An interview with David Laskin
What exactly was the children's blizzard and why is it still remembered
The event known as the school children's blizzard was a powerful winter storm that swept down on the Upper Midwest on January 12, 1888. Even settlers who had lived in the region for years insisted that they had never seen a storm come down so quickly (many compared it to an explosion or a wall of ice), drop temperatures so rapidly, and reduce visibility so dramatically. The storm hit today's South Dakota (still part of the undivided Dakota Territory at the time) and Nebraska in the middle of a school day (between 11 AM and 2 PM depending on location) -- and many frightened teachers dismissed their one-room country schools. Hundreds of children become lost on the prairie on their way home, hence the name the school children's blizzard.
How did you find the stories of individual families? Are there still descendants of storm victims living in the region?
Families still talk about the 1888 blizzard to this day, and all who had ancestors living in the region have family stories. Through local archives, old newspapers, country cemeteries, ads in local papers, and plain old networking I was able to get in touch with scores of descendents of storm victims -- the great niece of two girls who froze in central Nebraska, the grandson of a young man who narrowly escaped death that day, and in one case the daughter of a distinguished South Dakotan who was an eight year old school boy on the day of the storm. This man's daughter, now in her eighties, had a batch of memoirs written by her father -- one of which described his narrow escape from death that day.
Why were so many people caught out in the storm? Wasn't there a national weather forecasting operation back then?
Back in those days, the nation's weather forecasting was the responsibility of the US Army Signal Corps. Weather forecasting was in its infancy, and the government had only been in the weather business then for 18 years. Coincidentally, just four months before the storm hit, the Chief Signal Officer Adolphus Greely ordered a young career officer named Thomas Woodruff to open up an experimental forecast office in St. Paul, Minnesota. Woodruff was charged with the task of forecasting "cold waves" and intense winter storms, like the January 12 blizzard. As for the story of whether or not he got the forecast correct, and why so many people ventured out in the storm -- you'll just have to read the book.
How were you able to recreate the actual formation and evolution of the blizzard? Are you a professional meteorologist?
I have no background in meteorology, though I have been obsessed with weather all my life and have written about it extensively in previous books and articles. Luckily, I was able to assemble extensive data about the storm -- temperature change and wind shift, the track of the low pressure system, the timing of the cold front. I have close working relationships with some of the top meteorologists in the nation, and several of them agreed to sit down with me and examine the data and maps I had assembled. These experts "walked" me through the storm, explaining how the dramatic temperature contrast fueled a sharp pressure gradient, which in turn whipped up vicious winds and blowing snow. These experts, many of whom work for the National Weather Service, love weather, and I tried to capture their enthusiasm.
What was your favorite part of writing the book?
Aside from the excitement of the actual storm itself, the best part was getting into the backgrounds and stories of the people I wrote about. I focus on five families from very different backgrounds -- Swiss-German Mennonites who emigrated together in 1873, a Yankee family who moved to Dakota when the railroads first opened the land, an extended Norwegian family who came from a lovely village in the Telemark region, etc. By the end of the book, I really felt that these people were members of my own family -- indeed I knew more about their backgrounds and genealogy that about my own.
What was the hardest part of writing?
Many children died in the storm, and it was heartbreaking to describe the final hours of children I had gotten to know and come to love. I tried to describe exactly what happens to the human body as it freezes to death -- as well as the processes that result in frostbite. I learned from the medical literature and interviews with doctors that many of these children could have been saved today -- that in fact a person can seem to be dead of hypothermia with no brain function or detectable heartbeat but if properly rewarmed, they can be restored to life with no brain damage. But of course given the primitive state of medicine at the time, there was no hope.
I'm hoping to write another book drawing on the great themes of American history, emigration, struggle with adversity -- and of course weather. Stand by!
David Laskin talks more about The Children's Blizzard
I first heard about the storm known as the children's blizzard when I was
writing Braving the Elements, a book about the intersection of
weather and history in America. I was working on a chapter called "Weather
in the West" -- about the droughts and tornadoes, dust storms and howling
winds that we Americans marveled at when we crossed the Mississippi and began
to settle on the great open prairie that stretches to the Rocky Mountains. For
those who live in this region, the so-called children's blizzard of January
12, 1888, was the storm, the catastrophe they never forgot or got over, the
one they wrote about in their memoirs, talked about to their grandchildren,
grieved over for the rest of their lives. It was the wide-eyed, open-mouthed
quality of the survivors' stories that grabbed my attention -- the shock that
even veteran pioneers experienced when this terrific winter storm descended
literally out of a nowhere on an unseasonably warm January day and changed
their lives forever.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them children on their way home from one-room country school houses, were caught out on the prairie and wandered helplessly in the hurricane force winds and blowing snow. Those who escaped with their lives did so by sheer luck. Hundreds who failed to find shelter died that night of hypothermia when temperatures plunged below zero and winds blew at 60 mph.
My account of the children's blizzard took up a page or two in Braving the Elements, but the storm and the vividness of the accounts stayed in my head.
In 1993 I moved from New York to Seattle, taking ten days of a cool rainy summer to drive across the country. I remember joking with friends in New York about how when we drove through North Dakota we would roll down the windows and blast our hip calypso tapes just to shake up the locals. Then we got to North Dakota. For long long stretches of highway there was no one around to shake up -- the few widely spaced houses were set back miles from the interstate, the back roads stretched empty to the horizon. The land was not flat and featureless as I had expected but subtly rolling and shelving in ways impossible to describe or capture on film, textured in endless gradations of rough tawny grass, naked and open to the sky. One of my kids needed to go to the bathroom and we took the next exit and drove down a side road. "Where's the bathroom?" she demanded. "How can I go -- there's no privacy." I told her to look around. No sign of human habitation for miles in any direction. No cars. No houses. Not even livestock.
This was the landscape where a hundred years earlier scores of children had frozen to death. I was totally overwhelmed by the beauty and the emptiness of the land -- and by the sense of the past, of families and communities that had come and gone, struggles endured, promises kept and broken. Even in the towns that survive and in some cases flourish, the prairie is a presence just beyond main street or the railroad tracks or the strip malls. It's like the subliminal murmur of the ocean in a beach town.
That prairie landscape haunted me. Someday I knew I had to write about this land and the people who had tried to farm and settle it and survive its rigors. The Children's Blizzard was born of that haunting. As the book gelled in my mind, I realized that it had all the elements of the books I most love to read and write: history, weather, religion, science, heartbreaking stories of struggle against the elements, intense faith, bitter disappointment. What made it especially compelling to me was the fact that people confronted this storm as families: the white settlers had only been this region for five or ten years, most of them immigrants from Europe or East Coast cities. They were just getting established, paying off debts, replacing sod huts with their first frame houses -- and then the blizzard came and destroyed them. On an early research trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, I filled a notebook with scores of these family stories -- sisters who shared a single cloak as they spent the night out in windchills of 80 below zero; a deeply religious Mennonite community stunned by the loss of five boys; a teenage teacher from Nebraska who endured 78 hours in a haystack. I read of wives who froze to death while looking for husbands; a handsome young Norwegian farmer who returned home to find his wife and toddler dead of hypothermia while their newborn daughter miraculously survived. A father kept his son alive by huddling with him in a snow drift but froze to death himself just minutes before a rescue party arrived. Children watched their siblings rise from the snow after enduring a night of frigid temperatures on the prairie, stagger a few steps in the dazzling light of morning and drop dead.
My major challenge in writing the book was choosing which stories to tell -- and which to leave out. Strangely, it was the internet and my cell phone that helped me decide. Through the internet I found a way to place ads asking for blizzard stories in every newspaper in Nebraska and South Dakota, the states hardest hit by the storm. The responses were phenomenal, and in the course of a series of research trips I met with descendants of storm victims -- daughters, nieces, second cousins several times removed -- and got to know their family history and background. As the stories grew in depth and complexity, I came to see that the backbone of my book would be the history of the settlement of the prairie. The blizzard itself would become the frame and the climax of a series of detailed textured narratives about the hardships the pioneers endured, the hopes they brought with them -- and how these hopes and dreams came to bear on that single day of January 12, 1888.
The cell phone came in handy in tracking people down while I was on the move. I found myself prowling through tiny country cemeteries, searching out the graves of storm victims and the nearby graves of their descendants. Some of the headstones bore the name of a person with the date of death left open. That's when I reached for my phone. Literally standing by her future grave, I placed a called to Diane Woebbecke and learned that she had married into the family of one of the most celebrated storm victims, a little German girl abandoned by her parents and raised by distant relatives. I'd read contemporary newspapers accounts of Lena Woebbecke's night alone on the freezing prairie, her terrible suffering and the eventual amputation of her legs. But I never expected to discover that the fifth generation of the Woebbecke family was living on that same farm, just two miles from the schoolhouse that Lena had left on that fatal day.
By the time I finished writing the book, Lena Woebbecke, the Kaufmann brothers, the young teacher Etta Shattuck, the small and scrappy boy Walter Allen -- all of them victims of the blizzard -- were precious parts of my own life. Writing the scenes of their deaths -- or miraculous rescues -- made the awesome, unpredictable power of America's weather almost unbearably real to me. It's that sense of naked vulnerability to the sky that I hope my readers will experience as they turn the pages of my book.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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