Snowbound — The Blizzards of 1948-49

The winter of 1948-49 brought Nebraskans the most prolonged battle with the elements in the state’s history. Harl A. Dalstrom’s “I’m Never Going to Be Snowbound Again,” in the Fall/Winter 2002 issue of Nebraska History magazine, is a detailed examination of the winter and its effect on Nebraska. The first snowstorm hit November 19, 1948, and the second on December 29, to be followed on January 2-5, 1949, by another. State and local highway crews found that no sooner had they opened a stretch of road than it was closed again by drifting or by fresh snow. Trains were stalled, and for days in many areas the only effective transportation was by air.

The Nebraska National Guard was called out, and volunteers worked to rescue trapped livestock, homes, and even whole communities. But the job was too big for Nebraska and other western states alone, and on January 28, 1949, Maj. Gen. Lewis A. Pick was named to direct one of the U.S. Army’s most extensive peacetime rescue operations-Operation Snowbound. The bulldozers and the weasels of the Fifth Army moved in, and during twenty-three days of operation opened 87,073 miles of road, liberated 152,196 persons from snowbound homes, took 35 sick persons out to receive medical care and hospitalization, and gave more than 3,500,000 head of livestock access to feed.

Irene Woodburn of Wausa lived through the storm and later recalled: “On November 18, 1948, rain began to fall during the afternoon. During the night it turned into heavy wet snow with high wind. This continued until the early morning of the 20th, leaving thirty inches of snow. I was night operator at the telephone office, . . . I was able to get to work every night, but many times thought I wouldn’t make it. Only main street lights were on to conserve power. Cleanup operations hardly started when wind drifted it all shut again. This and more snow was to be the pattern until well into April. At last there was no place to shovel the snow, so no one did, and we walked over banks. Several thick layers of ice in the snow banks made clearing of snow impossible in places, as snow plows couldn’t move it, so dynamite was used in some places. One snowplow operator from Iowa said, ‘I didn’t know Nebraska had concrete in their snowbanks.’

“Farmers used many different kinds of rigs to take groceries and other needed items home. All roads were blocked and many remained that way until spring. A local man who had been a pilot in W.W. 2, flew a ski-plane, taking medicine, groceries, etc., also bring[ing] some sick people to the doctor and hospital when needed. . . . The army men came with a machine called a weasel. It could be driven over snowbanks to reach homes. Highway 81 was the only hard surfaced road into Wausa at that time, so it was possible to get supplies when the road was open. Other towns weren’t as fortunate. The handcar on the railroad was used between Wausa and Bloomfield. . . . The final total of snow was 90 inches. Some snowbanks were 25 to 35 feet.”

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