The Dread of Knowing

A farmer at North Platte, Nebraska, took umbrage over an item in the Omaha Daily Bee which dared to suggest that his neighborhood sometimes received heavy snowfall.  On April 12, 1873, he took the trouble to express his displeasure by dropping a brief note to the editor of the Daily Bee.

"Both the Bee and Republican said the other morning that snow plows were in operation in our place.  I write to say that you are both mistaken.  We don’t use that sort of plows in this Eden of Nebraska.  Our plows are mainly manufactured by the Nebraska Plow Factory, and are used exclusively for farming purposes.  We have had a great deal of plowing, but it has been of the earthly sort.  There has not been snow enough to last twenty-four hours here this winter."

The winter of 1872-3 had been an unusually mild and dry one in the Central Plains.  New residents discovered that the flimsy shacks and shallow dugouts they had created hastily soon after arriving, seemed perfectly sufficient to protect them from such cordial elements.  Few people continued to put up cords of firewood through the winter, depending instead on buffalo chips for fuel.  Sod could be broken during every winter month.  Plowing and sowing began in February and continued until April.

However, by the time the letter written at North Platte on the 12th was published on the front page of the April 15th edition of the Omaha Daily Bee, it must have struck some readers as grimly amusing.  An item on page four of the same paper told the story of what had happened to “this Eden of Nebraska,” while the letter made its way east.

HEAVY SNOW STORM

Between Four and Five Feet of Snow Falls at Grand Island, and the Storm Still Continuing


A very heavy and violent snow storm set in at Grand Island at a late hour last night, and is still in progress.  From a dispatch to Mr. J. J. Dickey, the superintendent of the Union Pacific telegraph, we learn that the snow is drifting terribly, and is from four to five feet deep in drifts on the track.  The air is filled with the flying snow, so that nothing can be seen at a distant of fifty feet.  The telegraph wires west are all down, and nearly all of them eastward, so that telegraphic communication from the West is cut off to-day.  So great is the violence of the storm, that it is impossible, as yet, to send out men to repair the breaks in the wires.  The Union Pacific train which was due here to-day at 10 o’clock, left Grand Island with two engines, and if no further interruptions are met with, it will arrive here this afternoon about five hours late.  It is impossible to tell how far the storm extends west of Grand Island.

Much of what we know today about the historic Easter Blizzard of 1873 comes from family memoirs or regional histories of southern Nebraska.  Most accounts agree that a light rain began to fall Sunday afternoon, followed by a fierce blast of wind strong enough to tear the roofs off some cabins and hammer shanties into splinters.  Then came the relentless, driving snow.  There are stories of isolated families, freezing and out of firewood, huddling together under blankets, essentially going to bed and staying there for three days.  Howling winds forced snow through chinks in cabin walls, causing drifts to pile up inside the house.  Some settlers managed to save their animals only by bringing them inside their dwellings when the storm struck.  Farmers venturing outside to tend livestock risked being blinded and disoriented by the raging blizzard, unable to find their way back to shelter again.

Late on Tuesday, the howling died away.  Pioneers staggered outside the next morning into a suddenly-leveled alien landscape.  Hilltops were bare, but there were twenty-foot drifts in the valleys.  Settlers surviving in dugouts had to tunnel their way to freedom.  Snow that was piled so deep took a long while to melt.  The thaw revealed the bodies of stranded travelers and thousands of head of livestock, all killed by hypothermia or suffocation.

The blizzard may have been part of a storm system that covered an enormous area, but it was as yet thinly populated, and had few newspapers.  The Emporia Gazette reported on April 25th that in Sedgwick County, Kansas, “Quite an energetic speciments of cyclone or tornado passed down the valley of Ninescah last week.  A house in Clear Water, belonging to Mr. Danscomb, was missing about that time and only a piece of the roof has been heard from since.”  In the same issue, a letter from Independence complained, “We are having some cold weather now and a few days ago we had a very hard snow storm, some estimating the snow was six or seven inches deep; it was very cold.”

The hardest-hit area must have been southern Nebraska, although several thousand head of cattle were also reported dead near Omio, Kansas, about ten miles southwest of White Rock.  The cattle were part of a herd headed for market when the storm struck.  A figure of twenty has been suggested for the human death toll, but that can be little more than a guess.  Deaths must have been kept to a minimum only by the fact that the area getting the brunt of the storm was so sparsely settled.  Considering the high percentage of residents killed, it is considered one of the deadliest storms to strike Nebraska.

Accounts of the blizzard usually stress the fact that it struck without warning, although how it differs in that regard from every other storm that occurred in the the 1870’s, is hard to fathom.  Even pleasant weather arrived unannounced.

Today we are well-warned about approaching winter storms.  A nasty one got underway in Kansas almost a week ago, then plowed across much of the nation, and we were advised of the impending onslaught months beforehand, when its devastating power was still the subject of speculation.  Would we get an ice storm followed by snow, or just snow?  Could we expect three to five inches, or four to six?  A local meteorologist upped the ante at the last minute, predicting five to seven inches for those of us in southeast Kansas, followed by the potential for heavy snow that weekend, and another snow storm for the week after.  The news was grim; we would be buried.  

And we might have been, if the snow hadn’t waited so long to saturate the atmosphere before it began to reach the earth, and if a "dry slot" hadn’t opened up to the south, shutting off the snowfall hours earlier than expected.  Officially, we received two inches, but I consider that a face-saving exaggeration of the inch or so that actually piled up in my yard.  The heavy snowfall predicted for this weekend?  It amounted to a few flurries.  Snow for the coming week?  There may be a little.  Maybe not.  The forecasters are backing down.

The pioneers were certainly caught off-guard by terrible storms, while we can live in dread of them for months, even if they’re sometimes a little underwhelming when they finally get here.  I’m not sure which is worse.        

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com