Musings from the Hill/Jan. 16
The School Children’s Blizzard, Jan. 13, 1888, will forever be remembered as the greatest plains states tragedy.
The storm struck suddenly and with vengeance. It had been an unusually benign day for January. Consequently, many children left for school lightly clad, many without hats and mittens. In less than four minutes, the temperature plunged almost 20 degrees and continued to fall rapidly. Recorded temperatures were far below zero. Winds were so strong it was almost impossible for a grown man to remain upright. Icy needles of snow were driven into eyes, mouth and nose, often sealing them shut, making it difficult to breathe or see. Teachers, some barely older than their students, faced impossible decisions. Should they try for a nearby Soddy? A few made it, most did not. Visibility was zero. Some decided it was best to remain in school, hoping fathers would form groups of teams to come for their children. In a very few instances, this worked. Sometimes the school’s roof was torn off and the door torn apart. In one school, the teacher and children leaned against the door for hours — it held. Schools in town fared better than those in the country. Many stories are told of people completely lost while trying to return to their home from barns. Some blindly stumbled into a known object, such as a pump, and thus were saved.
The next morning, Jan. 14, more than 100 school children had died on the prairie. Many more were maimed for life — hands, feet, fingers and ears had to be amputated. It will be forever known in the plains states as the School Children’s Blizzard. How many others perished on the plains is not known; some estimate several hundred. Many who had struggled so hard were “wiped out” when cattle and horses froze to death. For them, it was a final defeat.
I recall my grandfather Henry van Haagen’s story of his “Blizzard of Eighty-Eight,” as it is known in the east, which occurred on March 12, 1888. This blizzard caused even greater loss of life, although not primarily of school children. My grandfather’s family lived in Philadelphia, and he remembered he was unable to get to work. Many who tried were later found frozen to lampposts, perhaps only a few steps from their front door.
Temperatures in Philadelphia, New York City and other eastern cities (as in the plains blizzard) suddenly plunged. Snow fell to a depth of over 20 inches in Philadelphia. In New York State, over 4 feet of snow fell in many places. As wires came down, drays and horses were entangled. There was no power and entire cities came to a halt. It is estimated that more than 400 people died.
My grandfather said the Delaware River froze solid. No ships were able to get to the important port of Philadelphia. Ferries were frozen solid in the river. After the tragic storm, when some sort of order had been restored, horse-drawn sleighs were able to cross over to New Jersey. Other winters, the Delaware River had frozen and light sleighs and skaters were out in force, but usually it was unsafe for heavy vehicles.
Eventually the cold arrived in southern Texas and continued on into Mexico. A light sailboat, filled with passengers headed for Galveston, was frozen in the icy bay, unable to proceed. A wealthy woman had a trunk full of clothes on board, which she distributed among the freezing people.
The middle of January is usually considered the coldest time of the year. Two-faced Janus, “The blackest month of all the year is Janiveer.” Global warming, where are you?