Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The great blizzard of 1888

Our Sunday-Monday ice accumulation was just enough down here in the south of Iowa to justify complaints, but not enough to cause major inconvenience (other than a whole string of school and other cancellations and closures caused by slippery streets, roads and sidewalks).

So I went back to 1888 when a storm occurred on January 12 and 13 that generally is considered to have been among the most severe in the upper Midwest and on the Great Plains. An estimated 250 to 500 people died, mostly on the open plains from Nebraska north through the Dakotas and east into parts of Minnesota and northwest Iowa, in what sometimes is called the Schoolhouse Blizzard or Schoolchildren's Blizzard.

The blizzard struck on the plains west and northwest of Iowa without warning during the daytime, catching most youngsters in school. Wise teachers kept their scholars at schoolhouses for the storm's duration; attempts by youngsters and others to make it home during the storm often proved fatal.

In Iowa, the full force of the blizzard was not felt until Thursday night when most Lucas Countyans were at home and relatively safe.

Here's how The Chariton Democrat reported on the Lucas County situation in its edition of Jan. 19, 1888, under the headline, "Bad enough if not the worst."

It is claimed by many that the storm of last week was the worst known in these parts for many years. Last Thursday morning, the snow began to fall through a mild atmosphere, accompanied by a southeasterly wind which blew it gently about but gave no warning of what was coming.

The snow continued to fall with no great change in the temperature until about 9 o'clock in the evening, when suddenly the wind changed to the northwest, blowing a terrific gale, and the thermometers seemed to be running a race to see which could reach bottom first. So fierce was the gale that it was almost impossible for belated business men to reach their homes.

The storm continued during the night, piling the newly fallen snow into huge drifts, rendering it impossible to travel on the roads throughout the country until a road was shoveled through. In many places, for half a mile at a stretch, the drifts were even with the tops of the hedge fences clear across the road. Trains were delayed on the main line of the "Q" and on the branches travel and freight traffic was abandoned Friday, and but few got through on Saturday.

Dr. Stanton was returning from a visit to the country and was several miles from Chariton when the storm burst upon him in all its fury, rendering it almost impossible for him to reach home. He got through, however, but says that it was the first time in his life that he had been out in a storm when he thought he was not going to get home, and he has been out in pretty near all of them.

The cold continued to press down on the thermometers until Saturday night, when they indicated 32 degrees below zero. It is stated by Mr. E. Gregg that this is the lowest the thermometers have went in the past 24 years.

At any rate, it was the worst storm we have had this winter, and we are fully prepared now to take some of those "extremes of heat" the Burlington weather prophet was going to give us this month. We are of the opinion that there will be plenty of ice where there is any water to freeze, notwithstanding the prediction by weather prophets that that delicacy would be rare the coming summer.


The autumn of 1888 had been exceptionally dry, one of the reasons "weather prophets" had been predicting a short supply in ice houses during 1889. That drought caused complications in Lucas County during the week after the blizzard as suppliers in the East attempted to rush carload after carload of coal to freezing customers on the Plains. Here's another report from The Democrat of Jan. 19:

Yesterday morning (Wednesday, Jan. 18) there was a blockage on the C.B.&Q. at this point which was not of small proportions, occasioned by the lack of water. The Chariton River has been dry for some time, and a well was sunk which supplied plenty of water until yesterday, when it gave out on account of the unusual number of engines attached to coal trains which took water at this point. No. 1 passenger train going west was delayed an hour and a half waiting for water to run into the well that it might be pumped into the tank. A large number of freights were also delayed, so many, in fact, that there was an almost continuous line of cars and nearly dry engines from Russell to Lucas, a distance of fifteen miles. If the present cold weather continues it is feared that the water supply of the railroad company here will fail altogether and that water will have to be hauled to supply the demand.


Most Lucas Countyans seem to have remained close to home, and safe, during the worst of the storm, but out northwest of town, Jackson Loney, for some reason chose not to. The Democrat reported, "Last Friday Jackson Loney was seven hours going from his farm to Oakley, a distance of only a few miles. He froze his ears, fingers, and toes very badly."

By Wednesday, things were getting back to normal. "Yesterday was a busy day in town," The Democrat reported. "The farmers had all been kept at home by the snow drifts and were unable to get to town until yesterday."


The storm affected life (and death) in various ways during that long-ago January. Mary Holmes, for example, died at her home in Chariton on Thursday morning, Jan. 12, at the age of 56 of consumption. Snow was just beginning to fall at the time and the storm raged all day Friday. But by Saturday, conditions had improved to the point that funeral services could be held at her home.

Mary was to be buried at Waynick (aka Holmes) Cemetery, a couple of miles southwest of Chariton, beside her husband, William S., who had died six years earlier. But there was no way that Saturday to reach the cemetery with her remains.

As a result, a path was cleared to the new Stanton Vault in the Chariton Cemetery and her remains were deposited there until the roads were cleared and a grave could be dug at her final resting place.

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