The Schoolchildren's Blizzard Of 1888
Across The Fence
This past week has been one of unseasonably mild weather. With temperatures having been in the above average range of upper thirties and lower forties, our light jacket days came to an abrupt halt this past Friday when a well-predicted cold front barreled through the panhandle. Heavy, moisture-laden fog drew a grey curtain over the early morning sunrise and settled in a frozen layer of slick mist on every exposed surface. As crystal flakes began to fall, a gusty northwest wind whipped the flurry of snow into a brief, but threatening blizzard. Drivers slipped and slid on unexpected black ice and not so careful travelers found themselves traveling sideways down four lane highways.
My son-in-law hauled in extra armloads of firewood for their fireplace and I kicked the furnace up a notch to ward off the freezing draft that sneaked in under the west door. This morning, Saturday January 12, I pulled on an extra heavy Henley covered by an old wool hunting shirt. The thermometer at my desk showed that it was minus 4.9 degrees on the front porch. I pulled on my coat and grabbed my hat to go outside, opened the door to the breath-taking cold and ventured out. The dogs refused to leave the house. Friends near Alamosa, Colorado reported that it was a crisp, minus 25. But I’m not complaining. After all, it is winter and any moisture we can get is welcome. Besides, it could easily be a whole lot worse.
Winter 1888: Throughout the Great Plains, from Idaho to Montana, through Wyoming across the prairies of North and South Dakota and down into Nebraska, from the leeward side of the Canadian Rockies to the Texas Gulf, an early January deep freeze had gripped the region. January 11, 1888 brought relief from the sub-zero temperatures when, in some areas, the mercury soared upward to nearly 60 degrees. It must have felt like spring.
The following day, Thursday January 12, began as a welcome sequel of the day before. Grangers and cattlemen, storekeeps and bankers left home without the layers of cumbersome clothing and heavy coats that the previous week had required. School children rushed out from their homes into the bright sunshine of a cloudless sky without being cautioned by anxious mothers to bundle up. Winter coats, hats, scarves and boots were carelessly left behind.
The pleasant change of weather manifested itself in the boisterous antics of classroom clowns and giggling girls in pigtails, petticoats and pinafores. By morning recess, the almost balmy weather dictated outdoor activities and the classroom confinement gave way to games of tag, fox and geese and blind mans’ bluff. After burning off excess enthusiasm, morning classes continued until lunchtime. In small towns across the region some children went home for lunch, but on this day would not return for afternoon classes. They were some of the more fortunate. In rural schools, scattered across the plains, students ate at their desks or, perhaps on this day, in some sun warmed spot on the playground.
Shortly after lunchtime, as classes reconvened, most did not notice the towering black cloud that rose up from the northern horizon. The arctic blast slammed into the Great Plains with all the fury of a tropical hurricane. It was said that the wind howled so furious and ferociously that a man yelling at the top of his voice could not be heard from six feet away. In regions of North Dakota the temperature dropped from a high of near 50 degrees above zero to a deadly 45 below, a temperature change of almost 100 degrees in the span of a few hours. As far south as the The Lone Star State, temperatures dropped so far below freezing that for the first time known to man, ice
on the Colorado River accumulated to a thickness of one foot. Swirling ahead of the gale-force winds, icy torrents of snow, fine as sifted flour, obliterated the view of anything beyond the length of an outstretched arm. The driven snow would blind both men and beasts, suck the life-breath from frozen lungs and suffocate many who were forced to face what some called an icy hell.
The storm raged for all of the afternoon and on into the fearsome night. By early morning, long sweeping snowdrifts were piled to depths of six feet and more. Across the whole of the Great Plains, beneath a blanket of snow, 235 people lay dead or dying. Of those 235 frozen souls, 213 were school-aged children. In Nebraska alone, nearly 100 school children perished. The Great Plains blizzard of 1888 would be known as the Children’s Blizzard.
From out of that tragic day came stories of unimaginable suffering and of incredible courage and heroism.
In Holt County, Nebraska, nineteen-year-old Etta Shattuck was a teacher in a small town one-room school. When the blizzard struck she dismissed her students, who all lived close by, and sent them home. Unfortunately, Miss Shattuck lived some distance from the school and became lost as she battled the driving winds and blinding snow. In her blinded struggles she stumbled onto a haystack and managed to burrow her way into the stack. The driven snow piled up over her sheltering place and froze solidly, trapping her inside. Through all of that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and until early Sunday morning she remained undiscovered. Daniel D. Murphy, a local rancher, found her when loading hay for his cattle. Barely alive and suffering from exposure and hunger Miss Shattuck’s feet and legs were frozen. Complications from the amputation of her legs claimed her young life on February 6.
In York County, near Plainfield, Nebraska Miss Loie Royce had nine students in her charge. Six of them went home for lunch and remained there safe from the storm. Her three other students stayed with Miss Royce in the schoolhouse until mid-afternoon when she ran out of fuel. Nearby was a boarding house, less than 100 yards away, and Miss Royce determined to take her students there. Disoriented by the howling wind and swirling snow the group became lost. One little boy perished that afternoon and Miss Royce gathered the other two close to her and struggled to keep them warm, huddled beneath her coat. By nightfall the other little boy died and in the early morning the third child gave up her spirit. Miss Royce was found, frozen and numb with grief. Her blackened feet had to be amputated.
One teacher in Winner, South Dakota sent his pupils home and stayed at the schoolhouse for the night. He survived, his twelve students did not and their frozen bodies were found the next bitter cold morning on the stark expanse of drifted prairie.
Perhaps the most frequently related story was that of schoolteacher Minnie Freeman of Valley County, Nebraska. She kept her students at the school until the fierce winds ripped the roof off the building. She then courageously led her seventeen students, through the icy blast of the killing storm and to the safety of her place of boarding, nearly a mile away. The heroism of this incredible feat is captured by the work of Nebraska artist Jeanne Reynal in the grippingly haunting mosaic on the wall of the Nebraska State Capitol Building.
Miss Mary Kieff of Carkins School near Hastings, Nebraska wrote this brief remembrance:
“…by 3 o’clock we had to abandon study, it became so dark. The larger boys formed a chain reaching to the coal shed and passed in at least a half ton of coal. We had a fine time the fore part of the night. We ‘spelled down’, sang, organized a debate and recited everything from ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ to ‘Spartacus and the Gladiators of Rome.’ From midnight the hours dragged slowly though, as we dared not go to sleep it was so cold. … I got roundly scored by some pious mamas, whose youngsters I cared for, for having played a game of cards during the night with some of the pupils, and one of the district dads wanted to deduct one day’s wages because I didn’t keep school the next day nor make it up.”
What a great way to thank a teacher for saving the lives of their children. It appears that common sense was on the wane even way back then.
The stories of awful death and incredible survival are many, too many to relate here, so I’ll close with this final piece.
Emma Lucas of Adams, Nebraska survived with her 40 students by remaining at the schoolhouse until rescued later that afternoon. She remembered that her students began classes with their usual opening exercises on that warm, sun-shining day with this somewhat prophetic poem:
“Through the doorway came the sunshine
In a stream of molten gold
Like a dream of brightest glory
Down the rifted sides it rolled
While a child upon the carpet
Laughing ran to where it lay
With his little hands extended
Like a dream it fled away.
Still the child upon the carpet
Gazed upon the vacant floor
Waiting, watching for the sunshine
Which would come that day no more.”
M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, e-mail; [email protected]