Blizzards.The Encyclopedia Americana defines a blizzard as a peculiarly fierce and cold wind, accompanied by a very fine, blinding snow which suffocates as well as freezes men and animals exposed to it. The origin of the word is dubious. It came into general use in American newspapers during the bitterly cold winter of 1880-81, although some papers claim its use as early as the '70s. Such a storm comes up and takes the traveler without premonition. The sky becomes darkened and the snow is driven by a terrible wind which comes with a deafening roar.
Before the days of fences or well beaten roads the blizzard often swept across the prairies of the great west. Travelers starting from home, with a clear sky overhead, were occasionally overtaken by these storms. In a sparsely settled country, with no fenced farms or other means of finding one's way, all landmarks were soon obliterated by a storm of this kind, and it is a wonder that more people were not lost. Cattle with no means of protection were frequently found frozen standing in their tracks in the great drifts, and would be left standing as the snow melted in the spring.
Another writer has said: "A blizzard is defined as a fierce storm of bitter, frosty wind, with fine, blistering snow." No definition, however, save that of actual experience can portray its terrible reality. Frequently the temperature will drop from 74° above zero to 20° below zero in 24 hours, and during this time the wind will blow a gale, apparently from the four points of the compass. The air will be so filled with the fine, blistering snow and sand that one cannot see ten feet in advance. Turn either way and it is always in front. The air is full of subdued noises, like the wail of lost spirits; so all-absorbing in its intensity is this wailing, moaning, continuous noise, that one's voice cannot be heard two yards away. The early pioneers were of necessity nomadic, and were in no way prepared for these sudden changes and hundreds have lost their lives in blizzards when the temperature was not zero, it being a physical impossibility to breathe, the air being so full of fine, blistering snow and sand.
While there was more or less loss of life during the early settlement of Kansas from these causes, the blizzard of Dec., 1885, and Jan., 1886, was probably the most destructive to life and property of any storm that ever swept over the state. This storm was general from the mountains to the Missouri river. It started in the latter part of Dec., 1885, and an unbroken blanket of snow extended from Williams, N. Mex., to Kansas City. Railroad traffic on the plains was practically suspended. The weather moderating, railroad traffic was resumed, when another storm, more serious than the first, again tied up traffic, this time completely. Temperature during the month of January ranged from 12° below zero at Atchison to 25° below at Junction City, and 18° below at Dodge City. A 44-mile wind a part of the time helped make things lively at the last named place. All over the southwestern part of the state the precipitation was chiefly sleet, which left the ground covered with ice. A big cut on the Union Pacific near Salina was completely covered with snow, and it required the combined efforts of all section men on the road between Lawrence and Brookville for nearly 16 hours with picks and shovels to open it for traffic. This cut was about 20 feet deep and a quarter of a mile long, and eleven locomotives were employed in "bucking" the snow, but they all became stalled and had to be dug out. Many points on the railroads were a week without mail from the outside world, and cattle losses from some sections were reported from three to twenty-five per cent.
At Dodge City seven trains were snow-bound at one timeone being an excursion train bound for California. Dodge City people exerted themselves in entertaining the sojourners, who went away with the opinion that Dodge City was a much misrepresented town. Many cattle perished along the Arkansas river near this place, some while standing against the snow fences and others while trying to cross the river.
Losses of life during this blizzard were reported from Clark, Ellis, Ellsworth, Finney, Ford and Wallace counties, together with a few casualities from the southwestern part of the state. This loss of life is accounted for to some extent by the fact that thousands of claim holders settled in western Kansas in 1885, with few exceptions having barely enough to commence the work of developing a homestead. Their houses as a rule were mere shells and proved inadequate for the rigorous winter. The plains country now is changed. Farms and good farm houses, fences and well-traveled roads are everywhere, and casualties from similar causes as obtained in 1885-86 have been rare during the past twenty-five years.Pages 193-195 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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