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Kansas has endured many bad winter storms

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, at 12:12 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, at 10:03 a.m.

Ad Astra

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

It is a Kansas tradition to look to the sky.

For those that survived big storms and live to tell their stories, the storms always remain a focal point for generations to come.

These most recent wintery blasts, though, were they the worst?

It depends on what you lived through.

A blizzard is defined as a snowstorm with at least 35 mph wind. But add that with a mix of freezing rain and temperatures and well, the mix changes.

Winter storms are sometimes gauged by the destruction that follows: the tree damage, the power outages, accidents and how much they put us off the rhythm of routine.

The back-to-back February storms of 2013 are sure to fix themselves in the memories of Wichitans. But there may be a few others that have established themselves in the archives of Kansas history.

In his book, “Ninety Years on the Plains,” John K. Glanville describes the blizzard of March 26-28, 1931. It was so cold that the gas and spark levers on his car froze and had to be broken loose in order to start the car.

“The storm continued all night and well into the afternoon of the next day before it quit snowing. But the wind didn’t let up,” Glanville wrote. “Some say it was 30 degrees below zero. We didn’t have a thermometer. With wind up to 50 miles an hour, we were lucky that they hadn’t invented the ‘wind chill factor’ then or we would have all frozen to death.”

By most records, the blizzard of 1886 still ranks as the granddaddy of blizzards. The January storm, with 40 mph winds, killed dozens of people, thousands of cattle and left drifts as high as the trains stranded out on the plains.

It took more than a week to dig out and more than a month to survey the damage.

Hardest hit were the folks in western Kansas. Many of them lived in dugouts or crudely constructed sheds that offered no protection against the freezing temperatures and blowing snow. Once stranded in their homes, many ran out of fuel and food.

The first of the storms hit on Dec. 31, 1885, with rain turning to ice, followed by howling winds and blowing snow; and the other on Jan. 7, 1886.

Large cattle herds died in the storms, drifting south over the prairie. When they reached the right-of-way fences for railroads, the cattle stopped and quickly froze to death.

The winter of 1905 was so cold; it still stands as the benchmark for extreme cold in Kansas.

For nearly a month, temperatures did not climb above freezing.

The worst began Feb. 11, when an arctic cold blast swept over the state, causing thermometers to plunge well below zero.

“It blew the snow, which resembled sleet more than snow, and it was impossible for one to face the storm,” according to “Reno County Kansas, Its People, Industries and Institutions,” published in 1917 by B.F. Bowen & Co. Inc. of Indianapolis.

It was so bone-chillingly cold that Kansas newspapers recorded temperatures at 22 to 30 degrees below zero. That didn’t include wind chill.

Trains were delayed by the intense cold. Losses in livestock were the heaviest since the blizzards of 1886.

In Lebanon, the temperature plunged to 40 degrees below zero.

Finally on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 1905, the thermostat in Lebanon climbed to 33 degrees. It was a 57-degree rise in temperature in one day.

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

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