The Blizzards of 1886-1888


(This column was first published in the January 19, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)


We in western New York are not the only ones who face occasional severe winter storms.


In the three winter period from December 1885 to March 1888, the United States suffered a series of the worst blizzards in this nation's history. So severe were they on the plains of the Midwest that then-cattleman Theodore Roosevelt believed that "stock raising on the plains is doomed." Although what came to be called "the great die-up" and "death's cattle round-up" did not end all cattle herding, it did effectively conclude the romantic period of the great cattle drives.


Our Blizzard of 1977 was in some ways as severe as those earlier storms but by the late 20th century we had protections not available to our forebears. We suffered; they really suffered.


Consider some snapshots of those three winters.


In Kansas the heavy snows of late 1885 had piled drifts ten feet high even before the blizzard of January 1886 hit. Fifty to 100 people and 80 percent of the cattle were frozen to death in that state alone. Nebraska, Oklahoma and north Texas were also hard hit and the cold even extended to Florida and Georgia where the entire unpicked fruit crop was lost and Jacksonville pipes burst.


On November 13, 1886, it began to snow and did not stop for a month, and as in the previous winter January 1887 brought a 72-hour blizzard to much of the west. Hundreds of thousands of cattle died as did many settlers and cowboys caught away from shelter by the storm's sudden onslaught. One homesteader said that it "seemed as if all the world's ice from time's beginning had come on a wind that howled and screamed with the fury of demons." After the spring floods that followed, all that remained in many areas were cattle bones to be collected for fertilizer.


In the winter of early 1888, still another blizzard slammed into the prairies. It was called the School Children's Blizzard because it caught so many youngsters at school or on their way home. Some stayed at school with their teachers; a few overtaken by the storm burrowed into haystacks and were saved; too many others never made it.


Finally on March 11-13, 1888, a coastal storm brought blizzard conditions to eastern New York and New England. The Hudson River valley was particularly hard hit with four feet of snow falling in the Albany area and 21 inches in New York City.


Buffalo was spared all of these storms, but at least one Buffalonian was not. On March 11th, 1888, seventeen-year old Sara Wilson boarded a train here for New York City and headed directly into the storm. When the train's engineer attempted to ram through a huge snowdrift two miles from Albany, it was halted so abruptly that passengers were thrown to the floor and coal stoves were overturned, setting fires. With no other recourse, the passengers set out to hike to Albany through the snow. Sara's body was recovered days later buried in the drifts.


Still the East didn't suffer as much as those prairie dwellers. Typical of their experiences: A mother and two small children frozen to death in their claim shanty, their father also lost attempting to bring them fuel and food. The snow piled so deep over many cabins that their occupants had to use lanterns at midday. One man finally reaching town only to lose both feet to frostbite.


When the snow finally melted, flooding rivers carried thousands of bloated cattle downstream.


But those pioneers were tough. As one report said: "Spring rekindled the fires of hope.-- Gerry Rising"


In response to this column I received the following two interesting e-mail messages.


Retired Houghton College Music Professor Bruce Brown sent this:


Thanks for the article about the blizzards of the 1880s. A couple of observations:


1. Laura Ingles Wilder's book: The Long Winter details the effects of the blizzards of the winter of 1887 (I think) around De Smet, South Dakota.


2. The explosion of the volcano Krakatoa in the South Pacific late in the 1880s was without doubt the cause of the huge blizzards. Its smoke and debris were wafted aloft world-wide and took years to dissipate. [Indeed, Krakatoa burst in 1883 and the clouds of ash it emitted continued to circulate around the world for many years.. This influenced the weather of the Northern Hemisphere in a number of ways, certainly contributing to these winter extremes. For more on Krakatoa, see the websites of Dr. George Pararas-Carayannis and