Samuel Glenn was a Sergeant in the Signal Corps. His job was to, three times a day, take weather measurements and then send them up the chain to the weather guys. The weather guys would then plot those readings on maps, which would give them a picture of what the weather was doing.
These days, computers and sophisticated electronic sensors handle most of these measurements (and many more besides) almost instantaneously, but in the 1880’s, that was how it was done…and Glenn was dedicated to his task.
At 11:42am on January 12, 1888, Glenn had slowly (he was fighting a stomach illness) made his way to the roof of the station in Huron, South Dakota. His readings earlier in the morning showed temperatures that were more than 20 degrees warmer than the previous day. The reason? That surge of warm, moist air that we talked about the day before yesterday.
All throughout the Midwest, it was one of those “throw-open-the-doors-and-raise-the-windows” kind of days. Temperatures that had been well below zero for some time were now, in places, 30 above zero…it was like spring. Hundreds of children, kept home because of the cold, not only went to school, but did so without their heavy coats…some without coats at all.
Glenn’s position on the roof gave him a perfect view of what happened in that minute between 11:42 and 11:43, and it’s recounted in David Laskin’s brilliant book The Children’s Blizzard. “‘The air, for about one (1) minute, was perfectly calm, and voices and noises on the street below appeared as though emanating from great depths. A peculiar ‘hush’ prevailed over everything. In the next minute the sky was completely overcast by a heavy black cloud, which had in a few minutes previously hung suspended along the western and northwestern horizon, and the wind veered to the west (by the southwest quadrant) with such violence as to render the observer’s position very unsafe. The air was immediately filled with snow as fine as sifted flour. The wind veered to the northeast, then back to the northwest, in a gale which in three minutes attained a velocity of forty (40) miles per hour. In five minutes after the wind changed the outlines of objects fifteen (15) feet away were not discernable.'”
Within two hours, Glenn would be experiencing wind gusts of nearly 80 miles per hour. That massive storm that two colossal fronts had created was now smashing into the Midwest with the coverage of a hurricane and the power of a tornado (many witnesses reported the tornado-esque sound of a freight train). Along with the gale force winds came snow, some comprised of water droplets blasted by the wind into needles that made it impossible to see, others crushed to a dust-like consistency that made it nearly impossible to breathe.
As the massive blizzard blasted through each succeeding town, it largely caught everyone by complete surprise. The weather changed in the matter of a minute or two. Today, we have computerized weather models that allow forecasters to make at least general predictions far in advance. What’s more, we actually have a communication system in place that doesn’t require oats to run or fingers to tap. But in 1888, those systems didn’t exist. Even if storm warnings were given promptly, their transmission was still largely by word-of-mouth or a paper pinned up at the post office.
Some school teachers immediately released their students to race home, but it was already too late. Others kept them in the school houses to ride out the storm, but the blizzard was so violent that the buildings couldn’t keep out the cold and the wind.
Many that tried to make it home either became lost in the almost complete blindness, or succumbed to the brutal windchills. The temperatures?…some stations reported drops of 18 degrees in just three minutes.
It was a story that was played out over and over as the storm blew east and south. In its wake it left the real killer…brutal, brutal cold. Behind the storm came high pressure and Arctic air. In many midwestern locations (including the Iowa town in which I live), the historical record lows for January 12th, 13th, and 14th are still dated 1888. And the frigid blast continued south, dropping temps in Dallas into the 20’s and to near freezing as far south as Mexico.
Hundreds of children and not a few adults, disoriented by the blinding snow and exhausted by efforts to reach safety, now faced temperatures of -40°F. They simply couldn’t do it, and so they died…by the hundreds. Sadly, some of these may have been saved by 20th-century medical practices, but they, like the weather and communications systems, didn’t exist in the 19th century.
The Children’s Blizzard (so named due to the number of children lost) claimed as many as 500 lives. One historian would write, “A scene became quite familiar in many localities, the arrival of a party in quest of a doctor and bearing either on their arms or in some sort of conveyance, the half frozen body of a neighbor or two who have been exposed to the storm…”.
In the 1880’s, the Midwest was still pretty much the “wild west”, and people choosing to settle there – many amid promises of land and a bright future – quickly discovered a very harsh and unforgiving region. But nothing could really prepare these men and women for the brutality of the Children’s Blizzard.
Back east, people in the relative safety and warmth of their cities took comfort in (and sometimes boasted of) their “advanced” protection. But 1888 was just beginning, winter wasn’t nearly over, and the east would soon feel it’s wrath as well.