By James C. Olson
Superintendent, State Historical Society
Fifty-nine years ago this week–on January 12, 1888–Nebraska was hit with what old-timers will tell you was the worst storm in the memory of man in this state. The territorial pioneers looked back on the winter of 1856-57, which began with a life-taking storm on December 1, as the most terrible they had spent in Nebraska. Likewise, the Easter storm of 1873 was talked about for years. The Blizzard of 1888, however, which covered the entire Plains area, seems to have been worse than either of these.
At least, the Blizzard of 1888 is the most celebrated snowstorm ever endured in Nebraska. Hundreds of reminiscences have been written about it. An organization known as the Blizzard Club, composed of men and women who went through the storm meets each year on January 12 to commemorate the event. The club soon will release a book about the storm, based on much careful research.
Although conditions differed some what in various parts of the state, most accounts agree that the early hours of that eventful January 12th were unseasonably warm. Cattle were out in the fields. School children in some areas played outside during the noon recess. In some cases, men were reported to have worked out-of-doors in their shirt-sleeves.
Then, the wind suddenly changed to the north, driving before it a great mass of thick, blinding snow. Men and animals alike were trapped in a freezing, white wasteland. The thermometer plummeted to 34 degrees below zero.
The storm lasted from 12 to 18 hours over most of the area, and was followed by minor local storms. The state was two weeks digging itself out. When the newspapers finally were able to assemble the details from isolated farms and ranches, it was evident that the loss of life and property sustained in the great blizzard was the greatest ever know in the West. Estimates as to the number who died in Nebraska ran as high as 100. In Dakota Territory, 109 lives were lost.
A particularly harrowing aspect of the storm was the fact that it caught so many school children away from home in tiny one-room school houses, with no food and little fuel. The heroism displayed by a number of school teachers, and their older pupils, in caring for the young children will always share a place in the annals of Nebraska.
Of all these, the one who probably gained the most fame was Minnie Freeman of Mira Valley, Valley County. When the storm broke there were 13 children in her school. She tied them together, single file, with herself at the head of the line, and ably assisted by the older pupils managed to get them to the nearest farmhouse. A popular song of the day, “Thirteen Were Saved, or Nebraska’s Fearless Maid,” was written in commemoration of her achievement.
Lois Royce, teaching near Plainview, attempted to get to a farm home with three small children. The children perished and she lost her limbs below the knees. Emma Shattuck, a teacher in Holt County, found refuge in a hay stack, where she remained from Thursday night until Sunday. She was so badly frozen that both limbs had to be amputated, and she later passed away. A relief fund was subscribed for these and other sufferers–both teachers and pupils.
Mr. and Mrs. T. C. Porter of St. Paul, Nebraska, wrote to family members in the East of their experiences during the blizzard of January 12, 1888. William H. O’Gara’s In All Its Fury, a history with reminiscences of the famous blizzard, included their descriptions of its impact.
Mr. Porter prefaced blizzard remarks in his January 23, 1888, letter with a description of his corn harvest that year and then remarked: “I suppose you have read all about the recent storm we have had in the west but you can’t realize how they are unless you should witness one. On the 12th inst. there was one of the severest snow and wind storms broke upon us that the country has ever witnessed and without a minute’s warning. The morning was dark, foggy or cloudy, with a little fine snow blowing from the south until about one o’clock the wind suddenly changed, (coming) from the north. It appeared as though the clouds had fallen to the ground and wind fiercely rolling them over the country. I had just gotten to town with a load of corn so I did not get back home till next day.”
Mrs. T. C. Porter wrote in her accompanying letter how she and the children fared at home, alone during the blizzard: “Well, we are having tolerably pleasant weather now, but you just ought to have been here the 12 and 13 of this month to have seen a Nebraska storm in all its fury. It was near the middle of the day and I had just come in from feeding the hogs. Cass had gone to town when I looked out the window and the cats which were on the steps were whirling around like they were drunk or something, and clouds of snow were rolling along sweeping everything in the way. Well, I and the children were all in the house, but with nothing to burn, as it had been warm enough with but little fire. Well, toward evening I bundled up and got out to the crib for cobs and started for the house and the (wind) blew me over and over. At last I caught, and crawled to the house, dragging my cobs along. . . . I thought the house would surely blow over. It cracked the plastering upstairs badly. The house would rock like a cradle and the children were frightened nearly out of their wits and maybe their mother was, too. We have had lots of very cold weather this winter. . . . If it wasn’t so awful cold here in the winter we could do very well but it just freezes the life almost out of a body.”
Frank Carney experienced the January 12, 1888, blizzard in an isolated spot west of Omaha. William O’Gara’s In All Its Fury, the classic book on the storm, included Carney’s reminiscence:
“My experience in that storm was one that I’ll never forget. I was twenty at that time, and was night telegraph operator for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway at Irvington, nine miles west of Omaha. I boarded at the Green farmhouse. My office, which was known as ‘East Y’ on the time-card, was a box car on a short spur beside the main line on the bank of Pappio Creek, about half a mile east of the depot.
“The storm started about four o’clock in the afternoon with snow and wind from the north which grew stronger and colder toward night. I was due to relieve the day operator at seven, but as it promised to be a very bad night I went out at six and could see my way then without any trouble. By nine the blizzard was howling down the Pappio valley and the old boxcar, which stood on a high hill, broadside to the wind, was groaning and swaying on its tracks at every blast until I was afraid to stay there longer, expecting that at any moment it would roll down into the creek with me and a red hot stove in it.
“I asked the train dispatcher at Fremont if any trains would be run through during the storm and if I could go to the depot, as it seemed dangerous to stay in the car. He told me to go ahead if I thought I could make it without getting lost. It seemed safe enough, as the track had been newly laid and no dirt had been filled in between the ties. So, once I got between the rails and headed west, the rough walking would keep me on the road. That was one time when my feet instead of my eyes had to guide me . . . .
“After walking and stumbling along for quite a while I had another scare for fear I would not be able to see the agent’s light in the window and might walk by and out into the country. So every few steps I would reach out to the north side of the track to see if I could feel the depot platform. This proved to be unnecessary, for when I was opposite the window the snow before me turned rosy and I knew that I was safe. I was soon in the office and warming up by a hot stove, and I stayed there through the night.”