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Weather at Its Worst: The Schoolhouse Blizzard

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New York is now on record for 2011 having been the snowiest January, and as we all talk and text and blog about the annoyances of the snow, it is worth taking a look back at other times and other storms.

New Yorkers have always heard reference to the Blizzard of 1888, and this storm has particular meaning for me, as I have a newspaper clipping that documents that the home I live in was staked out in early March 1888. The contractor arose next morning and could no longer see the outlines of where the house was to be built. In those days that made the local newspaper.

When a blog I wrote a few weeks ago about the beginning of the weather service elicited a comment from a reader that I should read The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin, I was interested, particularly when I saw that it was about a blizzard of 1888. When I began to read the book, I quickly saw that "Laskin's storm" took place in January of 1888, preceding New York's blizzard by two months.

In his book, David Laskin does a stellar job of showing us that while we may tire of hearing the television weather forecasters carry on about the coming storm and the one after that, we are actually quite lucky on two counts:
1. That we do have a relatively reliable warning system as to the size and strength of the coming storms, meaning that schools can be cancelled and towns can make provisions for clearing snow;
2. Today most of us live in well-insulated homes in densely settled communities.

After reading Laskin's book, you will be immensely grateful for these two advantages.

The Children's Blizzard
As Laskin makes clear, while cities in the late nineteenth century may have benefited from the telegraph and other forms of progress that might have been helpful, those who farmed the Great Plains had no way of learning the weather in a timely manner, other than looking skyward. What's more, most people lived at least a mile or two from their town, their children's school or their nearest neighbor.

As Laskin describes it, the scale of prairie weather was shocking even to the Norwegians settling there; they were a group who had had plenty of experience with snow and cold. The fierce winds would sweep snow over the hills and valleys, and anyone out in it lost track of any land forms or landmarks that might have been there when the wind wasn't whipping the snow around. The rush of wind also took away any orientation one might have by sound.

The Early Weather Service
The government had only taken over weather data collection and prediction in 1870, (see "How the U.S. Weather Service Began.") The Signal Corps, the government body in charge of weather prediction at that time, had recently decentralized (October 1887) with a new office in St. Paul, Minnesota. First Lieutenant Thomas Woodruff was the man in charge.

The newness of the office was to play a factor in the toned-down warning sent out by Woodruff on January 11. (The Signal Corps officers were soldiers first and meteorologists only by recent training, so honestly, Woodruff probably couldn't have fully understood what was coming.)

Because he had already issued so many "cold wave" warnings, he decided on a milder prediction when he sent his just-before-midnight prediction (1-11-1888) to the Western Union office for distribution. Western Union transmitted the weather reports to post offices and newspaper offices, and in rural communities, the fastest way for residents to get weather reports was to stop by and read what was posted on a bulletin board outside the post office. Because the day started out a little warmer and more pleasant than the days preceding it, chances are few local farmers would have bothered to stop to check on the weather.

The storm that hit the Great Plains in January of 1888 came up quickly. Laskin quotes numerous documents where residents noted that the morning of January 12 was almost balmy in comparison to the frigid weather they had had.

Because it was warmer than previous days, more people were out and about. Children who had been kept home during the frigid temperatures of the previous days begged to go to school, and farmers went into town on errands or were out checking on their livestock when the storm came up.

In Groton, Nebraska (just one of the Midwest communities affected), the sky darkened about 10:30 a.m., and the teachers decided to close school. Men in town realized the children needed to be taken home, and they appeared at the school with horse-drawn drays for safer conveyance. One child ran back to the classroom at the last minute to get something, and by the time he returned to the door, the drays could no longer be seen so low was the visibility. Unfortunately the young boy struck out on his own only to lose his way because the snow was so blinding.

Laskin tells the fate of the schoolteacher who attempts to lead his class to a nearby home; we hear about teachers who keep the children in the schoolhouse, burning whatever they can to try to keep the children warm; we read about teacher Etta Shattuck who had closed the school for the day but sets out to go to the train station for a trip home to visit her family. The storm comes up on her way, and she wisely decides to follow a fence, but soon becomes discouraged and disoriented and loses her way.

By the end of the schoolhouse blizzard, the death toll was 235 people, many of them children.

While today the weather bulletins we receive via radio, television, and the Internet are greeted with sighs of frustration that we are going to encounter yet another day of inconvenience due to the weather, we can be very happy that the science of weather prediction has becoming increasingly accurate and that we have up-to-the-minute ways of knowing what's coming. School delays? Trains on reduced schedules? Roads icy? We are forewarned.

In the 1880s, Americans lacked the scientific know-how to accurately predict the weather, and even if the science of the day had been better, how could they possibly have let small Midwestern farming communities know what to prepare for? Each family, each teacher, each child did the best they could... some were lucky and survived. Two hundred and thirty-five of them simply did not.

This new land that had promised a great new life for immigrants was still very much an enigma. The progress we now enjoy is because we can stand on these families' shoulders.

For more stories about America, visit www.americacomesalive.com, or test your knowledge (easy tests!) on facebook: www.facebook.com/AmericaComesAlive.