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The Children’s Blizzard of 1888, Minnesota’s worst winter ever

Up to 500 people died that day, many of them children who froze to death on their way home from school.

Up to 500 people died that day, many of them children who froze to death on their way home from school. Minnesota Historical Society

There are so many ways to measure “bad” when it comes to Minnesota winters. The average Minnesotan will probably tell you “the one we’re having.” No matter what year it is.

The Minnesota State Climatology Office will tell you that the worst windchill ever to hit the Twin Cities might have been in 1936, at a brisk -67 degrees. A number of people froze to death.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources might point to 1874, when the average winter temperature was just 4 degrees. The St. Paul Dispatch described it as “the winter of our discontent,” while the Pioneer Press told of a “stiff breeze” that “drove the intense cold through the heaviest clothing” and “caused the streets to be almost deserted.” The city was forced to double up on horses to keep the street cars running.

By February of 1875, things only got worse. Light snow fell in “blinding sheets.” Fire hydrants were allowed to gush to keep the pipes from freezing. The snow and wind “blockaded” railroads, delaying and suspending every train in the area. The Dispatch noted that a Minneapolis train, which had left the Sibley Street depot at 11:30 a.m., stalled. The hungry passengers weren’t released until 6:30 p.m.

Then there’s the winter that derives its badness from its sheer infamy. If that’s the metric, there was no worse than the winter of 1887-88, the year of the Children’s Blizzard.

It was January 12, 1888, and Minnesota was enjoying a break from what had been a disgusting season of ice storms and sub-zero temperatures. Communities in those days – especially the rural ones in southern Minnesota – were much farther apart. If the elements weren’t cooperative, it meant everyone was confined to their homes.

And then, suddenly, a day with a little sun. People felt bold enough to go outside. A bachelor farmer named Eric Olson took a walk. Ten-year-old Johnny Walsh visited a friend. Children who had been kept inside begged their parents to let them go to school. Farmers went off to town to take care of some long-delayed errands. These are the things people remember about that day.

Meanwhile, a massive storm was dragging itself toward them, hungrily eating up leagues of prairie. Few feelings can match the intensity of doom swiftly approaching. David Laskin, who published an eponymous book on the Children’s Blizzard in 2004, describes it this way:

“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 blasted the prairie.”

Nobody knew it was coming. At that time the weather service was attached to the U.S. Army, though prediction technology had a lot of growing up to do. But the final error was a decidedly human one. First Lieutenant Thomas Woodruff had only just assumed command of the St. Paul office, and he was worried about sending out too many cold warnings. It had been a long string of cold days, and the weather did genuinely seem to be getting milder.

They did not issue a cold warning that night.

The blizzard hit the Great Plains – and southern Minnesota -- like an icy sledgehammer. The snow was so fast and thick that people pounded pots and pans to guide their loved ones home. Some still collapsed within yards of their doors, unable to hear them over the din of the storm. Visibility was about five feet. In minutes, ice sealed off nostrils. Eyelids froze until they became brittle and tore like butterfly wings.

“For years afterward, at gatherings of any size in Dakota or Nebraska, there would always be people walking on wooden legs or holding fingerless hands behind their backs or hiding missing ears under their hats – victims of the blizzard,” Laskin writes.

The choices people made over the next few hours would define or end their lives. Minnie Freeman, a 19-year-old teacher in Nebraska, made a life-or-death choice for herself and her students when the wind blew off a section of the school’s tarpaper-and-sod roof around 2 p.m. By that point, the temperature had dropped from 30 degrees that morning to a chilling 6 degrees. There was no way they were going to survive if they stayed put.

She tied the children together with twine, wrapped one end around her arm, and led them to a farmhouse. Accounts differ on exactly how many she saved. Maybe 13. Maybe 17. The youngest of them was 5 years old.

Others were not so lucky. Ella Shattuck, a Minnesota schoolteacher, canceled classes in advance to take care of a family emergency, only to have the blizzard bear down on her at the train station. She kept her hand on the fence, hoping to follow it to safety, but she lost her way and froze to death.

Somewhere between 250 and 500 people died that day. The reason it’s called “The Children’s Blizzard” is because many of those victims were kids walking home from school.

This day lived forever because of the people who lived through it. Prairie pioneers who never wrote another word about themselves, according to Laskin, poured their hearts out about one very cold day in 1888. You might think it was the catalyst for a better weather warning system in the Midwest.

It was not.

“Those in positions of authority never recognized nor cared about the forecasting failure,” Laskin writes. “To the extent that knuckles got rapped as a result of the storm, it had to do with sleet-covered sugar plantations in the Deep South, not frozen children on the prairie.”