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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 01/14/2011

Freak, deadly storm: Children's Blizzard of 1888

By Steve Tracton
childrensblizzardmap.jpg
Surface weather map from 7 a.m. on January 12, 1888 showing low pressure developing over the Great Plains. Map source NOAA, obtained from extensive account of meteorological conditions associated with storm at the Weather Doctor website

This week marks the anniversary of what's probably one of the most ferocious and deadly blizzards in this country which, perchance, you've never heard about. On the morning of January 12, 1888, a blizzard swept down suddenly on the unsuspecting inhabitants on the prairies of the upper Midwest (especially portions of Nebraska and South Dakota) with unprecedented ferocity.

One moment the air was clear, calm, with spring-like warmth. Then, in a period of just a few minutes the sky darkened and temperatures dropped 18 degrees, and vicious winds drove tiny snow flakes (described as "ice dust") which almost instantaneously created a whiteout with visibility near zero. Blizzard conditions continued until about midnight as temperatures fell precipitously to double digits below zero with a wind chill of -40. An estimated 4-5 feet of snow had fallen, although drifting undoubtedly made accurate measurements virtually impossible.

By the next morning (Jan. 13), hundreds were killed with a high proportion of children among the storm's victims as they attempted to return home from school.

Laskin_cover.jpg
Cover of "The Children's Blizzard" book by David Laskin.

The storm is most commonly referred to now as "The Children's Blizzard" , which is the title of a superb non-fiction, must-read book by David Laskin documenting this tragic event. (The storm is also known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard and the Schoolchildren's Blizzard).

There is little doubt that reference to the "Great Blizzard of 1888" brings to mind, not the Children's Blizzard, but the massive snowstorm during March that year which led to over 400 deaths and shut down most cities along the eastern seaboard for days to weeks.

The Great Blizzard invariably tops the list of the worst U.S. winter storms. The lesser known Children's Blizzard ranks 5th, but affected a larger area with the death toll held down largely by the much lower population density. (Note: the Great Blizzard and Children's Blizzard rank 3rd and 5th, respectively, in the list of top ten deadliest blizzards worldwide.)

What made this storm especially deadly was the unusual warmth in the region before the storm struck.

Anyone who ventured outside wasn't properly dressed for the Arctic weather that was on its way. As fate would have it, parents sent their children off to school in the morning without heavy coats, boots, hats, or mittens, being totally unaware they could be caught in a raging blizzard on the way home that afternoon. When the blizzard suddenly struck, some teachers hunkered down with their charges in the small school houses. Many more apparently panicked at the raging storm and dismissed their classes relying on the children to somehow find their way home.

(Note: Sound familiar? Even with today's state-of-the-art weather prediction systems, forecasts come with uncertain reliability leading to the oft convoluted and controversial decisions regarding school closings, early dismissal, and/or late arrivals.)

Scores of children, along with parents, teachers and other would-be rescuers, experienced severe hypothermia from rapidly falling temperatures, fierce winds and blinding snow which buried the landscape and encased school houses and in tremendous snow drifts.

Laskin vividly describes several individual stories that end tragically. For example, dozens of kids got lost in the whiteout and froze to death or suffocated beneath the rapidly accumulating snow. One woman died after unsuccessfully searching for her child just feet from the safety of her home not visible through the blinding snow.

On the other hand, there are several suspenseful accounts of the harrowing travail of many who survived. Some children managed to find temporary shelters or bundled together for warmth in the open prairie. In one case, the teacher kept the children in the schoolhouse until the storm abated, surviving the night by the warmth of a fire fueled by the foresightedness of the teacher's stockpiling of fuel.

Laskin is also a weather geek and explains the meteorology behind the event given the available, but relatively limited sources of weather observations and analyses. This includes describing the development and progression of lows and highs, fronts, jet streams and jet streaks, which no doubt reflect the assistance in such matters when writing his book from Dr. Louis Uccellini, Director of the National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and co-author (with Paul Kocin) of Northeast Snowstorms.

To say the least, the state of the science and art of forecasting in 1888 was in the early days of development. There were no satellite observations, limited surface data and no observations aloft, let alone computers and weather models for forecasters (like Wes Junker) to peruse and come up with the best forecasts possible days in advance of possible weather threats. There were some indications of a drop in temperature and snow from surface data available to forecasters at the time, but lack of timely and reliable communications kept word from getting out before it was far too late.

We'd like to believe that advances in atmospheric science, vast system of observations, global satellite coverage, computer models, and instant communication would preclude a storm of this magnitude striking without advance notice. But surprise snowstorms remain a possibility even at short ranges to the extent the threat is communicated as a simple deterministic yes or no. With today's tools though, outright surprises can be avoided when the forecast information also includes reasonable and reliable estimates of the degree of confidence in alternative scenarios (to yes/no).

By Steve Tracton  | January 14, 2011; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  History, Latest, Tracton, U.S. Weather  
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Comments

I have heard of that storm actually. Laura Ingalls based that storm on an incident in one of her books.

Posted by: Joybuhler | January 14, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Wow, the West sounds still wild, in 1888. Glad you uncovered this...tragic storm. I hadn't heard of it, Steve! Nice report--I know it must have taken time to research all of this.

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | January 14, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

We take so much for granted all the "eyes in the skies" watching over us in these modern times.
Let it be on the record that I would never wish for a 4 foot snowstorm. Three feet is the limit ;-)

Posted by: FIREDRAGON47 | January 14, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

This really puts our DC snowstorms in perspective, especially when commentators refer to the Snowmageddon as a "megablizzard", and other ridiculous things:
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2010/02/snow-munity_in_the_blizzard_of.html

Of course, even NOAA isn't immune to the hype, making dire warnings like this one during the Snowmageddon:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/capitalweathergang/2010/02/safety.html

"4. IF YOU GET STRANDED IN YOUR VEHICLE...DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CAR TO TRY TO WALK FOR ASSISTANCE ...YOU CAN QUICKLY BECOME DISORIENTED IN WIND DRIVEN SNOW AND COLD."

Even during the worst of the Snowmageddon, wind chills never dropped far below 10, and the snow was never heavy enough to disorient a pedestrian in a dense urban environment like ours. I receive to believe that we're so helpless that we need someone to tell us to put on a coat and sweater when we go outside in the winter!

Posted by: stuckman | January 14, 2011 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Before we get too critical of watches and warnings, recall the tragedy of just a few days ago when an elderly, disoriented couple froze to death in Frederick County when they wandered away from their car.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/11/AR2011011105054.html
And remember last winter when people got caught on rural roads in the Feb 10 blizzard in Frederick County and were lucky to have made it through the ordeal.

Far too people go out in bad weather unnecessarily and wind up in dire predicaments.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 14, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the situation is different in rural areas, and that a warning like that one would be relevant for such areas. What seems incongruent to me is the perceived danger of snowstorms here in the city and the hoarding, etc, that results, compared to the true dangers associated with snowstorms in rural areas.

You show how snowstorms can become life-threatening in rural areas; meanwhile, even during the worst days of the Snowmageddon, I had no trouble getting to the store for food and supplies.

Ah, living on easy street! (Despite the traffic, murders, and other annoyances, I think the conveniences of living in this area far outweigh the drawbacks.)

Posted by: stuckman | January 14, 2011 12:11 PM | Report abuse

P.S. Firedragon, nothing wrong with a 4' snowstorm, except they don't come our way, although Big Meadows had one in 1996 and western Maryland (Keysers Ridge or Grantsville) hit the jackpot in 2003.

BTW, Keysers Ridge set an all-time Maryland snowfall record last winter: 262.5". Sweet!!
Source: http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/mdmanual/01glance/html/weather.html

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 14, 2011 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Steve, nice find! I've never heard of the storm.

Posted by: wjunker | January 14, 2011 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I remember hearing about this storm on a visit to the Nebraska State capitol (was visiting a friend who worked there and took a tour). The details were heartbreaking.

Posted by: Snowlover2 | January 14, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

@ Joybuhler...This may be one of the blizzards in Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "The Long Winter"...actually she describes several blizzards which hit DeSmet, South Dakota during the course of one particular bitterly cold snowy winter [1887/1888?].

As I recall, the first blizzard hit before Halloween in October; the snow that winter didn't entirely melt until late April or early May.

On the day of the "Schoolchildren's Blizzard", the temperature apparently was rather mild, then plunged with the frontal passage as the blizzard moved in while the children were in school. The same phenomenon was responsible for heavy loss of life many years later in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard.

The winter of 1887/88 was an extremely cold winter, the same winter that the great blizzard hit New York City in March, 1888. There may have been a Greenland block over the Atlantic that winter.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | January 14, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

The Long Winter actually tells of the 1880/1881 winter.

Posted by: weatherwatcher1 | January 14, 2011 3:46 PM | Report abuse

There was a "Little House on The Prairie" TV show episode (fiction...the book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is true) where the kids were in school on Christmas Eve and it started snowing and the teacher sent them home early and it was WAY worse than they'd though - I wonder if it was based on this event? I know other commenters have mentioned the story being told in the books, but I don't remember it specifically, I read the books when I was a kid.

Posted by: mamory1975 | January 14, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Long_Winter_(novel)

The Laura Ingalls Wilder book "The Long Winter" describes the winter of 1880-1881, which was arguably worse than 1887-88 was in the Northern Plains. There's a picture in the wiki article above that shows a train in the snow across Southern Minnesota during late March of 1881.

Posted by: phillyweather | January 14, 2011 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: phillyweather | January 14, 2011 5:52 PM | Report abuse

do these kinds of winters still happen in the prairie and the plains?

there are certainly places where 4' storms happen occasionally, right? wasatch mts?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | January 14, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

How crazy is this....this afternoon The Hallmark Channel showed the "Blizzard" episode of Little House on the Prairie! (Yes, I'm a total nerd and not only did I watch all the episodes when they were new in the 80s, I DVR them now! I hadn't seen it in years until I got FiOs and the Hallmark Channel!)

From IMDb:
Kind Miss Beadle dismisses her students early on Christmas Eve as soft snow flurries begin to fly, unaware that the children will soon be caught walking home in a deadly, howling blizzard.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0632981/

I can't seem to find out if the episode was based on the Children's Blizzard or not. "Ripped from the Headlines" is not an original idea in storytelling! :-)

Posted by: mamory1975 | January 14, 2011 9:30 PM | Report abuse

I'm going to have to read the book on this January 1888 storm. Thanks for bringing it up. For those who want to read a book about the other blizzard of 1888 (in March on the East Coast), I recommended a book by author Mary Cable that I read many years ago and is still available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Blizzard-88-Mary-Cable/dp/0689115911 Even in an urban area, the March 1888 blizzard rivaled the January 1888 Plains blizzard in its dangers and sudden onslaught. There was bravery and foolishness. New Yorkers knowingly risked their lives to get to work, as not showing up to work in those days was grounds for immediate firing, no matter what. Also, the ice jams in the East River was a stunning phenomenon that amazed people and beckoning them to foolishly wander out on it. This is all in the book.

Posted by: ronbcust | January 15, 2011 11:39 PM | Report abuse

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