The day the capital city stood still

Monday, January 8, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story by Walt Sehnert once won first place and a $2,500 prize in a University of Nebraska alumni writing contest.

With the recent ice storm that hit McCook on the Thursday before Christmas, I’m reminded similar time when a freak ice storm hit Lincoln, Ne when Jean and I were in college.

For those of us who were not around to see the winter of 1888, the winter of ’48-’49 was close enough. Plainview, and Northeast Nebraska began to receive snow around the first of November. That first snow was still around until the beginning of March when a few days of melting temperatures held promise of the end of winter. Unfortunately, that brief respite was followed almost immediately by yet another storm, which dumped 14” of new snow on the region. Almost every week throughout the winter there was new snowfall, with high winds, adding up to yet another blizzard. Roads would barely be opened, only to be closed again, with a fresh onslaught from Mother Nature.

Besides the snow, the weather was very cold. The snow drifted. Then the drifts became crusted, like cement, allowing cattle to walk over and out of fenced areas. A bulldozer crew set out from Plainview to clear a road northeast of town. After 13 hours they had gone barely a mile and a half. The Burlington RR line, which paralleled Highway 20 in NE Nebr., from Sioux City to O’Neill, had a rotary plow which could cut a channel out of drifts 14’ high. The problem was that the drifts were over 18’ high. That RR plow, after 10 days, had cleared track for only 1/3 of the 70-mile distance from Sioux City to Plainview. Drifts were so high in front of the buildings on main-street that boys delighted to climb to the roofs to practice swan dives into the high heaps of snow.

Snowmobiles were a novelty in 1949, but one was brought into Plainview by air, to be used only for emergencies. The first emergency came when the doctor, the undertaker, and the fire-chief set out, using the snowmobile, to pick up a dying man at a farmhouse three miles west of Plainview. This crew made it only two miles west of town in the new snowmobile before getting stuck in a mighty drift. The three were forced to spend the night at a neighboring farmhouse. Next morning, with the aid of horses, they were able to make their way the extra mile, pick up the body and return it to town.

Headquarters were set up at the Telephone Office to coordinate the efforts of workers—the 14th Quartermasters of the National Guard, out of Lincoln, the 5th Army, the Red Cross, and available local volunteers. Crews worked day and night, for weeks on end. Airdrops of needed supplies and medicines were a daily occurrence. Doctors made emergency house calls in small planes. A helicopter was brought in for rescue work.

Large Army transport planes dropped many tons of hay to stranded herds of cattle on farms throughout the region. Farmers, who had not used horse-drawn wagons for transportation for years, now replaced the wheels of farm wagons with runners, hitched up the horses, and made their way to town in this manner — their only possible way.

When I was home for Christmas vacation from the U.of Nebr. at Lincoln, I met an acquaintance at the bakery — a prominent farmer’s wife, bundled up as if for a trip to the North Pole. She explained that she had accompanied her husband to town in an open bobsled — the first time she’d been off their farm in 6 weeks.

Business that winter, in Plainview and most towns in that area, was so bad that it was almost non-existent. Day after day there would be blizzards. Clerks would be stranded at home, maybe only blocks away but unable to come to work. It didn’t matter, as on these days there were no customers and stores would close early or not open at all.

Personally, I was only minimally involved in that bad winter in Plainview. I was unable to get home from the University very often. Through letters, I felt the pain of the people in Plainview, and felt guilty that I was missing that bad winter—because in Lincoln we had very little snow. The weather was cold, but there was no problem getting around. I was really enjoying my senior year. The basketball team was the best in memory, and we enjoyed going to the games, the dances and other activities on campus.

One Sunday, during January, there was a terrible ice storm in Lincoln. Early in the day, a light mist began which continued all day. The temperature was cold enough that before long there was a thick sheet of ice covering trees, buildings, and streets. There was little or no wind, so the ice covering, which eventually reached about ˝” was very even. There had been numerous “fender benders” early in the day, but as the day wore on, driving became impossible. Toward evening I called Jean (the girl who later became my wife) at her Sorority House. Sunday evenings were a time that we often frequented a pancake restaurant across the street from the Cornhusker Hotel. I told her that I would skate over to get her, and together we would skate to the restaurant.

I had brought skates from Plainview. Jean had a prized pair of skates that her father had gotten for her during the war. Before WW II most people still used “clamp-on” skates, over regular shoes (those clamps were very hard on shoe soles). And of course, skates of any sort were nearly non-existent during the war. However, one of the popular movie stars of the day was Sonja Henie, from Norway, who had won a Gold Medal in Figure Skating at the Winter Olympics in 1936. She went on to a successful film career, during the 40’s, in the United States. Her pictures were not so good, but Miss Henie was a delight, in the skating scenes. She has been credited with laying the groundwork for making figure skating the popular sport it is today. All young girls aspired to be figure skaters. Jean was no exception, and she prevailed on her father to locate skates for her. In 1944 this was almost impossible. But using his tie-in with a certain machinery dealer, he located a beautiful pair of figure skates with attached white boots. She was delighted, though her size #7 feet scarcely filled the size #10 boots. Her parents, the Leisys, being the conservative folks they were, gave no thought to trading the perfectly good skates for new ones that might fit better when skates again became available after the war. Nevertheless, by using several pairs of heavy socks, she was able to use her skates very nicely, and we had already enjoyed several skating sessions on the small ponds in Lincoln’s parks that winter.

The skating trip into downtown Lincoln was memorable. The streets were absolutely deserted. We could skate on the sidewalk, or down the middle of the street. It didn’t matter. There was no traffic, and a thick coat of ice made skating everywhere ideal. We skated west, right down the middle of O St., Lincoln’s busiest thoroughfare. We had remarked upon Lincoln’s beautiful sunsets before, but this night was exceptional. With the light mist, as the sun went down, the sky became absolutely pink, in all directions. Then, as darkness closed in, the yellow light from the street lamps bathed everything in a soft, shiny glow, lending a surreal quality to the scene.

Of course, the pancake shop was closed. Everything was closed, the theaters, the drug stores, restaurants, everything. There were no pedestrians, no buses, no taxis, nor cars of any kind, and no police. It was as if Lincoln had ceased to function. Other than a few other skaters we had the town to ourselves. But it didn’t matter. We were determined to take advantage of that unique opportunity. So we skated on that “World’s Largest Ice Rink”, up and down O St., up the steps at the Capitol building, around the fountains at the mall on 15th St., and all through the campus. When we were exhausted we returned to the Alpha Xi Delta Sorority house, where we basked in the glow of our adventure over hot cups of cocoa and a heaping plate of cookies.

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