Book Review: The Children’s Blizzard

“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.”

Childrens BlizzardIn January 1888 a terrible blizzard caught many by surprise in Dakota and Nebraska leaving many dead in its wake–and many of the dead were children. The blizzard became known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, Schoolchildren’s Blizzard or simply The Children’s Blizzard. David Laskin takes us back to recount what happened on 12 January 1888 and why people were so unprepared. He looks at the people who emigrated from Europe and Russia to settle in the plains, at the Weather Bureau which at the time was part of the Army Signal Corp, and why the storm itself was so particularly nasty. The event is still remembered today though sadly knowledge of this event seems to have slipped from being taught today in many U.S. history classes.

Laskin paints a portrait of the various people that came to live in the area to start a new life. Perhaps that is not a new story but consider they gave up everything to do so. Some came because land was too limited for their children to make a living or government edicts made it impossible either to stay or make a living. The journey to America was not easy for any of them but those who bonded together in common faith had a support group on the journey. Children were lost on the journey and it was not comfortable at all. First having to suffer through unpleasant conditions on ships and then finding out the rail car they reserved was nothing more than a glorified cattle car with hardly any amenities. When they arrived they found a land that stretched flat in all directions with the occasional clump of trees for shade. They began with the sod house and started farming the land.

They quickly learned though this was no Eden but often an unforgiving area. Prairie fires spread quickly through the tall grass. Locusts and grasshoppers would descend on their crops eating their hard earned work. And the winters were nothing like they experienced at home. They were not only exceptionally cold but dropped huge amounts of snow sometimes trapping them inside their homes for days. Early settlers learned how to make ersatz coffee and other foods while they waited out the storms. The cold and heavy snow winters were no fluke. They were the norm as they learned. Yet they persevered despite the many problems and raised families.

The other part of the story is the Weather Bureau and by extension the weather itself. The Weather Bureau was run by the Army Signal Corps. While there were dedicated personnel doing their jobs correctly, many were not. There was lots of graft and corruption inside it despite leadership that tried to correct the problems. The Weather Bureau was not considered reliable but remained largely intact due to lethargy on the part of Congress to reform it and those that supported keeping it in the Army Signal Corps. The Weather Bureau relied on weather readings from stations and reports by others to make its forecasts. Telegraph was the fastest means of the day to send messages but the offices were not manned 24 hours a day, not unlike the wireless operators at sea before Titanic disaster. The knowledge of weather systems was not as developed as it is today so they did not understand the severity of the weather that was heading towards them on that fateful day. But the lack of manning weather offices 24-7 meant urgent notices of changes were not read right away causing forecasts to be way off. Which is what happened here.

The day of the storm was unusually warm for January and many were out doing things. Farmers were outside tending their crops and livestock. Children were at school and people went about their daily business. They had no clue something was wrong until the storm slammed down on them all at once. First it got cold, very cold. The temperature dropped rapidly well below freezing (-40 in some places) and then was followed by howling 80 mile hour winds and blowing snow. The snow had been tossed around so much in the atmosphere that it was tiny but in a storm of this size millions of them became like a sandstorm in winter. You literally could not see your hands in front of your face. People were later found near their homes frozen inches from safety. Many kids in one room schools had to be sent home since there was not enough heat or the building suffered damage in the storm. Those that made it to a warm place or stayed in the schoolhouse that had warmth survived. Children that got separated or tried to walk home alone perished. Animals perished too often right were they stood. For many families, it was heart wrenching losing not just one but perhaps two or three children. Some bodies were not found till the spring thaw.

The aftermath of the storm did not immediately cause change at the Weather Bureau. Astonishingly there was not much public outcry against the Weather Bureau. General Greeley tried to play down how bad the storm was as typical press exaggeration, though later he changed his mind on that point. In fact the only person that was demoted was 1st Lieutenant Thomas Woodruff who was in charge of the Saint Paul office. And that was due to enemies he made in Saint Paul who were determined to drive him out and the fact his indications (forecasts) were considered lowest in the service. But two months later another blizzard would hit, this time in the American northeast hitting the major cities and completely shutting down New York. Like what happened two months prior, the forecast was totally inaccurate. In New York City all commerce and traffic came to halt. Elevated trains were stopped in their tracks. No vehicles could move in the streets. Power lines went down as did the telegraph isolating New York and other cities (including Washington D.C.) and everyone stayed inside until the storm had passed. 400 hundred people (estimated) died from being stranded when this storm struck quickly and hard. This time the reaction was loud from the New York press and quickly Greeley ordered weather stations to be manned 24-7 so they could update when forecasts changed. Most telegraph and telephone lines were moved underground as well. It also finally resulted in moving the Weather Bureau away from the Army Signal Corps into the Agriculture Department in 1890 (it would later move to Commerce under President Franklin Roosevelt and much later into National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration then renamed National Weather Service in 1970).

Life continued for many where the Children’s Blizzard occurred but over time, due to economic changes and the era of family farms dwindling, many of the farms disappeared. Today many areas where they once settled are empty returning slowly back to what it was when those settlers arrived. Perhaps that is the natural tide of history for archaeology has shown peoples have moved when the climate or trade routes changed. It is happening today but people are not recognizing quite that way. Just look at the once powerful industrial cities that fueled an industry that now are in decline. Laskin’s book is a fascinating look at an event in American history that is being sadly passed over these days in classrooms. And that forgetfulness is costly when the same type of cold storm comes down from the north causing severe damage, power outages, and sadly deaths.

Laskin, David The Children’s Blizzard, New York: HarperCollins, 2004
The book is available at Amazon in hardcopy, paperback and Kindle versions. Check your local library as well.