Section 1: Blizzards

The Great Plains is known for uncertain weather. Winter on the northern Plains can bring very low temperatures, high winds, and deep snow. A combination of severe weather can cause a blizzard. A blizzard is defined by the National Weather Service as having winds of at least 35 miles per hour, visibility of less than one-quarter mile, and lasting at least three hours. There are two situations in which this can occur. One kind of blizzard happens when snow falls with high winds and low visibility. The other kind of blizzard is often called a “ground blizzard.”  This occurs when high winds pick up the snow that is on the ground and blows it around so that visibility is reduced. (See Image 1)

Snow cut on the Northern Pacifice
Image 1: Railroad snow plows often had to cut through huge drifts. These drifts would pile up often where the trains passed through a cut in a prairie hill. The hill formed a wall that slowed the wind enough to drop snow on the other side of the hill. This drift was measured at 32 feet deep. SHSND 11063-233.

Pioneers remembered blizzards as being particularly dangerous. A blizzard could arise on a day that started out to be very pleasant. Storms often appeared suddenly and caught people out in the prairie. If they could not see to find their way home, they might die in the storm. Even a short walk from the house to the barn could be dangerous. (See Image 2) A person might miss the barn (yes, it is possible!) and wander off into the storm. (See Image 3)

After the blizzard house in Wahpeton
Image 2: When the winds blow snow across open prairie, anything that stands above ground level slows the wind. As a result snow drifts pile up on the opposite side of the building. This house near Wahpeton stopped the wind which left a huge drift in the front yard in 1893. Drifts can block roads, prevent people from getting out of their houses, and stop trains. SHSND 0006-02-2.
Snow covered earthlodge
Image 3: When blizzards struck the villages of the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras, they stayed warm in their earthlodges. The earth-covered house was well insulated against wind and snowstorms. However, if someone was caught outside of the village during a storm, they might suffer from frostbite or die of exposure. SHSND 0086-0952.

North Dakota can have several blizzards in one year or no blizzards at all. In 1997, eight blizzards – many more than usual - struck the Red River Valley. This variability is one of the reasons that blizzards can be deadly. It is hard to know what to expect. (See Image 4)

Image 4
Image 4: This large snowplow on a Northern Pacific locomotive (1888) was used to push snow from the tracks. Later trains used rotary snow plows to blow the snow off the tracks. The dual picture is called a stereograph. People looked at these photos through a special instrument called a stereopticon. SHSND A0175
Nothern Pacific Railroad snowblower
Image 5: Trains were extremely important to the economy of North Dakota. They moved freight, crops, and people. When a blizzard covered the tracks with snow, sometimes trains without snow blades would be trapped in deep drifts. This train was stuck near Hastings, North Dakota. Some stories tell of trains being stalled for two or three days before they were able to dig out of a drift. SHSND 0032-BA-06-15.

In 1896, a blizzard struck eastern North Dakota and much of northern Minnesota on Thanksgiving Day (November 26). In Fargo, one man died, and another was still missing two days later. (See Image 5) Another man died at Devils Lake. Several people reported frightening hours of wandering while looking for shelter in the city. (See Image 6) The blizzard brought severely cold temperatures. In northern Minnesota, the temperature dropped to 45 degrees below zero. The winter weather that began in the fall of 1896 contributed to severe flooding along the Red River and other North Dakota rivers in the spring of 1897.

Snowdrift in Enderlin
Image 6: Many businesses closed during a storm, but after a storm, business was slowed by streets so full of snow that people could not drive, or even walk, through town. Berg’s store in Enderlin would not have much business after this April 18, 1910 storm. SHSND 0165-10.

On March 16, 1920, a blizzard zoomed into North Dakota. This one took the life of a young girl, Hazel Miner, as she tried to save the lives of her younger brother and sister. (See Image 7) Her heroic story inspired North Dakota singer Chuck Suchy to write and record a song about Hazel Miner.

Official map of North Dakota
Image 7: Some children such as Hazel Miner drove a sleigh to school. Others rode horseback or walked. Some school districts arranged for children to be picked up in a school bus such as this one. Though it probably wasn’t heated, the bus provided shelter from the wind and snow. The driver in this picture had to shovel out a drift before his horse could pull through the snow. SHSND 0056-0307.
 

Why is this important? Many people think of North Dakota as a place where blizzards occur often every winter. This is not true, but fear of bad winters may be one of the qualities that keeps the state’s population low.

Blizzards, like floods, interrupt business, endanger people’s lives, and cause great losses of livestock. However, winter snowfall is an important part of the total moisture North Dakota receives each year. After the snow melts into the ground, the moisture becomes available to help seeds sprout into crops during the summer.

The Thanksgiving Blizzard in Fargo, November 26, 1896

On November 26, 1896, a major winter storm hit eastern North Dakota. North Dakota residents were accustomed to blizzards. Still, there were some people who were caught outside as the storm hit and some who just believed it could not be that bad (See Document 1).

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Mail clerk lost
Document 3: Another brief article on the front page of the Fargo Forum tells of another man who lost his way in the storm. Though on Saturday after the storm, his body had not been recovered, the newspaper assumed that he had died in the cold. Fargo Forum and Daily Republican of November 28, 1896.
Newspaper article Another Soulless Corporation
Document 4: In this brief article, the editors of the newspaper poke fun at the political events of the day. Many workers around the country called their employers “soulless corporations” because of bad working conditions and low pay. The Forum editors, use the term as they describe how the telephone company kept its operators (“hellow girls” or the women who operated the telephone service) in the building and provided them with food. The company’s action probably kept some of the girls from becoming lost in the storm. Fargo Forum and Daily Republican of November 28, 1896.

This storm was a bad one. Several people died in the storm, and some were saved when they stumbled upon a shelter before the cold wind stole their lives. Even in a city, where the winds were somewhat dulled by buildings, and city streets always led to shelter, some people were unable to find their homes (See Document 2).

Document 2: A Close Call
Document 2: This brief article describes how deadly a storm can be when a person cannot see where he is going. Frank Tietgen was very lucky to survive his wandering evening. Another man was rescued between Mapleton and Casselton. Fargo Forum and Daily Republican of November 28, 1896.

The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican recorded the storm’s damage and its effect on people and business. The trains were stalled while special snowplow trains were sent out to clear the tracks. (See Document 3) While the trains were idle, mail, food, freight, and people could not travel across the state. (See Document 4)

The spring of 1997 brought severe flooding to Fargo and the Red River Valley. This blizzard was only the first of several storms that laid snow deep across the valley. [Doc 5]

 

Why is this important?  Blizzards are part of our lives on the northern Great Plains. Though we know that blizzards will be a part of every winter, we often forget how dangerous they can be. Blizzards also impact businesses that may have to close during the storm and spend extra money to clear away the snow and repair any damage the storm caused.

Blizzards also warn of high water in the spring when rapid snowmelt can cause flooding, especially in the flat ground of the Red River Valley. But snow also brings a significant portion of the necessary moisture North Dakota receives each year. Snow fills reservoirs and sinks down into the subsoil to nourish crops. We couldn’t get along without snow, even though it is sometimes hard to get along with it.

Theodore Roosevelt on Blizzards

Long before he became president, Theodore Roosevelt, lived and worked on a cattle ranch in western North Dakota. He loved the land, the people, and the hard work of ranching. In the spring of 1887, like most other ranchers of the badlands, he found that most of his cattle had died in blizzards during the winter. In those days, cattle lived out on the range all winter long. No one brought hay to them and their were no shelters other than those the cattle could find in draws.

Roosevelt often wrote about his experiences on his western North Dakota ranches. His articles on ranching were directed toward people who had never been to the West and who wanted to live the adventure without getting cold, wet, or tired.

This article was published in the very popular Century Magazine (vol 35, no. 5) in March 1888. Roosevelt wrote about how blizzards affected the open range cattle industry and the cowboys (pages 13 through 15.)  This article is posted courtesy of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.

The Story of Hazel Miner

On March 15, 1920, a blizzard blew into Oliver County. (See Document 5)

Hazel Miner lost her life in a blizzard
Document 5: This memoir gives us another view of the blizzard that killed Hazel Miner. The author is Dolly Holliday, a young woman from Indiana who taught in a Morton County school from 1919 to 1922. She describes what it is like to be lost in a blizzard. She was angry with the people she lived with because they had not warned her of the power of a North Dakota blizzard. After the blizzard she learned that the same storm had cost Hazel Miner her life while she save her younger brother and sister. From Dolly Holliday Clark, “Memoir of a Country Schoolteacher: Dolly Holliday Meets the Ethnic West, 1919-1920,” edited by Paula M. Nelson in North Dakota History 59.1 (Winter 1992): 30-45.

It was a Monday, and many children were at school when the blizzard struck. At the town of Center, three children of William and Blanche Miner were at school two and one-half miles from their farm home. The oldest of the Miner children was Hazel, age 15. (See Image 8) Her younger brother Emmet, 11, and sister Myrdith, 9, were also in school that day.

Hazel Miner lost her life in a blizzard
Image 8: Hazel Miner lost her life in a blizzard. She protected her younger brother and sister from the cold and snow until they were found after a search of 24 hours. SHSND 0388-0080.

Hazel had driven her brother and sister to school in a sleigh that day, as she did on most snowy days. When the storm hit, the temperature was about 15 degrees above zero. The wind blew the snow, and very soon blowing snow blinded everyone who was outdoors.

As soon as the storm began, the children’s father set out on horseback for the school to guide their sleigh safely home. He arrived at the school house and hitched the horse to the sleigh. He told the children to wait on the sleigh while he got his saddle horse.

Emmet and Myrdith Miner survived a blizzard
Image 9: Emmet and Myrdith Miner survived a blizzard after their buggy overturned during the storm. Their older sister Hazel saved their lives by covering them with her own body and keeping them awake throughout the long night. SHSND 0388-0079.

While he was getting his horse, the horse hitched to the sleigh took off, heading through the school yard south gate. Mr. Miner looked for the sleigh in the school yard. When he could not find the sleigh, he rode out the north gate thinking he would catch up with the children.

Map-1
Map 1: Hazel Miner’s route from the school yard. Based on Bismarck Tribune on March 16, 1963.

Mr. Miner soon knew that the children were lost. (See Map 1) He went home and told his wife that he was going back out into the storm to find the children. Neighbors joined Mr. Miner in the search. The searchers stayed out in the storm until dark without finding the sleigh and the children.

The next morning, word reached the people of Center that the Miner children were still missing. Several groups, including 14 men from Center, set out to search for the children. The search party looked over the land north and east of the school. Finally, the men found a track that led them south and east of the school house. They found the sleigh overturned in a coulee. The horse still stood there in the harness.

When the searchers turned up the sleigh, they found the children. Little Emmet and Myrdith still lived. Hazel had placed two blankets underneath them, and another over them. She lay close to the younger children to keep them warm, but she had no cover for herself. Hazel’s clothes were wet because she had fallen into the coulee as she tried to lead the horse to safety.

During the night, Hazel talked to the younger children. She told them to move their hands and feet, and she punched them to keep them awake. Hazel, however, did not survive the cold. When Hazel stopped moving, Emmet followed her example, and kept Myrdith awake until the searchers found them at about 2:00 on the afternoon of March 16. Emmet and Myrdith recovered from their terrible ordeal. (See Image 9)

In 1936, former governor L. B. Hanna and his family purchased a stone monument to honor Hazel Miner. The monument stands at the County Courthouse in Center to honor her courage and the courage of the men who searched through the storm to find the children. The monument reads:

In Memory of Hazel Miner  April 11, 1904  March 16, 1920   To the dead a tribute, To the living a memory, To posterity an inspiration   The story of her life and of her heroic tragic death is recorded in the archives of Oliver County on pages ___ Book of Misc. Records. Stranger Read It.

Why is this important?  Blizzards have taken many lives in North Dakota’s history. The blowing snow obscures a person’s vision and cold air chills the body temperature down to the point where all functions cease. Hazel Miner’s death is particularly tragic because it seems that it could have been prevented. If only the horse had not left the school yard by the south gate. If only Mr. Miner had seen the direction the horse traveled. If only, the horse had turned into the farmyard instead of the ditch. These are the kinds of small accidents that cause people to die in blizzards.

Hazel Miner knew what to do to keep her brother and sister warm and awake which saved their lives. With less protection and with wet, chilling clothes, Hazel could not save herself. Her selfless actions have made her a hero in North Dakota history and her death is a lesson about survival in the brutal winters of the northern Great Plains. (See Document 6 No Place Like Home mp3)