Freak Deadly Snowstorm:Children’s Blizzard of 1888 This week marks the anniversary of what's probably one of the most ferocious and deadly blizzards in this country which, perhaps, you've never heard about. On the morning of January 12, 1888, a blizzard swept down suddenly on the unsuspecting residents of the prairies of the upper Midwest (especially portions of Nebraska and South Dakota) . 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 instantly created a whiteout with visibility near zero. Blizzard conditions continued until about midnight as temperatures fell 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.
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 on the east coast for days to weeks. 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 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 covered the school and houses 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 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 wood that the teacher had fortunately stored.
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 satellites or computers for forecasters to come up with weather forecasts days before possible weather threats. There was some indication of a drop in temperature and snow from data available to forecasters at the time, but lack of quick and reliable communications kept word from getting out before it was far too late. We'd like to believe that advances in technology like global satellite coverage, computers, and instant communication like television and cell phones would prevent a storm of this size striking without advance notice. But surprise snowstorms remain a possibility. With today's tools though, surprises can be avoided.