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213 schoolchildren perished in the Great Plains blizzard of 1888

  • Published Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

On Jan. 12-13, the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Neb, is hosting several events observation of the 125th anniversary of “The Children’s Blizzard.”

From 1 to 3 p.m. on Jan. 12, a schoolteacher will read “The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” by Marty Rhodes Figley and there will be a presentation on weather.

At 2 p.m. Jan. 13, Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, will present a collection of poems regarding the devastating blizzard.

The Homestead National Monument of America is located at 8523 W. State Hwy. 4, in Beatrice, Neb.

It was a blizzard that in its day stunned the nation.

The Children’s Blizzard was named for the 213 children across the Great Plains who died in its wake. Other names included the “Schoolhouse Blizzard” and the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard.”

The morning of Jan. 12, 1888, was almost balmy by Midwest winter standards; temperatures were in the mid-40s.

Like most typical school mornings, children bid their parents goodbye and left their farmhouses for long walks or horseback rides to one-room schoolhouses. There was no hint of bad weather to come. The sun was out.

The next moment, as David Laskin wrote in his book, “The Children’s Blizzard:”

“Frozen hell had broken loose.”

An Arctic cold front collided with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. Temperatures plunged. There was a wave of high winds and snow as fine as flour drifted across the plains.

Visibility on the open prairie was reduced to zero. Trains were unable to run.

In the aftermath, telegraph wires carrying newspaper stories whispered horror stories from the Midwest.

A Kansas City train to Omaha was abandoned, The Eagle reported on Jan. 13, 1888.

“A special from Huron, Dak., says the wind is blowing fifty miles an hour,” the Eagle article reported. “The air is full of snow, and one is unable to see fifty feet. Some unthinking teachers dismissed the young school children, some who have to go four or five blocks across the open land … Whistles are blowing, bells are ring and people turned out and took long ropes and walked fifteen or twenty abreast back and forth across the ground … The mercury is forty degrees below and has fallen twenty-six degrees since 10 o’clock.”

The brunt of the storm hit Nebraska and South Dakota. But it also dealt heavy blows to northern Kansas, Colorado, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“Business men who attempted to go home this afternoon lost their way at the street crossings,” The Eagle reported. “Many others are not attempting to go home tonight.”

In Webster, Dakota, the Pioneer Press reported mail carriers caught in the blizzard were believed to be dead.

But what touched the nation the most was the massive numbers of schoolchildren who died trying to get back home. A total of 235 people died in the storm, 213 of them children.

On Jan. 12, 2013, the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Neb., will commemorate the 125th anniversary of the blizzard.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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