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

The winter of 1887–1888 was ferocious and unrelenting. But nothing prepared southwestern Minnesota for the January storm that came to be known as the Children’s Blizzard.

Dawson School in Lac Qui Parle County, on the western border of Minnesota, circa 1890.
Dawson School in Lac Qui Parle County, on the western border of Minnesota, circa 1890.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Although the beginning of the month was mild, by the end of November 1887 there had been ice storms, snowstorms, and subzero temperatures. Mountains of snow had fallen in December: 20.2 inches in Moorhead, 39.5 inches in Morris, and 33 inches in Mankato. Then, on Jan. 5, a massive sleet storm coated the snowy drifts with treacherous ice.

The morning of Jan. 12, however, brought with it a gentle reprieve. The air felt mild, and the warm sun teased people in southwestern Minnesota out of their homes. According to a report in the Minneapolis Tribune four days later, the day was bright and clear.

Many residents of southwestern Minnesota jumped at the arrival of fine weather. Erik Olson, a Swedish bachelor farmer in Beaver Creek, took off on a walk. Johnny Walsh, a 10-year-old farmer’s son in Avoca, went to visit a neighbor.

What people did not know, and could not know, because the U.S. Army Signal Corps had chosen not to issue a cold wave warning the previous night, was that a massive blizzard was racing toward them from the west. During 17 hours between Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, the storm covered 780 miles, from southwestern Canada to the southeastern Nebraska. Eventually it blanketed Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakota Territory and much of southern Minnesota, hitting the southwestern corner particularly hard.

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The storm struck with maximum force. According to newspaper accounts of the time, between 250 and 500 people died in the blizzard. A precise number has never been determined, in part because it is thought not all deaths were reported. Some bodies were not found for days or even months.

Erik Olson, the Beaver Creek farmer, was found a mile and a half from his house several days after the storm; only his feet were visible under the piles of snow. O. A. Hunt, a transient peddler, was not discovered until April 1, when enough snow had melted away.

Climate historians believe the January 1888 blizzard was not the most extreme one ever to strike Minnesota. Yet it was the most deadly because of a tragic swirl of circumstances. The lack of warning from the Signal Corps and the mild morning were factors that paved the way for a particularly lethal result.

The most widely reported deaths were those of schoolchildren, which is how the storm got its name. Ten-year-old Johnny Walsh of Avoca froze to death trying to find his house. Six siblings died trying to make it home from school near Chester Township.

The storm happened at what proved to be 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 wrote that a series of phenomena, including the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa in August 1883, formed an atmospheric shield against the sun’s warmth that plunged the globe into a deep freeze from 1882 to 1888. The powerful Minnesota blizzard of January 12, 1888, formed the Little Ice Age’s final exclamation point.

This was not a storm of drifting snowflakes but of flash-frozen droplets firing sideways, an onslaught of speeding ice needles moving at more than sixty miles per hour. Even without the “whiteout conditions,” many people could not see because the microscopic bits of ice froze their eyes shut.

In the Children’s Blizzard, temperatures plummeted frighteningly. By afternoon, it was 47 degrees below zero in Moorhead. The force of the wind blew down the wooden tower over the city’s well, smashed windows, and snapped telegraph wires.

For years afterward, southwestern Minnesota residents recounted where they had been when the blizzard struck. In the 1940s, a group of old-timers organized a blizzard club to collect survivors’ stories in a single volume. The editor of that book, W. H. O’Gara, wrote in the preface that the club had a hard time coming up with a title that would give some inkling of the terror of Jan. 12, 1888. Eventually, they settled on this: “In All Its Fury.”