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The Nebraska blizzard of 1949

Monday, January 11, 2010

Each year we see terrible stories about heavy snows, cold weather, blizzards and hardships connected with winters in Nebraska. The winter of 2009-10 will be no exceptions, with multiple heavy snows, especially in the eastern part of the state, and record bitterly cold temperatures that have made it difficult for man and beast.

When folks talk about really bad Nebraska winters they usually bring up the "Childrens' Blizzard" of 1888 -- a truly disastrous time, especially in light of the widespread extent of the storm, over several states, and the great loss of life.

No more persons living that experienced that storm are still around, but there are still many who witnessed the Great Blizzard of 1948-49, which was bad enough.

Beautiful weather in September and October had aided farmers in the harvesting of record crops. But those balmy days were not to stay. In November 1948, the state got its first heavy snowfall, especially bad in the northeastern part of the state and the Sandhills. Heavy snows, sleet, and winds from 50 to 70 miles per hour blocked roads, clogged rail lines and brought down telephone and power lines. Stranded travelers filled all the available rooms in hotels in Norfolk and surrounding towns.

By Christmas 1948, some of the snow had melted and life had returned to normalcy. Another "Christmas storm" hit across the northern part of the state, and then another one on Jan. 2, 1949, this one lasting for some three days. Heavy winds drove new snow on top of the old snow, again clogging roads and railways, and isolating families on farms and ranches.

Snow plow operators, police, volunteer fire fighters, and physicians struggled to open roads and railways, and to administer to the medical needs of individuals stranded over a wide area. In Plainview, in northeast Nebraska, authorities were alerted to a critically ill man some 31⁄2 miles north and west of town. At that time snowmobiles were a rarity, but somehow Plainview had managed to secure one, sent out from Sioux City, for emergency use. The Deputy Fire Chief, Herb Wacker, Doctor Robert Kopp, and undertaker Elmo Ashburn, set out on the snowmobile to go to the aid of the stricken man. They had gotten two miles from town when the storm worsened and they were forced to spend the night with the Ed Lerum farm family. In the morning they managed to get the snowmobile going again and completed their trip. Their patient had died during the night, so the three returned to Plainview with a corpse.

The Plainview Telephone Co. became headquarters for rescue operations for northeast Nebraska, directing operations of the 34th Quartermasters' National Guard, the Red Cross, the 5th Army, and countless volunteers, who worked night and day for weeks.

One bulldozer, working north and east of Plainview, cleared just a mile and a half of road in 13 hours, only to see that road drifted shut again the following day. The Burlington Railroad sent out a rotary snowplow from Sioux City. That plow could cut a channel through 14-foot drifts -- the trouble was that some drifts were 18 feet high. It took 10 days for that railroad snowplow to open the track from Sioux City to McLain, only 35 miles.

Many farm families were isolated during the storm. Electrical outages were widespread. Dairy cows were again milked by hand. Milk was "refrigerated" in snow banks until creamery trucks could again make their pickups. When fuel, coal and oil, ran out some families were forced to break up furniture to feed the furnace to keep warm. Horse-drawn farm wagons, some of which had not been used in years, were outfitted with runners and used for rare trips to town for supplies.

In rural Osmond, 10 miles east of Plainview, a young couple started out from their farm home a few miles south of town. They became snowbound in a drift. They were found next day by rescuers the next day, both dead, asphyxiated in their car.

In Plainview, kindly Dr. Fickling, a dentist, attempted to walk from his office to his home, 21⁄2 blocks away. He became disoriented and was walking in circles when another, younger man found him and managed to get him back to his office, where he stayed until the next day. He recovered, but the ordeal took a lasting toll on his health.

That younger man worked at a grocery store, across the street from the dental office in downtown Plainview. He and a female employee of the store were forced to spend the night at the store. Romance blossomed, the couple married, and nine months later they welcomed the arrival of their first child. (Hospitals throughout the state reported a noticeable increase in births nine months after this 3-day January blizzard.)

An important location in the blizzard story is the motel/truck stop/restaurant at the junction of Highways 81 and 91, south of Norfolk. It was here that a large number of travelers were stranded in the January blizzard.

The small number of motel rooms were quickly gobbled up, and late-comers took up temporary residence at the restaurant. The ordeal turned into something of a party. Strangers soon became friends, helping one another, sharing stories, as they shared the restaurant's dwindling supply of food. Their shared common bond led to lasting friendships, and for many years there was an annual " '49 Blizzard Celebration of Thanksgiving" reunion held at that same restaurant.

There were a number of innovative measures taken, which helped to ease the pain, and loss of life in the winter of 1948-49. In addition to the new snowmobiles, aviation, in the form of helicopters and transport planes, helped immeasurably.

Small planes dropped medicine and food to stranded farm families and helped doctors make emergency calls, their planes hastily equipped with skis.

The Kearney Air Base was scheduled to be closed. In one last heroic effort those airmen helped stave off a disaster for area cattlemen. For example, on Jan. 10, one C-47 from the Kearney base made more than 78 drops of hay bales, some 240 tons, to stricken ranches, from Kearney to North Platte. At the same time planes from the 27th Fighter Group were searching the countryside for distress signals. By the end of January, 11 C-47s and 10 C-82s were involved in Operation Haylift.

In Plainview, repeated snows created a surreal scene. Merchants scooped snow from their sidewalks so often that there was no place to put it. Great piles of snow at curbside were so tall that one could not see over them, giving the impression of walking down a long tunnel of ice, from one end of the block to the other.

The winter was very hard on the roofs of business buildings. Some roofs actually collapsed under the weight of the snow. Boys began to climb up on the roofs of businesses, and then jump from the building's fašade, across the sidewalk into the curbside mounds of snow. Business owners were irate, with reason. (But it sure was fun while it lasted.) Spring started a very busy time for roofers doing repairs in Plainview.

As bad as things were, they could have been much worse. Only four people died in Nebraska as a result of the storm, and the Operation Haylift was credited with saving over 4 million cattle from starvation -- and the stories of the blizzards of that winter will be passed down for many generations to come.


Plainview, Pride of the Plains 1886-1961,

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As a child of ten, that storm meant only two important things to my friends and I, scooping walks, and making a few coin, and jumping off the embankment around the Auditorium, into ten to twelve foot deep drifts, that filled the gap between the North embankment, and the building.

For the adults, this was a time of Tribulation, but for children, Heaven. The snow was so deep, sleds stayed in the shed for the first day or two, but eventually was able to find streets to sled on. Our favorite was West 3rd St. from E St to B St (highway). There was only one toboggan in town that I knew of, and that young man had more friends than he could count. We stuck with Snow Drift crushing, and tunnel digging, before we could get out the sleds.

Twas a season to remember for a lifetime, perhaps an eternity. Yeee-Haaa!!

-- Posted by Navyblue on Mon, Jan 11, 2010, at 8:36 PM

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