1888 blizzard was one for the record books

Published 10:10 am Thursday, August 4, 2016

The young couple died with their frozen bloody skin torn from their faces. They had clawed off the mask of ice.

Some people died within hours of getting lost; some were found waist deep with their hands frozen to barbed wire fences – others were found in the snow with their arms outstretched as if trying to crawl. Mothers died in a sitting position with their children; one boy, walking with his dog, froze to death. He had taken off his coat to try to keep the animal warm. A little boy’s body was found after the snow had melted. His face had been eaten away by mice and gophers.

We complain about the weather – too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. Tsk!

A blizzard hit impossibly hard in the midwest in 1888. It started Jan. 12, a day that began unseasonably warm and lovely. Suddenly, and without warning the snow came, accompanied by a hard-hitting blizzard and hurricane force winds, all of which lasted for several horrific days.

The death toll? About 500 men, women, and children perished. All of them suffered terribly before freezing to death during those impossible to imagine hell-on-earth days. That weather switch on the 12th was instant. Once the snow, wind, and freezing rain arrived, it never stopped. Frightening misery was the order of the days.

The torturous storm covered all of the Plains States, showing no mercy to humans or animals, the animals that were the life’s blood of many of the settlers. The cattle deaths numbered in the thousands. Man and beast perished without a chance of survival. All died horribly.

The appropriate word – no exaggeration – was terror — Arctic temperatures meant freezing to death, piles of snow meant suffocation.

No matter how hard the people tried to survive — for most of them, it was useless. Suffering was the order of the day – suffering was death’s prelude.

Because so many children were killed, those days were referred to as, “The Children’s Blizzard.” In his book with that title, David Laskin wrote, “After a breath or two, air clears the mind like a ringing slap. The senses are dulled. It becomes impossible to keep your eyes open, ice lines nasal passages, your throat is raw, your lips crack, the cold slices like a knife. Clothing is encased like ice. The punishment inflicted on human and beast is unimaginable.”

There are many stories of parents dying while trying to find their children who went to school dressed comfortably, certainly not dressed enough for the weather that was to come. Many of the little ones, trying to find their way home, got lost, as did some of the parents who were looking for them. Sense of direction was completely gone, looking ahead in the blinding snow was impossible.

That blizzard not only took lives, it created lifelong suffering for those who got thru the killing weather of the late 1800s. The pioneers who settled in the Midwest, came to America for a decent life. They came, mainly, from Germany, Norway, Denmark, the Ukraine.

They were hardworking, religious settlers. In almost a snap of the fingers they lost crops, livestock and, in so many cases, families.

A merciless Mother Nature was responsible.

The Dakota-Nebraska states – hardest hit – recorded temperatures as low as 46 degrees below zero. In one area of Minnesota funerals were not scheduled. Most family members did not have the clothes needed to go outside.

As with most disasters there are heroes. In Minnesota, one of them was 15-year-old Michael J. Dowling. He suffered from frostbite. ‘Suffered’ is too mild a word. He lost both legs below the knees, his left arm below the elbow, all of his fingers, and most of the thumb of his right hand.

It did not stop him. He became a teacher, a newspaper editor, a public speaker. He told fellow amputees, “it’s what one has above the shoulders that counts.” His life could easily become a beacon to today’s amputees who are trying, sometimes against the odds, to lead a normal, decent life.

Normalcy on the Plains? For some, it took months, for many – years.


Frank Roberts, who is 87, spent 60 years writing and talking. He and his wife, Valeria, have three children, five grandchildren, and three great-granddaughters. He loves to write.