The 134th anniversary of the ‘Children’s Blizzard’

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One hundred thirty-four years ago, North Dakotans were hit with one of the deadliest blizzards to hit the country. It was on this day in 1888 that many in North and South Dakota, then known as the Dakota Territory, as well as Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa were waking up to a seemingly normal day. But at the day progressed, it was anything but normal.

The 1880s was a time of expansion. Many migrated from Scandinavia and Europe so they could worship as they pleased, escape poverty and start a new life. The population skyrocketed from just over 135-thousand to over a half a million. The number of farms went from just over 17-thousand to about 95-thousand. In written testimony, this land was described as a blessing with fertile ground and millions of acres to be farmed.

The new homesteaders also understood the hardships of drought, grass fires, swarms of grasshoppers and blizzards, but this blizzard tested their limits and resulted in many leaving the area.

The beginning of January that year had been brutally cold. The highs were subzero and the lows were around minus 30 in Bismarck. An unusually warm air mass moved in from the Gulf on the morning of January 12th. Many areas were reporting temperatures well above freezing, but this warmth was actually fuel to the storm that would hit later that day.

In the book, “The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin, Thomas Pirnie of Buffalo County, SD awoke to the warmth stating, “the air was like that of an April morning, with just a breath of breeze coming out of the southwest… all could hear me, ‘Oh come folks and see what beautiful morning it is. It is 32 above.”

With sparse and untimely weather data, forecasters were not able to see the “cold wave” now referred to as a “cold front.” If they were able to get timely data to show temperature and pressure drops upstream in western Montana, they would have seen the impending storm. Instead, they didn’t get the data until early the next day. A telegram went out, but it was too late. Most people were out enjoying the warmth. They had no clue these were their last kind hours.

The cold front inside this storm hit hard and was described as a wall of ice with a rumbling sound. Temperatures plunged to minus 40 with 60 mph wind. Classrooms were full for the first time since around Christmas because it was so blistering cold up until then.

In ‘The Children’s Blizzard,” Norwegian immigrant, Lars Stavig was quoted saying of his new home, “Many a brave pioneer who came out here with great hopes and plans for a long, prosperous happy life, in his own home with his own family, was cut down in the prime of life. This cruel, treacherous enemy, the blizzard, spared no one.” Lars lived in Day County of the Dakota Territory, which is now Day County, South Dakota.

The death toll has been estimated to be 200 to 500 with some dying well after the storm due to their injuries. Most of the deaths were children who died trying to get home, which is why it’s called the “Children’s Blizzard”.

The reason for the mass casualties was dues to poor construction of homes and schoolhouse, as well as the fact that weather information wasn’t as timely and readily available as it is now.

The shock was felt around the country. Newspapers from as far away as Fort Worth and Indianapolis informed other Americans of the number of people who had perished. Here is a look at a few of them:

Fort Worth, TX:

Emmons County:

Indianapolis, IN:

The book, “The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin, is a great read with testimonies from the storm as well we the synoptic weather set-up.

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