Blizzards in the Old West

My driveway in the early stages of clearing after a winter storm. We've been using a combination of snow blowing, shoveling and salting.
My driveway in the early stages of clearing after a winter storm. We’ve been using a combination of snow blowing, shoveling and salting.

It has been a battle keeping our long, curving, sloping driveway free of snow and ice this winter, and the experience made me wonder how people used to clear snow. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that snow removal technology hasn’t changed all that much in the past 150 years.

Matt Soniak, in “Scenes From the History of Snow Removal,” says that before the mid-1800s, towns employed snow wardens to “pack and flatten the snow with a crude vehicle called a snow roller — essentially a giant, wide wheel weighed down with rocks and pulled by oxen or horses.”

In winter, horse-drawn vehicles switched out their wheels for runners, which made them glide on snow-packed roads. Meanwhile, inventors were working on horse-drawn snow plows to clear the streets and alleys that pedestrians used more heavily than carriages. Milwaukee was the first major town to try one — in 1862. Other cities soon followed suit.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

Salt was used in a few cities [in the 1800s], but residents strongly protested salting because it ruined the streets for sleighing and damaged pedestrian’s shoes and clothing.

The site (which is a treasure trove of information for winter lovers and weather nerds) also says German settlers in Iowa coined the word “blizzard” from blitzartig, which means “lightning-like.” European pioneers were familiar with snow but not the driving winds and freezing winters of the U.S. Snowbelt region.

In the West, where people relied heavily on railroads, NSIDC said:

steam trains battled drifts with giant rotary plows, which plowed snow and blew it off the tracks at the same time [the precursor to our modern snow blowers]. Ranchers erected snow fences, which protected roads and prevented snow from drifting too high on their property.

Nevertheless, blizzards often had a dramatic impact in the 1800s. A storm in January 1886 killed 50 to 100 people and large numbers of cattle in southwest Kansas. A series of blizzards the following winter killed up to 90 percent of some ranchers’ stock, signaling the end of the cattle drives and cowboy lifestyle.

Montana was especially hard-hit in what was called the Great Die-Up. Many cattlemen turned to sheep herding or radically changed their approach to the cattle business. When spring came and all that snow melted, thousands of rotting cattle carcasses appeared across the plains and floated down the flooded rivers.

On Jan. 12, 1888, 235 people died in a snowstorm on the Great Plains that started with a sudden, dramatic drop in temperature. Most of the victims were children on their way home from isolated prairie schools in South Dakota and Minnesota. (David Laskin’s book “The Children’s Blizzard” is a riveting account of that storm.)

Buildings at Nebraska's Fort Niobrara behind piles of snow that fell in the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. Photo credit: John A. Anderson/Nebraska State Historical Society.
Buildings at Nebraska’s Fort Niobrara behind piles of snow that fell in the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. Photo credit: John A. Anderson/Nebraska State Historical Society.

The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1893 described the storm this way:

In fine clear weather, with little or no warning, the sky darkened and the air was filled with snow, or ice-dust, as fine as flour, driven before a wind so furious and roaring that men’s voices were inaudible at a distance of six feet. Men in the fields and children on their way [home] from school died ere they could reach shelter, some of them having been not frozen but suffocated from the impossibility of breathing the blizzard.

In the Northeast, a storm in March 1888 killed 400 people, and the snow drifted high enough in New York City to shut down the elevated trains that had been the only reliable source of transportation in heavy snowstorms. After that storm, Boston then New York built subway systems.

In “The Long Winter” (my favorite in the Little House series), Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the blizzards that swept across South Dakota for months in the winter of 1880-81 — and the howling, shrieking wind that shook buildings. The storms usually came on suddenly and lasted for days. The light was dim at best, a kind of long twilight. Pa used Ma’s clothesline to get back and forth from the house to the stable and dug a tunnel through the snow at one point.

A train stuck in the snow in Minnesota, March 1881.
A train stuck in the snow in Minnesota, March 1881.

The endless snow kept the trains from reaching town, and people were running out of just about everything, including food and fuel. Ingalls’ future husband, Almanzo, and his brother Royal survived by eating nothing but pancakes with molasses until Almanzo and a friend risked their lives to travel to a farm a dozen or so miles away and bring back enough bushels of wheat to last the townsfolk until spring.

And of course, it was a sudden, intense snowstorm that got the Donner party in all that trouble.

Blizzards were just one of many hardships early settlers had to endure in the Old West. They still wreak havoc today, but thanks to better weather forecasting and communications, they aren’t as deadly as they used to be. And now we have ergonomic shovels made of heavy-duty plastic and gas-powered snow blowers to keep our driveways clear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s