Children’s Blizzard struck Great Plains 125 years agoSudden storm killed a reported 178 in South Dakota and stranded thousands.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
It was an unusually warm morning, considering it was the dead of winter in South Dakota 125 years ago today.
People doffed coats, hats and gloves on Jan. 12, 1888. Some children left for school without winter clothing, enjoying the feel of sun and a relatively warm day after a spate of winter conditions in previous days. Farmers set out to do chores in the fields.
But a bitterly cold fate awaited many of them, as the temperature plummeted from the mid-30s to below zero, with raging winds, snow and sleet pelting everything and everyone in its path. The storm that would come to be known as the Children’s Blizzard killed hundreds of people across the Great Plains, including a reported 178 in present-day South Dakota. Many children were trapped in one-room schoolhouses across the plains.
Frank Allen Jr., a 3-year-old Mitchell resident, died in the storm, freezing to death “within 30 rods of his home,” according to a 30-year anniversary report on the storm published in The Daily Republican, as The Daily Republic was known then, in 1918.
One rod is 16.5 feet. It’s a surveying term that was commonly used in the 19th century.
Another young man named Allen, George Allen, was trapped in the sudden storm while he was working with his dad to get a load of hay. The blizzard forced them to try to take shelter in the field, and they shoveled out a hole in a snow drift, but their horses backed into the makeshift shelter.
The boy, 13, and his father paced back and forth in an effort to stay warm, but by the morning of Jan. 13, George Allen “began to show signs of fatigue, although not suffering from the cold,” according to The Daily Republican’s 1918 account.
His father finally picked him up and tried to carry him to their home.
“Then it was that the boy became chilled and died from exhaustion and exposure before the house was reached,” the newspaper reported.
The body of Walter Munger, a young man who lived on a farm in rural Mitchell, was discovered on Jan. 14 near a haystack.
In Mitchell, children were trapped in two schools, one on the east side of town, the other on the west side, according to The Daily Republican. Thirty students spent the night in the west side school, and 15 others in the east side.
“Miss Nellings remained alone at the west side school and did her best to care for the children,” the newspaper reported. “Miss Prime and the janitor looked after the children on the east side last night most faithfully.”
In the morning, parents retrieved their children. Other people wandered the streets of Mitchell despite the “hurricane of blinding snow” on Jan. 13, according to The Daily Republican. Some sought relatives, while others tried to make it to their jobs or their homes.
‘Violence and suddenness’
The Children’s Blizzard struck in the final full year before South Dakota became a state. The population was increasing dramatically, and many of the newcomers had only a sketchy idea of the tempestuous weather that would face them.
David Laskin told the tragic tale in his 2004 book “The Children’s Blizzard.”
“Even in a region known for abrupt and radical meteorological change, the blizzard of 1888 was unprecedented in its violence and suddenness,” Laskin wrote in the award-winning book. “There was no atmospheric herald. No eerie green tinge to the sky or fleecy cirrus forerunner. One moment it was mild, the sun was shining, a damp wind blew fitfully out of the south — the next moment frozen hell had broken loose.”
The storm, also known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard and School Children’s Blizzard, was one of the most devastating winter weather events in American history.
The U.S. Army Signal Service, a forerunner to today’s National Weather Service, recorded the unusual weather conditions. A report from Huron about the Jan. 12, 1888, conditions captures the rare nature of the storm.
“At 12:42 p.m. the air was perfectly calm for about one minute; the next minute the sky was completely overcast by heavy black clouds which, for a few minutes previous, had hung along the western and northwestern horizon, and the wind veered to the west and blew with such violence as to render the position of the observer on the roof unsafe. The air was immediately filled with snow as fine as sifted flour.”
Walter Mitchell, who grew up in the Twins Lake Township in Sanborn County, was 12 years old and living on the family farm when the storm hit. He wasn’t in school that day, and he and his brother went to “turn the stock out to the straw stack south of the house” around 10 a.m.
“We looked to the north and saw what appeared to be a large cloud rolling over and over along the ground, covering everything as with a blanket,” he later reported. “My father called us to hurry and bring the cattle in. We barely had time to get the cattle in the barn when the storm struck.”
Walter Mitchell’s blizzard story, and other central South Dakota weather tales from 1873 to 1960, were compiled by S.S. Judy, of Forestburg, in 1962 and are preserved in stapled sheets of paper with a blue cover by the Mitchell Area Historical Society at the Carnegie Resource Center.
“To get to the house, we crawled on our hands and knees,” Mitchell recalled. “We could not stand upright in such a wind and the only way to see was near the ground. If we stood upright our faces were soon covered in ice, the eyes frozen shut, we could barely breathe.
“In the time it took us to reach the house, the fine particles of ice and snow were driven into our clothes and we were fairly encased in icy armor.”
But the brothers survived the storm unharmed. Some of their neighbors weren’t as lucky.
A man named McGinnis went outside in the storm to seek his cattle and became lost in the wind, snow and stinging ice. He spent the night in a straw stack, Mitchell recalled, and his hands and knees were badly frozen.
McGinnnis lost all his cattle.
“His entire herd of thirteen head of cattle we could see the next morning, standing frozen along the fence,” Mitchell said. “Their bodies were encased in ice, their heads covered with such a weight of ice resting on the ground.”
McGinnis was so discouraged that he returned to his former career as a sailor, Mitchell said.
Another neighbor, Orin Van Dyke, had headed to Woonsocket that day. He became lost on the way home and was stuck outside. He ended up losing some toes.
Ernest Martin, who was 18, and his mother were also headed home from Woonsocket when they got caught in the blizzard. Their sled tipped over when it struck a drift, and the woman was stuck under it.
Martin struck out on foot and walked all night. When he arrived at the door of the Barr family in Jerald County, he could not make it inside and fell at their door. He was helped inside, but developed blood poisoning and died. His mother, however, was rescued thanks to her son’s efforts.
‘My dear life to save’
Another area woman was also trapped in the storm.
Katie Dodd and her husband Asa, and her niece Nellie, who was 6, spent the night of Jan. 11-12 at her father’s home. The next morning, they prepared to head to their own farm less than a mile away.
Their horse-drawn sleigh was almost halfway there when the blizzard hit with all its force. Years later, Katie Dodd told the story in a poem, “Eighteen Hours in a Blizzard.”
Carol Hasz, of rural Mitchell, submitted the poem to the Mitchell Area Historical Society. She and her mother, Mary Ellen Malde, who lives at Avera Brady Health and Rehab, are distant relatives of Nellie.
The Dodds and the little girl were trapped in the storm, and Asa decided to walk to obtain help after the horses gave out. He wrapped a blanket and, according to the newspaper, his fur coat, around them, and set off.
Asa Dodd was blinded by the stinging show and wandered into two homes. At the second, he was persuaded to stay the night, although he was “almost wild” with concern, according to his wife’s poem.
In the morning, Dodd and a man who lived at the second home, who was a stranger to him, braved the blizzard and went back out. They found the sleigh, and both Katie Dodd and her niece were still alive, but Katie’s feet were frozen.
She was taken to her home, and friends and neighbors sought to help her. But on Jan. 24, both feet were amputated. She lived decades longer, however, and her niece wrote a poem herself to pay tribute to her aunt and uncle that she delivered on their 50th anniversary.
In her poem about the storm, Katie Dodd wrote her doctors were “so kind and brave; Did all in their power; My dear life to save.”
In the final lines, she gives thanks “to God, who rules the universe, And calms the raging storm.”