Wapsie Experience (1/12/17)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, January 11, 2017
As I begin this column, the wind chill outside my Ken Morrison condo is below zero in rural Wapsie township; all I need is very high wind and blinding snow out my window to duplicate what I am about to describe.

Today, January 12, 2017 is the 129th anniversary of the Great Blizzard of 1888, also known at "The Children's Blizzard."

I am grateful to my sister, Jo Ann, who three Christmases ago, gave me the book, "The Children's Blizzard" by David Laskin, which was published in 2004 by Harper Perennial. It graphically documents the tragic events of that January day of death and the days following.

Laskin begins his chilling tale with the prologue: "On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent. Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon. The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar and a wall of ice dust blasted the prairie.

Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything exposed to the wind. The cold front raced

down the undefended grasslands like a crack unstoppable army. Montana fell before dawn; North Dakota went while farmers were out doing their early morning chores; South Dakota during morning recess; Nebraska as school clocks rounded toward dismissal.

In three minutes the front subtracted 18 degrees from the air's temperature.

Then evening gathered in and temperatures kept dropping steadily, hour after hour, in the northwest gale. Before midnight, wind chills were down to 40 below zero. That's when the killing happened. By morning on Friday the thirteenth, hundred of people lay dead on the Dakota and Nebraska prairie, many of them children who had fled, or dismissed from country schools at the moment when the wind shifted and the sky exploded."

The number of dead in the storm was estimated as between 250 and 500. The following year, the Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania and in 1900, the Galveston, Texas hurricane killed far more Americans; but this tragic Great Plains episode remains more embedded in the nation's consciousness.

General Adolphus Greely, head of the nation's weather forecasting service at the time, stated: "shortly after this storm the use of the word blizzard became tolerably frequent in the northwestern parts to indicate such cold anti-cyclone storms as are attended by drifting snow."

Weather forecasting in the nation was in its early stages. Communications on the Great Plains was poor; telegraph linked cities, but there was no system to warn country folk.

This day started with mild temperatures; in Valentine, Nebraska it was 30 degrees above zero early that morning; it fell to 6 degrees below zero by early afternoon and it was 35 below zero that night and the night following.

Weather observers at the St. Paul, Minnesota weather station noted that in northern Montana the atmospheric pressure had dropped sharply; 27.31 inches of mercury Wednesday night to 27.06 the next morning and in ten hours on Jan. 12th it dropped to 26.76. Bismarck, North Dakota also reported a falling barometer and rising temperatures; in Huron, Dakota further south, the temperature went from 20 below at 7 in the morning to 2 below at three in the afternoon. The warm chinook wind which had blown out of the southwest was now blowing out of the northwest with winds reaching 50 miles an hour.

The storm hit Lincoln, Nebraska at 3:00 pm that afternoon. Beautiful snow had been falling all morning; but then, as Laskin describes it, "the sky suddenly blackened and the wind veered from south to north. Four minutes later it was impossible to see even the outlines of buildings across the street. All the city streetcars were immediately taken in...a few last struggling hackneys battled the rapidly mounting drifts. Pedestrians ran for their lives."

The blizzard arrived in Omaha an hour later and the state of Iowa enters the story as follows: Citizens from Omaha that day had traveled to Council Bluffs to celebrate a new bridge between the two states. Some four hundred sleighs and cutters had crossed to Iowa on the partially frozen river.

The plan had been to dine and dance in Council Bluffs and return home by starlight. There was no safe way to return home as the bridge was narrow and the Missouri had gaping holes in its icy cover; so not wanting to risk icy death, they remained in Iowa over night.

Further east in Des Moines, a procession was forming on the inaugural day of Governor William Larrabee who had won his second term. The troops from Davenport set to escort him to the State Capitol never arrived, delayed by the storm.

So the gubernatorial carriage slowly traveled through snow drifts to a small crowd in the Capital rotunda (I'll guess that a few of my readers are surprised that Terry Branstad wasn't our Governor then).

I consulted a web site named "Iowa Old Press" to look for information on Iowans affected by this historic storm. St. Paul sources reported the following: “In Sioux City, Iowa, an unknown man perished; in Inwood, Iowa, Mrs. Fitzgerald and two children" "The Omaha line to Sioux City is badly plugged up.Over 200 miles of track in Dakota, with the snow averaging fifteen feet deep, has been cleared by one plow in sixteen hours."

Very tragic news reported from Dubuque, Iowa on January 18th. "The fatalities of the late blizzard on the prairie districts of Iowa are gradually being made public. Byron Cleveland of Manchester, Delaware County, has received information that his two sons, aged 15 and 17 years were frozen to death during the storm, together with 90 head of cattle.

The boys were driving the cattle to water, about a mile from the house, when the blizzard struck them, and their dead bodies have just been found. The cattle were frozen stiff.

John Olney was found in a snow drift near Marathon in Buena Vista County, frozen dead. Miss May Henning and a boy named Julius, twelve years of age, started in a sleigh to attend a party, in company with two young men. When the storm struck them they lost their way and the young men deserted the lady and the boy and reached a farmhouse in safety.

The deserted pair remained out in the storm all night and in the morning they were found partially covered with snow. The young lady will lose both legs and the boy's hands and feet were badly frozen. He was saved from death by the brave girl, who wrapped him in the only blanket left them."

One report from neighboring Nebraska was sadly typical of the stories that came out of the Dakota territory as well as the Cornhusker state.

“Charles Gray, living near Tekomah, died yesterday from exposure in Thursday's storm. He walked all night between his horses to keep from freezing and was found a half mile from home by neighbors, badly frozen. Miss Louise Royce, a school teacher, eight miles from Plainview had but three pupils on the day of the storm.

She started at 2 o'clock with the children for a house about twenty rods distant, but lost her way. All lay down in the snow and Miss Royce wrapped up the little ones as best she could. Early in the night one child died and later a second one and just as morning broke the third succumbed to the cold. Miss Royce Royce than managed to reach the house, less than twenty rods away. Both her feet are badly frozen and they will likely have to be amputated."

I have a direct family connection with this infamous storm, it involves Daniel Stephen Nolan and his wife, Bridget Moylan. This couple would be my great-great aunt and uncle. Bridget was the sister of Julia Moylan Tucker, my great grandmother. Here's what happened to Dan according to the written story passed on to me many years ago by the Wallick family.

“The winter of 1887 and 1888 was a bad winter with very cold weather and lots of snow. In the early part of 1888, Dan Nolan decided that a neighbor man, who was sick, needed to be taken to Armour, South Dakota to the doctor. He bundled him up and they went to Armour; they saw the doctor and did the other errands that Dan had to do, and then they started for home.

There was a blizzard in progress and they should have stayed in town until it was over, but Dan wanted to get home to Bridget and the four children, Margaret, Johannah, Thomas and John, so they could see that they were safe in the storm. In the wind and the snow, they lost their way and soon did not know which way was home.

They seemed to be going in circles; the neighbor suggested to Dan that he let the horses "have their head" and they would find the way home, but Dan didn't think they would.

It was very hard going and the horses could hardly keep going. Dan decided that he would take off on foot and try to find help. He took off his big coat and wrapped the sick man up and tied him to the sleigh so he would stay warm and he started off.

The next thing we know is that some Indians found him laying in the snow, and partly frozen. They took him to their camp, and started to take care of him for the frost bite. The horses and the sleigh turned up at home, and as soon as the storm was over, his brother, James started off to search for Dan.

They found Dan with the Indians, who begged them to leave him and they would continue to care for him and would bring him through all right. James refused to do this, so they took Dan home and sent for the doctor from Armour and his family started to doctor him.

The doctor and the priest, both from Armour came, but Dan died two days later. They buried him in a clump of trees on the elder Nolan's property. They intended to take him up and take him to Iowa to be buried. I never heard whether they did or not.

When Dan died, Bridget was pregnant. They already had five small children. Bridget headed back to Cedar Valley, Iowa and we think her sister, Julia Moylan Tucker paid the expenses, as the Tuckers did have some money. In Cedar County, Lenore, the sixth child was born there. Bridget met Benjamin Parks, a tavern owner in Cedar Bluffs, they married and lived happily ever after.

So much for the brutal and heartbreaking blizzard of 1888. Next time I will research the West Liberty Index, Muscatine Journal, and Iowa City Press-Citizen, to see just how this historic, unforgiving storm affected our area.

Finally congratulations to my many, many Ruess cousins as it was exactly 100 years ago next week that Albert Ruess married Marguerite Gatens at St. Joseph Church in Cedar Valley. Look what they started with their nuptial vows. I'm glad they did!
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