“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 crust blasted the prairie. Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything exposed to the wind . . . 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 degrees below zero. That’s when the killing happened. . . ” From the Prologue of “The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin
So it was that, from this first paragraph, I was mesmerized by the horrific blizzard on the Dakota-Nebraska prairie in 1888.
I have always been fascinated with the pioneering spirit that helped shape the United States, particularly of the stories of the determined settlers of the vast prairies. From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books to Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and Lauraine Snelling’s books about Norwegian immigrant settlers in the Dakota Territory, the great western migration fascinates me. . .
. . . and so it was that while browsing Cornerstone Books, a used book store in Villa Park, that “The Children’s Blizzard” caught my attention. With two other books in my hands, I sat at the big, round, wooden table and peeked under the covers. It was David Laskin’s book that captured my attention and followed me home, with change in my pocket from the five dollar bill used for the purchase.
I think I am a homesteader of prairie books. I often wonder why I am so fascinated by this time and place in history, especially when I know of how difficult the life was for these pioneers. I could never have endured what these pioneers did. I admire their grit, their faith, their determination to bequeath a better life for the children they bore.
“The Children’s Blizzard” is non-fiction and covers the great and ferocious blizzards of the 1870/80’s in the upper midwestern prairie, particularly the blizzard that became known as the Children’s Blizzard of January 12/13, 1888. It is so-called because so many schoolchildren died or were seriously maimed by this blizzard, which came up suddenly, on a rather balmy day, while they were in school. The book is filled with the children’s stories; the horror, the fear, the bravery . . . and it is filled with relevant weather facts, conditions, and of how weather was predicted in the 1880s.
I will confess that I skipped some of the weather facts. What I did read was fascinating. I don’t think of weather forecasting in the 1880’s. Of course, it did exist. It was the U.S. Signal Corp, which was part of the army, and its indications officers (forecasters), who maintained the department and predicted weather. This storm was actually predicted. It was a series of human errors and the often “iffy” systems in place for weather warnings via telegraphs that made for a perfect storm of snow, ice, winds and a populace unaware of the danger ahead. Many of the terms used in the book, such as polar jet, are terms that are still used and were used repeatedly through our long winter here.
I closed the book haunted by the tragedies I witnessed through reading and grateful for the advances we have made in weather prediction. My cabin fever and discomfort this winter were nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the deprivations and tragedy of over 100 years ago. It is good, is it not, to be reminded of the blessings in our lives?