16 April 2014

Snow Hurricane - Thrilling Account of Storm in Nebraska

[From Our Own Correspondent.]

Omaha, Neb., April 21. — Those who judge of the climate in this section of the country by its position on the map would be surprised to feel the keen dry wind which rises on these high plains in a moment and furnishes a taste of the pole with tropical surroundings. But this wind of the plains is a matter of course, and people are prepared for it. Not so such a visitation as that of Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, the 13th, 14th, and 15th. A storm of snow which is unparalleled in well-authenticated local history, coming after a particularly well-developed spring and almost on the threshold of speedy summer, is an event for which no preparation can be made and no satisfactory reason provided. For forty odd hours a wind blew strongly and steadily, frequently with a velocity of seventy miles an hour. It sufficed to carry houses bodily from their foundations, to overturn walls of solid stone, to blow cars from the track and land them beyond the ditches which drain the embankments on either side. The snow fell in sheets and masses, actually bridging over considerable rivers, and maxing at noonday an Egyptian darkness — a darkness which could be felt. The railroad cuttings were blocked up with masses of snow and ice, and so penetrating was the wind and so fine the drift at times that passengers within the cars, the doors and windows being locked, were covered with a snowy powder that forced its way in through the woodwork and round the window-casings so rapidly that the panels inside seemed to be smoking in a smouldering conflagration.

Of the windows with which the snow fell, some idea may be formed when it is said that on the Republican fork of the Kansas River, at Scandinavia, the ferry-boat sunk under the weight of the closely-packed drifts. At Wood River, 178 miles west of the city, the stream, which is some seventy yards in width, was choked and covered with snows that rose to the level of its banks, probably sixteen feet, and rendered the river bed indistinguishable from the country on either side. This incumbent heap of snow was not a mere wreath or trail arch, but so closely packed that a farmer is said to have driven a loaded wagon across the natural bridge. Many persons certainly crossed it on foot.

The snow fall did not present a less remarkable aspect in the matter of intensity. It not only swallowed up and destroyed all landmarks, but drew before the places where they had been so thick a veil that the keenest eye could not have distinguished them at a rod's distance. At Scandinavia the night was no darker than the day. For the two days that the storm raged the stormbound residents could not see the hitching-posts or garden fences which were only twelve feet from the windows. Strong men who were visiting who were visiting or who had gone to the post-office failed to distinguish the way home and were forced to remain where the storm found them till its fury was assuaged, thus adding intolerably to the anguish of their families, who feared them buried under the mountainous drifts. Residents round the public square could not, between the blinding drifts and the violent wind, reach the cistern in its midst, though the distance was less than twenty rods, and so were forced to melt snow for water. At Hastings people were forced to take refuge in their cellars and burrow there like rats, for the snow drifted in through the walls of the houses and formed piles round every article of furniture. At Grand Island, when the chimneys became choked with snow so that fires were impossible, whole families went to bed in their clothing and remained there for two or three days, without fuel, food or water. At Gibbon twenty-five men, most of whom had gone thither to open a lodge of Odd Fellows, were cooped up in a small house from Sunday afternoon to Wednesday noon, unable to even open the door. At Lone Tree, a man named Burton, who had gone to the woodshed to bring in some fuel for his family, found it impossible to return, and had to remain there from Monday morning till Tuesday night. At Kearney another man passed forty hours in a wooden privy in a backyard, to which he had wandered, thinking all the while that he was on the roadway. At Belleville a German named Koch is said to have groped his way from his house to the yard for wood, but to have been overpowered by the snow and wind and never to have returned. His wife, rendered desperate by his absence, at last ventured out to seek him, but lost her way, and, fortunately, brought up at the stable, where she remained from Tuesday morning till the same night, her two children, one three and the other nine, being left in the house all alone.

The brute creation suffered terribly. those that were corralled or out on the plains were suffocated by the snow; those that were in stables went mad with famine and thirst. Even the wild birds, to whom the storm is a parent and a playmate, were overpowered. At Wood River prairie hens were found under the snow so benumbed that they could neither fly nor run, and giving no tokens of life when men took them up and handled them save by the pulsation of their scared hearts and the upward glance of their inquiring eyes. At Grand Island they were picked up by dozens, dead, little lumps of ice and tousled feathers. At Stevenson the residents found birds that had broken their necks and wings against the houses and barns in the blind terror of their aimless flight, flung by the hurricane like stones from a sling. At Lone Tree almost every hog in a blockaded cattle train were lost. The weakest were trodden under foot and rent by the stronger. Many more were suffocated.

The loss of stock on the plains must be immense; probably a half of the unsheltered cattle have been suffocated or drowned. Some herds stampeded in the panic caused by the first gale; their members were scattered over the plains; some tumbled into ravines and broke their necks or legs, being killed outright or disabled to linger till they died of hunger or suffocation; others blundered into rivers and were drowned; others roamed about till they were exhausted and panting and sobbing, to be covered ten feet deep by snow before they died for lack of air. "At Gibbon, one man lost twenty head of fat cattle by drowning; another lost 200 head, of which only two were recovered." "At Lone Tree several hundred head are missing." "At Grand Island hardly a head is saved." "At Lincoln one man has lost seventy-five horses." So the reports come in from all points, indicating a loss of stock that will go up into scores if not hundreds of thousands of animals. "By George, sir," affirmed one dealer, "when this snow melts away, next August or thereabouts, Nebraska and Kansas will look like the vacant lot covered with broken chairs — the stiff legs of the dead steers 'll be so thick."

Many domestic animals were crushed to death by falling barns, which gave way under the weight of snow, or before the fury of the wind; some were suffocated in the snow; some died of hunger and thirst. But this loss and suffering of the brute creation become as nothing beside the sacrifice of life which this hurricane has been attended. Even now we can, make no accurate estimate of the number of lives lost. Along the railroad lines it has been considerable. It will be another month ere full reports can reach us.

Among the fatal accidents reported, the most terrible was one which occurred at Belleville, in Republic county, 100 miles west of Atchison. a prairie fire swept over the country on Saturday, the day preceding the storm, destroying many buildings, and a great deal of grain. Among the dwellings burned was that of a Mr. Crane. He was absent at Atchison, but his wife and four children were in the house. They escaped with their lives and the clothes they wore and took refuge with a neighbor named Burnett. Next day, from a sea of fire the land was a dessert of snow. The two families sought refuge in the cellar, fearing lest the house should be carried away. the storm drove in the solid stone gable as a man might drive in the side of a pasteboard box with his fist. the structure stumbled into the cellar, Mrs. Burnett being very badly crushed. On Monday morning his husband ventured out for assistance. Ere he returned the floors, bending beneath the incumbent weight of tons of snow, fell in as a dead fall-trap tumbles on the prey. Mrs. Burnett and her three children were killed instantly; so were Mrs. Crane and two of her little ones. Two others of the four survived, though terribly mangled, but one died a few minutes after he had been extricated. Of the ten inmates only one little girl survived. The child said, amid her sobs, "We were ally crying together, and then the house tumbled so (clapping her little hands); and that was all."

At Belleville several other buildings were wrecked by the storm, though no other lives were lost. At Gibbon a snowdrift forty feet high is the cenotaph which marks were a house once was inhabited by a newly-married couple, till the wind in a moment made a ruin of the house and corpses of the bride and groom. At Scandinavia a flour-mill, 60 by 40 was moved bodily about four feet from its foundations and tilted all askew. It looks like a stiff hat knocked all aslant by violent contact with a beam. Near by a stone stable was blown down, the roof being carried across the yard and flung upon a carriage-house. At Grand Island the wind blew the windows in one gable of a frame house, and lifted off the roof as if by the explosion of a barrel of gunpowder, though not a pane of glass in the sides of the house was cracked.

Among the many cases of death reported some are of a peculiarly harrowing or extraordinary character. At Cawker four bodies were found, one in front of a house, and so near the fence that the gate, when opened, smote against his corpse. At Lone Tree a servant in a tavern that went into the yard for wood, groped his way into the road, and died. Those who went out to seek him in a lull of the storm stumbled over a body within forty yards of the house. It was not that of the boy they sought but of a trapper, whose woodcraft had not availed to guide him a few steps further to safety. At Hastings a farmer named Marshall went to feed his cattle. The barn was about 200 feet from the home, directly in the rear, but the snow was over the fences, and he wandered to one side and was suffocated. At Grand Island two men were lost in a drift, about thirty feet apart. At Red Cloud Mrs. Bent and her child tried to grope their was to the next house, the wind and snow having rendered their own untenable. Five days after the two bodies were found in the road less than fifty yards from the refuge they sought. The child had given way first, and the mother died beside it. Near Tehama they found an unknown man with a dog keeping watch over the dead body. At Grafton Mr. Keeler, his wife and child tried to reach a neighbor's house. They struggled on — it was only half a mile — the feebler ones tired and sat down to rest, "it felt so warm." Only a minute, they said. A childless widower strove desperately through the drifts and reached the house, leaving all who bore his name buried in the highway. At Chapman's a woman is said to have left her two children in the house while she went for wood, and never to have returned. The children only know that she "went out there," and they "waited and cried so long and so hard."

So by every mail, from every quarter comes the death roll. It is natural that in the first excitement and confusion that there should be exaggerations and duplications, and that some of the alleged dead should prove to be still alive. Hopes are entertained that many of those known to be out when the storm set in will yet turn up, and that many of the missing are safe. It is cruel to dissipate such hopes, but they rest on only a slight warranty. The snow fall was so heavy, and the storm lasted so long, that there is no probability that any [two words not legible] the tempest descended escaped. When the list of dead is completed within the circuit of the storm, it will be found that several hundreds of lives have been lost. Ere that list, however, is made up all interest in the matter will have been lost. Life is cheap on the frontier, and existence busy. All are new comers, whom few have known long enough to miss much and mourn deeply. In the rush of immigration and settlement, the few dead will be forgotten. In the rapid development of the country the "great storm of 1873" will soon become a thing of the past — as remote and vague as the "great storm of 1856" of which we all hear so much and remember so little. Still many a babe that is unborn shall rue the dawning of that April day of snow.

April 29, 1873. The snow hurricane. Thrilling account of the storm in Nebraska. New York World 13(1319): 1.