Many settlers jumped at the arrival of fine weather. Erik Olson, a Swedish bachelor farmer in Beaver Creek, Minn., took off on a half-mile walk to his strawstack, to get the raw stuff for the twisted-straw sticks he burned for heat. Johnny Walsh,  a 10-year-old farmer’s son in Avoca, Minn., walked a mile to go visiting at a neighbor’s house. Norwegian immigrant Knut Knutson made a run to Rushmore, Minn., for extra supplies.

“It was a beautiful day for mid-winter and no one even thought of what a change an hour’s time could bring,” wrote Nobles County native Morton Bassett in a personal collection of pioneering stories.

What the settlers did not know — could not know, because the Army Signal Corps chose not issue a Cold Wave warning the previous night —  was that a dynamic blizzard was just then sprinting across Montana and northern Colorado. A massive cold air mass had formed around Jan. 8, shifting from Medicine Hat, Alberta, to Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. Both places saw violent wind conditions and extreme temperature drops. On Jan. 11, the mass raced full bore across the United States, covering more than 780 miles in 17 hours.

When the storm hit, it caught so many settlers by surprise that between 250 and 500 people died that weekend, according to estimates by newspaper editors in Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakota Territory. A precise number has never been determined, but “undoubtedly many deaths were never reported from remote outlying districts,” wrote journalist David Laskin, author of “The Children’s Blizzard” (Harper Perennial, 2004). Laskin added: “Scores died in the weeks after the storm of pneumonia and infections contracted during amputations.”

The most deadly

Climate historians are quick to note that the “Children’s Blizzard” — so named because many of the victims were schoolkids trying to make it home — was not the most extreme blizzard ever to strike Minnesota. But 125 years later, it remains the most deadly, due to a tragic swirl of circumstances. The storm’s ambush approach in the middle of an afternoon, the lack of warning from the Army Signal Corps, and the mild, January thaw-like morning were all factors that conspired to kill with maximum efficiency.

Minnesota, too, was populated like never before, but many of her new homes and schoolhouses were hastily built affairs at best, with gap-holed walls and tar paper roofs, thrown up in the break-neck excitement of westward settlement.

The storm happened at the tail-end of a six-year run of extreme weather called the “Little Ice Age.” Climate historian and retired state policy analyst Thomas St. Martin of Woodbury wrote in an abstract that a series of phenomena, including the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa in August, 1883, created an atmospheric shield against solar radiation that plunged the globe into the deep freeze from 1882 to 1888. In the long gaze of history, the powerful blizzard of Jan. 12, 1888 was a final exclamation point.

For the settlers who lived through it, the Jan. 12 blizzard was not historic but harrowing, a day of extreme trial for a people who already knew hard living. Farmer and Norwegian immigrant Austin Rollag, just over the state line in Valley Springs, S.D, wrote that air turned silent and ominous and in the next moment, the blizzard crashed in.  

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“About 3:30, we heard a hideous roar. … At first we thought that it was the Omaha train which had been blocked and was trying to open the track. My wife and I were near the barn when the storm came as if it had slid out of sack. A hurricane-like wind blew, so that the snow drifted high in the air, and it became terribly cold. Within a few minutes, it was as dark as a cellar, and one could not see one’s hand in front of one’s face.”

‘A terrible hard wind’

Carl Saltee, in Fortier, Minn., remembered that  “A dark and heavy wall builded up around the northwest coming fast, coming like those hevy [sic] thunderstorms, like a shot. In a few moments, we had the severest snowstorm I ever saw in my life with a terrible hard wind, like a hurrycane [sic], snow so thick we could not see more than 3 steps from the door at times.”

The Children's Blizzard book by David Laskin
“The Children’s Blizzard” book by David
Laskin

This was not a storm of drifting lace snowflakes, but of flash-frozen droplets firing sideways from the sky, an onslaught of speeding ice needles moving at more than 60 miles per hour. Even without the whiteout conditions — climate experts call this zero/zero visibility — many people couldn’t see because the microscopic bits of ice literally froze their eyes shut.

In total blindness with few buildings, fences or landmarks to guide them, some settlers became completely and utterly lost. Norwegian immigrant Seselia Knutson became frantic when her husband, Knut, was trapped out in the blizzard. She went out to look for him and became so confused she froze to death under a sled just 40 steps from her front door. Hanley Countryman of Alexandria was trekking back to his house with 40 pounds of provisions and lay down in the snow to die just 150 yards from his threshold.  

Schoolchildren, many of whom had left for school without coats, hats and mittens — the better to bask in the comparative warmth of a January thaw — were overcome by the blizzard. In many places, the storm made its debut just as students were walking back home from school. The air was not only filled with blowing ice, but temperatures plummeted to frightening lows. By the afternoon in Moorhead, it was 47 degrees below zero, and the force of the wind — reported by the Minneapolis Tribune at 60 miles per hour — blew down the wooden tower over the city’s artesian well, smashed windows and snapped telegraph wires.

The epicenter: SE Dakota Territory

The epicenter of the devastation was in the southeastern quadrant of Dakota Territory, now South Dakota. On Jan. 17, the Minneapolis Tribune noted, “It is placing the number of fatalities at a low figure to say that at least 100 human beings lost their lives in dreaded storm within a 50-mile radius of Yankton” [South Dakota].

Though upper Midwesterners lost the most, the blizzard was truly a nationwide phenomena. Ice skating was reported in San Francisco on Jan. 14, along with frozen water mains in Los Angeles. Fort Elliott, Texas, registered a 7-below-zero temperature on the 14th, and for the first time in anyone’s memory, parts of the Colorado River in Texas froze over.  

In southwestern Minnesota, it was the rare farmer who did not lose livestock. A 36-year-old Scottish immigrant named James Jackson discovered his cattle herd just outside Woodstock. His frozen cattle lay in a 10-mile stretch from northwest to southeast, the animals’ collapsed bodies marking the current of the wind. A few of the cows were living — just barely — but when Jackson got them back to the barn and thawed them out, their frozen flesh came off in chunks. This was the high cost of of exposure. German immigrant Wilhelmina Lupke of Hutchinson, Minn., died from a gangrenous infection after her hands and feet were severely frozen.

Near Garvin, Minn., in Lyon, County, the major concern was passenger train that got stuck in the snow before the blizzard hit. A late telegram arrived at Balatan, Minn., warning that a big blizzard would arrive in less than a hour. Townspeople attempted to rescue 23 of the train passengers with horse-driven sleds before disaster, but they didn’t make it in time. Some of the rescued passengers experienced the tell-tale deliriums of prolonged hypothermia.

According to a leather-bound history of Lyon County: “One of the loads was overturned, two or three of the party lost their heads and one man became partially deranged, crying and howling, and in his wildness pulling the robes and wraps from ladies in front of him, saying that he had but a few minutes to live and that he must get warm before he died.”  The rest of the passengers, some 25 people, spent three cold nights on the stalled train with little food.

Even for the lucky settlers who were safe at home, the weekend was not exactly toasty. Newspaperman Charles Morse, founder of the Lake Benton News, recalled his office/apartment in Lake Benton, Minn. “It was astonishing the manner in which this fine stuff would be driven through the smallest aperture. My sleeping quarters were on the second floor leading off a hallway at the head of the stairs. … On arriving home I found the wind had forced open the door and the stairway was packed with snow, and when I reached my room I found my bed covered with several inches of snow which had filtered over the threshold and through the keyhole.”

The children

The most shocking and widely reported deaths were of the schoolchildren. Ten-year-old Johnny Walsh of Avoca, Minn., froze to death trying to find his house. Six children of James Baker froze to death while trying to make it home from school near Chester township, Minnesota. They were found with their arms entwining each other in the snow.  

Compiling a solid count of the dead remains difficult 125 years later not only because of spotty records and missing rural newspapers, but also because many settlers’ bodies weren’t found for days or even months.

Song of the Great Blizzard: Thirteen Were Saved
Sheet music for “Song of the Great Blizzard: Thirteen
Were Saved” by W.M. Vincent

Erik Olson, the Swedish bachelor farmer, was found a mile and a half from his house several days after the storm; only his feet were visible under the drifting piles of snow. O.A. Hunt, a transient peddler who traveled about southern Minnesota, wasn’t discovered until April 1, when enough snow melted away. A German immigrant named Herman Brueske walked to town on Jan. 11, but his frozen body wasn’t found in Renville County for another week. He left behind three children and his wife, Johanna, who was eight months pregnant at the time of her husband’s death. The Minneapolis Tribune macabrely noted that recovered corpses were so solidly frozen they “give forth a metallic sound” when struck.

The loss of human and animal life reverberated in Minnesota for years after the storm. Many survivors wore the physical scars.

“For years afterward, at gatherings of any size in Dakota or Nebraska, there would always be people walking on wooden legs or holding fingerless hands behind their backs or hiding missing ears under hats,” wrote Laskin in “The Children’s Blizzard.”

One result of the storm was that communities large and small — including Fortier, Minn. — invested in new, sturdier schoolhouses for their children in 1888. The longer effects, though, were psychic. For a certain generation of upper Midwestern settler, the date Jan. 12, 1888, rang with as much dark meaning as Dec. 7, 1941, or Sept. 11, 2001, would have today. Everyone had a story of where they were that day.

In the 1940s, a group of old timers organized the Greater Nebraska Blizzard Club to collect and organize survivors’ stories into a single volume. The editor of the book, W.H. O’Gara, wrote in the preface that the club had a very hard time coming up with a word or phrase that would give some inkling of the terror of that day, Jan. 12, 1888. Eventually they settled on this: “In All Its Fury.”

Freelancer Alyssa Ford has written for the Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, Experience Life,  Artful Living and several other local and regional publications.