Posted by: Democratic Thinker | February 20, 2015

Weekly Story: Blizzard of 1886

Weekly Story

Railroad man Otto P. Byers recalls events in Kansas during the blizzard of 1886.

That commercialism will invade misfortune, and even death, was never better illustrated. Speculators originated the plan of buying of the unfortunate ranchmen, for a very small sum, all the cattle of their brand they could find alive.




Personal Recollections of the Terrible Blizzard of 1886.

Written for the Kansas State Historical Society by O. P. Byers, of Hutchinson.


The Last of 5000 (Waiting for a Chinook)—Charles M. Russell.

THE autumn and early winter of 1885 were of the grandeur possible only to the western plains. The enchanting haze of the Indian summer was never more resplendent, thrilling the soul of the lover of nature and making the distant landscape seem a phantom.

The morning of December 31 dawned clear and mild, with a low barometer, and a peculiar yellowish purple bordering the northern horizon. Early in the forenoon a single fleecy cloud from the northwest and a very rapidly rising barometer foretold a coming storm. By noon a light rain was falling. The temperature in a few hours had fallen below zero. The storm, gaining force hourly, continued throughout the night, and by morning it might very truthfully be said the state was frozen solid. This in itself was not unusual, nor was it seriously feared, but as the storm did not abate during the second day or the following night the situation became alarming. The temperature continued to fall until it then reached twenty degrees below zero. Neither had the terrifying wind abated in the slightest. The atmosphere had assumed a peculiar blackness characteristic of such storms, and the fine, driven snow made breathing most difficult. Day after day the storm continued, each cessation quickly followed by another storm, making it practically continuous. The temperature did not rise to zero from the first night to the last, the latter part of the month, and generally ranged from fifteen to thirty below.

A complete failure of crops the previous season had left the settler on the high prairie in no position to provide against such an emergency, even had he been forewarned. Never before had a storm of such intensity or duration been experienced. But little provision was made by the average man of that day for wintering his stock; in fact, because of the scarcity of feed, the animals were generally turned out to shift for themselves. It was as much as the homesteader could do to provide for his family, meager as their requirements were. Thus, in the sparsely settled western half of the state, in such a storm there was almost no chance of life for stock, and but little for man, except those who had dugouts, and only then when they were fortunate enough to reach them before the storm attained its height.

Individual cases of perishing, suffering, escaping and heroism in well-known instances would fill a volume. A systematic search of dugouts, shanties and prairie was made as soon as possible. A number of people were found in their homes frozen to death, and the ones alive were in bed, where they had been for days, as their only means to escape freezing. Many were found on the prairie, where they had become lost and perished. Much as the town people suffered, they fared well compared with the settler. Widely separated from one another, in the desperation of almost certain death, many attempted refuge with more fortunate neighbors, and generally with disastrous results. Several perished attempting to reach home. One of the most remarkable cases was a homesteader in northwestern Kansas. He and his team of two horses were found frozen to death within fifty feet of his dugout. Animal instinct had guided the horses home, but so impossible was it to see even a few feet, he either believed himself lost on the prairie and the animals unable to go further, or he perished on the road home. His family, in the dugout only a few feet away, knew nothing of his presence for two days.

A well-known case of an entire family perishing was that of a farmer who started from the little town of Oberlin, in northwestern Kansas, for his claim, with his wife and six children in a wagon. A few days later all were found on the prairie frozen to death.

A pathetic case was discovered of two girls who lived with their mother on a claim in western Kansas. The girls attempted to go to the house of their brother on an adjoining farm, but became lost and perished. The mother was found in her home several days later, so badly frozen that she died.

One evening a man was reported lost at Wallace. A coil of rope was secured, one end tied around the body of a volunteer, who made a circle of probably two hundred yards. The other end of the rope was held inside the building. Fortunately the lost man was within this radius, and was brought in almost frozen stiff; in fact, amputation of a limb was afterwards necessary. The searcher knew that without this rope, if he got ten feet away from the building he would never find it again.

Jack rabbits and birds of every description were found all over the prairie frozen to death. Almost every town was destitute of fuel. Corn soon became the substitute for coal, and toward the end of the storm even that was becoming exhausted. It finally became a question of provisions. Business was suspended and schools dismissed almost the entire month. Waterworks systems in the various cities and towns were frozen and useless; newspapers published could not be delivered by carrier, and even the post offices were idle. Telephone systems were at that time confined to cities entirly, and were practically of no service. Families huddled together in one room, with the balance of the house battened in every way possible, against the raging storm, passed anxious days in isolation. From the third day it was realized live stock on the wind-swept plains would be almost a total loss. The snowfall was not extraordinary in depth, except drifts, which were frequently ten feet high.

Every railroad in the state was completely paralyzed. Cuts were drifted full of fine snow driven by the high north wind. Trains were stalled, and the crude appliances for clearing the tracks were useless. Be it remembered, the modern rotary snowplow of to-day was as unknown then as the wireless telegraph or airship. Some four or five days after the beginning of the storm the tracks were partially cleared, but before trains could be moved into division points they were again blockaded. Engines were off the track and so disabled from snow service that the attempt to use them further in cleaning tracks was abandoned altogether, and the slower method of shoveling out the cuts resorted to. So deep were the drifts, it was frequently necessary to form “benches,” the man down on the track pitching the snow up to a man standing on the first bench, he in turn pitching it to another man on a bench higher up, who cast it out. Oftentimes a cut thus cleared would again be drifted full within a few hours by the high wind. No attempt was made to run freight trains after the first day, and after the first week all effort to move even passenger trains across the western half of the state ceased entirely. But three passenger trains entered Denver from the east during the entire month.

Old engineers, who had for years passed over the same track daily, became lost before they had gone five miles from their starting points. Not a marker could be seen in broad daylight. In numerous cases they ran by the stations, unable to see the depots twenty feet away. Because of the great danger of running by or the impossibility of seeing signals, the dispatchers were obliged to abandon the telegraph as a means of moving trains. It became a custom for engineers to ride facing the rear, and through the vacuum created by the movement of the train, locate themselves by some familiar telegraph pole. They had no other means of forming any idea whatever as to where they were. Probably not in the history of railroads has a similar condition existed.

Men soon became exhausted from working day and night. Employees in all capacities were pressed into snow service. Box cars heated with temporary stoves were the sleeping quarters, and the subsistence such eatables as could be found. So crowded were the cars, unbelievable as it may seem, men were frequently seen standing perfectly upright, sound asleep and snoring.

Ten or twelve full-grown steers were found standing frozen to death on the track in a cut in the Harker hills. They had drifted in with the storm and became covered with snow. A snowplow was stalled but a few feet from them.

In western Kansas a passenger train was stopped on the level prairie by an obstruction ahead. Snow began drifting around the wheels, and in a few hours there was a solid drift up to the windows of the coaches the full length of the train. Several days later, when it was released, it was found the wheels were frozen to the rails. The cars had to be uncoupled and broken loose one at a time.

The morning of the second day of the storm the Santa Fe had several trains of cattle in western Kansas, east bound, in the usual course of business. They were rushed to Dodge City and unloaded for safety. The management congratulated itself upon thus getting them into a feeding station, which Dodge City was at the time. The next morning less than twenty-five per cent of the animals unloaded were alive. Leaving them in the cars meant certain destruction, and the railroad followed the only course that offered even a hope of saving them.

Each railroad issued a general order on the third day, refusing shipments of freight of every character. This order remained in effect almost the entire month.

Many farmers reversed positions of animals each day, where more than one stood in a stall, to prevent one side becoming frozen. With all the protection possible to give them, their eyes, nose, ears and hoofs were frozen. For days at a time it was impossible to get out to feed sheltered stock, and watering them was not attempted.

Numerous stage routes were still in operation at that time. A number of stages became lost and wandered miles from their routes. A stagecoach came into the military post of Camp Supply, Indian Territory, with the driver sitting on the box frozen to death. The passengers inside knew nothing of the death of their driver until after they had alighted at their destination.

Freighters plying between the railroads, interior towns and remote military posts were caught on their routes and obliged to seek any possible shelter. Many turned their animals loose, and even then perished.

The entire country south of the Platte river was open. Nothing was left any animal but to drift with the storm. When they reached the right-of-way fence of the Union Pacific railroad they could go no farther. There they froze to death in drifts along the fence. For several years afterward it was a matter of common remark that one could have walked from Ellsworth to Denver, a distance of more than four hundred miles, on the carcasses. Skinning these animals for their hides became an industry the following month.

South of the Santa Fe railroad there were no fences. From the southwestern ranches animals drifted across the Rio Grande river into Mexico and were never recovered. Range animals found after the storm, in many well-authenticated cases, had drifted several hundred miles. The canyon or ravine was their only possible refuge. Into these they drifted and piled up, too weak to go farther. If not smothered by other animals piling on them or being covered with snow, they were imprisoned by snow drifting around them until they could not move. Many thus starved to death before they were found. Antelopes, and even wolves, drifted with the cattle and piled up with them.

A well-known firm of southern Kansas ranchmen had a few weeks prior to the storm purchased 2500 cattle and placed them on their ranch for the winter, giving their notes in payment. A week after the storm struck, when it was possible to get out on their range, they found the cattle all dead, themselves $45,000 in debt and with no means of paying it. Not even the hides were saved. Of 5500 cattle on a ranch in southwestern Kansas, 5000 perished, entailing a loss of more than $100,000. The loss of entire herds was not uncommon, and fortunate was the man who did not lose more than half of his herd. Another ranchman was offered $25,000 for his cattle a few days before the storm. After the blizzard he sold the remnants for $500.

That commercialism will invade misfortune, and even death, was never better illustrated. Speculators originated the plan of buying of the unfortunate ranchmen, for a very small sum, all the cattle of their brand they could find alive. Such contracts were freely executed, the plains searched and cattle gathered. The animals found alive were so weak, however, that it is doubtful if the ones seeking to profit by the misfortunes of others actually made anything.

The net result of this storm was the most unprecedented loss of live stock ever experienced on the plains. The history of the state tells us of no catastrophe that has ever cost the loss of life and suffering produced by that terrible January, 1886. What planetary or atmospheric situation may have arisen, beyond the well-known barometric condition of the time, to have produced such an intense and continued blizzard has never been known. A weird story and sad commentary upon a land heralded everywhere as one of mild winters of short duration!

The pioneer of that day, of limited means at best, constructed but a makeshift upon his claim, which was for barter always. The “move on” spirit was his religion. A 10 x 12 shack of cheapest material, poorly put together and scantily furnished, was his domicile. No human being could have survived this storm in them, and many of the fatalities were directly due to this fact.

The uninviting dugout, of rattlesnake and other reptile legend, alone could provide security in such a storm. Families living in them, having sufficient provisions and fuel, suffered but little discomfort.

The February following was comparatively mild and bore little evidence of the arctic conditions of the preceding weeks. The writer, an eyewitness to many of these scenes and tragedies, hesitates to record them, the extraordinary nature, severity and duration of the series of storms that memorable month make the well-established incidents resulting there from almost beyond belief. In a continuous residence of more than a third of a century upon the Great Plains, never has he, before or since, seen anything that even remotely approached it.

Even such extraordinary disasters are not without their moral. While the result of this storm was to largely depopulate the plains and to financially ruin almost every ranchman, its lesson has never been forgotten by the ones who remained. It has resulted in the settler making proper provision for the winter, and has marked the end of the open-range method of turning animals loose at branding time in the fall, to care for themselves as best they can during the winter, the survivors being gathered at the spring roundup. The ranchman of to-day has his range fenced, hay provided, and, with the advent of cottonseed cake in abundance, has little fear of storms or cold weather.

The modern rotary snowplow, with a capacity of moving at a speed of four miles an hour through the deepest drifts, instead of the dangerous and uncertain wedge plow attached to the front of a locomotive, together with the vast improvement in the government Weather Bureau, especially in the dissemination of storm warnings, have made the railroad of to-day practically immune from snow blockades.

Likewise are the settler and ranchman protected by advance notice of approaching storms, through the medium of the rural telephone system now found in even the most remote sections of the country, and by the intelligent reading of his own barometer.

Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society Vol XII (1911-1912).

Kansas State Radio Network

Mary Knapp, Kansas State Climatologist.

—Audio courtesy of Kansas State Research and Extension.