Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Blizzard of ’49 began 70 years ago today

By Con Marshall

Of all the events that have occurred since pioneers arrived in this part of the country about 135 years ago, few have caused more hardships than the Blizzard of ’49. Deep snow, high winds and bitter cold combined to make it unforgettable to anyone who experienced it. By comparison, it has made 99 percent of the storms before and since seem mild.

Not only was the original blast, which began on Sunday, Jan. 2, 1949—70 years ago—a ferocious one, but the conditions persisted for nearly two months. The duration of the harsh weather helped make the blizzard historic.

Only some winters in the 1880s could match ’49’s knockout punch, old-timers reported. The blizzard covered a wide area. The entire western half of the United States felt its sting. It brought the hardest freeze to California in 35 years and snow fell in places that don’t usually receive snow, such as Los Angeles and Phoenix.

But no area suffered more than western Nebraska and the neighboring regions in South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. At least 61 inches of snow fell at the Chadron airport during January.   From January 18 to 27 the temperature was below zero every night with an extreme of 29 below recorded on January 21. The month was Chadron’s coldest ever, according to Weather Bureau records. The average temperature in January was 7.3 degrees, more than 15 degrees below average.

Lots of hardship

The siege brought hardship to everyone. Farmers and ranchers were hard-pressed to keep their livestock alive, railroaders found that getting the trains through was impossible, many vehicles were piled under huge drifts, some rural schools were not in session for more than a month, and food and fuel supplies became desperately low in numerous locations.

It finally took the 5th Army, one of the world’s most powerful forces, to dig out western Nebraska. The unit’s huge bulldozers, along with those from a couple of Colorado construction companies, worked for three weeks in Dawes County before everyone was liberated by “Operation Snowbound.”

The storm cost millions of dollars, but amazingly, the loss of human life was not high and livestock deaths amounted to less than 10 percent in northwest Nebraska, although some stockmen suffered more heavily.

The manager of the Chadron Municipal Airport, Solomon (Sully) Luft, reported at least 40 inches of snow fell from Jan. 2 through Jan. 5, although he admitted there was really no way of measuring it because of the extremely high winds.

Drifts of 10-20 feet were the rule rather than the exception and in some rural areas drifts 40 feet in height piled in canyons.

Most Chadron stores did not open for business, and few ranchers ventured more than a few yards away from their buildings on Wednesday, January 5, which was the worst day.

Chadron’s Main Street was reduced to a single lane and stayed that way for a couple of weeks. About the time the roads and railroad tracks could be cleared, another blast would strike and clog things up again.

It was at least January 28 before the first freight train from the east reached Chadron and the railroad didn’t resume full operations until mid-February.

The first train from the west into Chadron arrived on February 1 and carried a fleet of Army bulldozers. Pictures taken in western Nebraska showing mountain-sized drifts towering high above the old steam engines were run in nearly every daily newspaper in the nation.

When he retired in 1975,  Lib DiTonto, a Chicago & NorthWestern engineer, recalled he was stranded in Cody, Nebraska, for 21 days because of the blizzard. At one point, the C&NW reported it had 1,000 cars of freight headed west that were backed up in Long Pine.

The Burlington Railroad said it spent $1 million clearing its tracks. A Burlington official said at the end of February: “Nowhere in the 100 years of existence of the railroad is there any record of a storm so severely intense, prolonged and widespread as we’ve experienced these past three months.

Help finally arrived

U.S. Army "Weasel" -
Photo courtesy of Casper College History Center 
The first outside help for Dawes County came from two Army weasels (small, full-track vehicles) from the Lowry Field Air Rescue Squadron in Denver. They arrived around January 21 and ran relief missions to rural families. Toboggans were quickly built to skid behind the weasels, which could pull about a ton of supplies.

The weasels spent nearly three weeks in the county, much of it on the Table south of Chadron, where some estimated up to 100 inches of snow fell.  One family said that the weasel crewmen were the first outsiders they had seen in 30 days.

When a weasel crew reached the Bob and Ruby Soester farm 15 miles east of Crawford on February 7, they found 86 dozen eggs piled on the kitchen floor in every type of basket and container. The incident even made the Denver Post.

Lola Soester Garner of Crawford, then a seven-year-old, remembers that when the family finally did go to town to sell the eggs and get supplies, they got stuck and had to be pulled out by a neighbor.

Nebraska National Guard C-45 aircraft also
provided assistance during the 1949 blizzard
(Nebraska History photo collection)
Following the weasels was “Operation Haylift,” organized by the Chadron Jaycees. A total of 1,854 bales of hay were dropped from C-47 transport planes to starving livestock on 29 ranches in the Chadron area.

The Chadron Milling Co. reported distributing the equivalent of 22 railroad carloads of livestock feed in January before running out of oats and barley until new shipments arrived by rail.

Then came the bulldozers. The Hesser Construction Co. of Greeley, Colo., had 15 bulldozers working out of Chadron to go with those from the Army.   Eight more bulldozers operated out of Crawford.

An Army report stated that crews opened 450 miles of county roadways, 2,000 miles of trails and roads through ranchland, reopened 500 to 600 miles of roadway and liberated an estimated 26,000 cattle during the three weeks the equipment spent in Dawes County.

There was virtually no travel on the county roads on the Table in January.  Around February 1 more than 20 cars, several trucks and a bus were finally dug out of drifts along Highway 19 (now 385) across the Table.

Numerous pilots flew mercy missions transporting expectant mothers and the ailing to hospitals, dropping food and medicines in isolated spots and locating marooned livestock. They also dropped countless packages of food to farm and ranch homes throughout the region.

The Red Cross had handbills printed and dropped from planes, suggesting people in need of help to use blankets, hay or other contrasting materials to make codes in the snow that could be seen from the air.

Afterwards, it was admitted that few of the messages, even if they were attempted, proved useful because the continuing wind and snow probably obliterated them before they could be spotted by pilots.

Livestock losses mixed

The livestock losses were significant, but not as severe as during some winters in the 1880s. The vast Bay State Cattle Company, which headquartered in Banner County, reported its herd was reduced from 150,000 to 50,000 head during the winter of 1885-86.

The cattle losses in ’49 were heaviest in the Sandhills, where they drifted onto the frozen lakes. The Furman Ranch in southern Dawes County had 30 head of yearlings die in the Niobrara River.

Pete Witte of Chadron remembered that his parents lost about 100 head of spring calves in the storm on their Mule Creek unit on the Pine Ridge Reservation about 14 miles north of Oglala, S.D.  He was attending Chadron High School at the time. A pilot flew him home so he could help with the livestock, but he recalls he couldn’t do much because the snow was so deep that even horses “played out” in a short time while trying to check on livestock that was away from the ranch headquarters.

Witte also recalled that because there was so much moisture in the storm his family put up lots of prairie hay the following summer. He said while mowing around the Fourth of July along the south side of a canyon he spotted a small snow drift which had lasted six months after the storm arrived.

The United Press reported an estimated 174,200 cattle and 153,200 sheep valued at more than $29 million died during the first 35 days of the blast in Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Some unusual stories appeared once the weather let up and ranchers could search for their critters. Jim Blundell dug out three geese that had been buried for 27 days and reported them to be in good health on his farm in southern Dawes County west of Dunlap.  Deadhorse rancher Elam Grantham found three hogs alive under a 12-foot drift.    A horse owned by Bruce Parsons south of Harrison was found alive trapped in a shed, although five other horses in the shed were dead.

Chadron railroader G.A. Linn recalled that near Van Tassel some cattle had wandered down the tracks and fell through the ties on a bridge. When a snowplow reached the scene, some were still alive, although their feet and legs were frozen so badly that they had to be destroyed.

Several humans died

As far as human suffering was concerned, the Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation, some of whom were living in tents, were hit the hardest.   Federal funds were eventually made available to assist them.

Several persons died in the region, although the toll could have been much higher.

The first victim apparently was Harriett “Mammy” Brown, of Gordon, an 85-year-old black lady whose frozen body was found in her home soon after the storm began.

Among others who perished were a young Crawford man, Wayne Yohe, who began walking when his pickup hauling pigs became stranded north of Cheyenne; a farmer near Hemingford whose body was found by a train crew; two Alliance Civil Air Patrol flyers whose plane hit some telegraph lines and crashed into a house; and an Alliance gas deliveryman whose body was found beside a haystack after his truck stalled,

Others were luckier. After the roof had blown off of their trailer house during the night of Monday, January 3, a young Mirage Flats couple, Kenneth and Audrey Peck and their 18-month-old son, Jerry, nearly didn’t make it to the Leon Glenn home only 200 yards away.

The Pecks, who were still living on the Mirage Flats when they were interviewed in 2010, remembered the ordeal well.

It was a miracle that we made it,” Audrey said. “We wandered around quite a while because we couldn’t see where we were going. We were so cold and tired. I finally fainted and dropped the lantern I was carrying. When I did that, Kenneth caught a glimpse of the Glenns’ house. He was able to take Jerry to the house and then came back and got me.

However, several of Jerry’s fingers were frozen during the ordeal and required medical attention.

In addition, two snowplow crewmen survived a 19-mile hike from their snowbound plow in Sioux County to Fort Robinson.

Blizzard stories told

Bill & Virginia Coffee
(Photo courtesy of Chadron State College) 
A story written in the mid-1990s by Moni Hourt of Crawford told how Sioux County rancher Bill Coffee left his wife and daughters at the Hat Creek Ranch north of Harrison when the storm seemed extraordinary and he rode a broncy mule 10 miles east to the Warbonnet Ranch, where most of his cattle were located.

The hired man at the latter ranch had left to celebrate the New Year and couldn’t return.

Most of Coffee’s food supply while he batched was from a Jersey milk cow that he butchered after her udder froze and broke. It was 60 days before Coffee was reunited with his family, but he pitched enough hay to save the herd.   
When Mary Siegrist of Hay Springs was interviewed at age 104 in 2013, she had special memories of the blizzard. On New Year’s Day, she was taken to the Gordon hospital for minor surgery. She could have gone home in a few days, but since Highway 20 was blocked, she had to stay nearly two weeks.  She finally reached Hay Springs in a hearse when an undertaker came to the hospital to pick up a body.  The strange modes of transportation continued before she arrived at the family farm.  A neighbor came to town with his team and wagon to buy coal and she rode home on top of the load.

The effects of the storm lingered. Rural roads became quagmires once the drifts started melting. Ranchers spent weeks repairing fences that had been broken down by the snow and flooding became a problem in many areas.
Dawes County made the news in another way in January 1949. A Hereford steer named “Cupid,” shown by Lois Mae Hamm of Whitney, was the grand champion at the National Western Junior Stock Show in Denver. It was both the first and the last time that a steer from Dawes County won the coveted honor.

Even this story has a “Blizzard of ’49” twist.

A long-time resident of southern California, Lois Mae said she didn’t remember all the details, but recalled that her father, Royce, “had a terrible time getting Cupid to the highway” so they could take him to Denver.

I was staying in Crawford so I could go to high school and I didn’t see it, but I think the county road crew opened the road to our place (about six miles south of Whitney) special so we could make the trip.