Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Iowa's deadliest blizzard kills 20: Jan. 7-8, 1886

I wrote yesterday about the "Schoolhouse Blizzard" of 1888 on the northern Plains, getting the cart a little ahead of the horse by failing to mention that Iowa's deadliest storm --- reports usually state that 20 died as a result of it --- had occurred two years earlier, on Jan. 7 and 8, 1886. 

The 1888 blizzard struck Iowa in the night, when most were at home, and so there were few reports of deadly consequences in the state. The 1886 storm  moved in earlier in the day and it had been five years since the last storm of such magnitude had struck the state --- on March 2-4 1881. The 1886 blizzard caught many Iowans unprepared and the deaths that resulted were scattered from southern Iowa to the far north. The photograph here, found online, reportedly was taken in Cherokee after the 1886 winds had stopped blowing.

The editor of Chariton's Democrat, setting type as the wind continued to blow on Friday, Jan. 8, reported the storm's development in Lucas County as follows:

"For the past two or three weeks the weather in this part of Iowa has been remarkable for mildness. there was a general break up of the short season of severe weather we had in the early part of December, and indications pointed to a general open winter. No ice, was the fear of the ice men. Then followed a week of rainy weather, growing colder Saturday; and Sunday last, the rain froze as it fell, covering the earth with ice and literally breaking down the trees with the accumulated load. Yesterday (Thursday), a blizzard from the west hurled drifting snow about promiscuously, the mercury rapidly sinking. Last night the thermometer indicted 15 degrees below zero at 8 o'clock and 25 degrees this morning. We shall probably have winter enough."

Lucas Countyans were lucky, however, and rode out the storm with no serious consequences. Passengers on a north-bound train that left the C.B.&Q. depot at 5 p.m. Friday were, however, inconvenienced. They were headed for Des Moines via Indianola when the engine got stuck in snow drifts just south of Ackworth and they were forced to spend the night there aboard their passenger cars. A crew from Chariton reached the stranded train on Saturday morning, shoveled it out and those aboard finally reached their destination at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Reports of more serious consequences began to appear in The Iowa State Register, published in Des Moines, on Sunday, Jan. 10:

"GRIMES, Jan. 9 --- Early this morning Ben Zickafoose, living two miles south of Grimes, came in and reported that a man had been frozen to death about 40 rods south of his place. A party was at once made up, and on reaching the place the man was found to be Mr. Wm. Cook, an English farmer, about 55 years of age, and living about two miles from Grimes. He had gone to Des Moines Thursday, where he was caught in the storm, and when two miles from home had wandered from the road, and in the blinding storm had driven onto a pond, the ice broke, he made an effort to free the team, but was unsuccessful. Both horses were found dead with one tug fast to the sleigh. The bewildered man then started on foot across the prairie, and had got about twenty rods from the sled, when, overcome by cold, wet and fatigue, he fell on his face and was found frozen stiff. He was forty rods from a house and ten rods from a hay stack, but in the blinding snow it was impossible to see anything. The body was taken care of and the family notified. The family are in needy circumstances, but people here in town sent out coal and provisions enough to meet all immediate needs."

CRESTON, Jan. 9 --- Henry Teri, an aged citizen, was engaged yesterday in drivinig a coal team for E. Q. Soulman, and on his way home in the evening he was overcome with the cold and was found in the street in a semi-conscious state, by some citizens and cared for. He died at 12:15 this morning. He leaves a wife and little daughter in destitute circumstances.

It's difficult to judge the accuracy of the claim that 20 died as a result of the 1886 storm. There was no central reporting agency, no statewide news services and reports of fatalities began to spread in most cases only after they were reported in local weekly newspapers.

And in some instances, death reports turned out to be inaccurate. The Register, for example, killed off John Shipley, of Bedford, in its Jan. 10th edition, then was forced to resurrect him in the form of a correction in later editions.

Reports of the death of a young school teacher in northwest Hancock County did not begin to circulate until early in the week following the storm when the following report was carried in several newspapers:

"BRITT --- Miss Bertha Nelson, a young lady teaching school seven miles northwest of town, was frozen to death during the last storm. Thursday morning she started to school with several children, and the storm being so fierce they remained in the school house all night. A man living near there took provisions to them Friday morning and told them not to leave the building as he would take them home with his team as soon as the storm abated. Friday afternoon, the teacher and children started for home, the nearest home being a quarter of a mile distant. They had gone but a short distance when she went back to the school house for something she had left, and told them she would overtake them. On reaching the house, the father of one of the children saw them, and took the six year old boy into the house and inquired for their teacher. Being told she was coming, he started toward the school house and called her name all the way. Not finding her, and the school house being locked, he went home and supposed she had reached her boarding place. Saturday he called there, and was astonished to learn that she had not been seen since Thursday. Search was made for her on Sunday and Monday, and word sent to Britt for help. Tuesday morning about forty men went, and her body was found on the prairie about a mile and half from the school house, and half a mile from her boarding place. She was frozen stiff. Her brother was telegraphed for and arrived Wednesday night. He starts tonight for Keokuk, with her remains. His name is Aven Nelson and he is principal of the High School at Ferguson, Mo."

(Bertha, age 29, was a daughter of Christen and Anna Nelson, natives of Norway, and is buried in the Scandinavian Cemetery, Lee County.)

That same report also contained the news that "A young man named Carl Berner, living in the southern part of (Hancock) county, started for Corwith at 4 a.m. Thursday for a doctor. The storm commenced and increased so fast that he was benumbed with cold. Coming up to a house, he inquired the way, supposing he was lost. He was found to be on the right road, but was urged to remain until the storm ceased. He went on and was lost. He found a haystack and unhitched his team and tried to burrow into the stack. The team went home alone, and on following the tracks his neighbors found him on one side of the stack, frozen to death."

This report also stated that "one man at Forest City, another at Belmond and a women and two children at Algona were also frozen to death," but I was unable to find other reports that confirmed those deaths. The Algona report seems to have been false; January reports in the newspapers of that city mention no such occurrance.

On Jan. 13, the following death was reported in Humboldt newspapers: "A man named Peterson, living three miles from Goldfield, was frozen to death last Friday afternoon while on his way to bring his nine-year-old boy from school. He was not discovered until Monday night."

The Burlington Hawk Eye reported on Jan. 13 three deaths in Union County that I could not confirm through other reports: "Word comes to us from Creston that a man, wife and child were frozen to death near the north line of Union county. They were riding in a sleigh and were overtaken by the blizzard. One of the horses was also frozen to death."

And the Carroll Sentinel of Jan. 15 carried the following report, attributing it to the Denison Bulletin: "Mr. Frank Wingrove, of Washington township, was frozen to death within half a mile of his home last Wednesday night. He left Dow City afoot for home, three miles distant, about 10 o'clock at night, and as appearances indicate did not leave the road until he was within a mile from home, when he took a short cut across to lessen th distance. In the intense darkness that preceded the coming storm it is supposed he became bewildered after leaving the road, and soon succumbed to the bitter cold of that dismal midnight. His body was found by searching parties late in the afternoon Saturday, and that night the sad intelligence was conveyed to his father, who was snow-bound in Denison. The deceased was a popular farmer who was well respected and stood high in  his neighborhood. He was about 30 years of age, and leaves a wife and two children to mourn the loss of husband and father."

Although the storm was over by Saturday, its aftermath could prove deadly, as this report from The Iowa State Register of Wednesday, Jan. 13, datelined Council Bluffs, Jan. 12, proves:

"Thomas Delisle is a farmer residing ten miles south of the city (Council Bluffs). Saturday his son, Louis, came to town to do trading. In the evening he started for home, and when some distance from here the team took fright and ran away, throwing Delisle out. He got up and gave chase and caught the team in a snow drift three miles from the city. He extricated them, and while hitching up they started again, throwing him down. One wheel passed over his breast. he again gave chase, but he soon fell exhausted from his injuries. The mule team finally reached home. Mr. Delisle and a party hastened in search of his son. The search was continued all night Saturday, and Louis was discovered near Willow Slough bridge with both hands holding to a barb wire fence and his arms frozen stiff. He was in a kneeling position, both legs frozen and could not move. The thermometer was 25 degrees below zero. He had dragged himself for a mile. He was carried home and died that night."

No comments: