North Dakotans are used to winter blizzards though the weather service records indicate that only 3 or 4 severe blizzards occur in each decade. However, in light of the irregular precipitation of the northern Great Plains, residents have come to expect blizzards at any time between late October and late April.
There are many memorable blizzards. The January 12, 1888 blizzard destroyed what was left of the open range cattle industry in North Dakota and killed 112 people. The blizzard of March 15, 1941 came through quickly and with little warning. Thirty-nine people died, most of them trapped in their cars. The blizzard of March 2, 3, and 4, 1966 may have been the worst recorded storm to hit North Dakota because of its long stay across the state, snowfall accumulation, and high wind speeds.
This blizzard came with plenty of warning from the weather service, but no one had experienced a blizzard of this power and duration. It began about noon on Wednesday March 2. By Friday night, the winds had reached 70 mph with gusts in some locations to 100 mph. The wind blew the snow about leaving parts of some highways clear, but other stretches where drifts were 20 to 30 feet high and hundreds of yards long. The actual snowfall varied, but reached 35 inches in some places and at least 20 inches in many places. Only the northwestern corner of the state was spared the destructive power of this storm.
On Wednesday, the State Highway Department requested travelers to stay off the highways; by Thursday, cities were asking businesses to close and for residents to stay off city streets. Visibility in the open country, and even in farm yards, was reduced to zero for 11 hours, and zero to 1/8 mile for another 19 hours. During the storm, Highway Department volunteers attempted to rescue travelers stuck in their cars. They managed to get to a few of them, but many remained trapped until Friday evening when the storm let up.
Despite the warnings, some travelers were caught in the storm. Two of these were couples trying to get to the Dickinson hospital in time for the birth of their child. One child was born in farmhouse before the couple was able to get to Dickinson; the other was born after the couple’s car got stuck twice in town, and the mother and father had to walk the last few yards to the hospital.
Three trains, one carrying 500 passengers were stalled by deep drifts near New Salem. All three trains eventually had to be dug out of the drifts by men with shovels because the drifts were too deep for snowplows mounted on work engines.
Five North Dakotans died in the storm (18 died throughout the storm’s path in three states). Three of the victims were men who apparently died of heart attacks while trying to shovel or walk in the storm. Two victims were young girls who had left their farm homes to tend to livestock in the barn, but lost their direction in the blizzard’s swirling snow and wind, and walked away from the house and barn into the pasture.
The economic impact of the storm was enormous. Official records show that 74,500 head of cattle, 54,000 sheep, 2,400 hogs, and numerous other livestock perished in the storm. Some of these were in open fields where snow blinded them, causing them to drift into fences where they died; others died in barns that were covered with snow drifts and sealed so tightly that the livestock suffocated; some died in barns that collapsed under the weight of the snow. City businesses shut down and many buildings were damaged by heavy snow.
Blizzards cost money. Farmers, cities, individuals, and state agencies have to pay extraordinary costs to repair the damage from storms. State Highway Department officials complained that they did not have enough trucks and bulldozers to move the snow after the storm stopped, because the trucks cost $21,000 each and rotary plows cost $26,000 ($139,000 and $180,000 in current dollars). The livestock killed in the blizzard of 1966 was valued at $12,000,000 ($80,000,000 in 2008). The Red River flood that followed this blizzard cost $7,900,000 ($52,000,000 in 2008).
During blizzards, schools close to the delight of children. Businesses shut down and the residents of North Dakota take a small, at-home vacation from their daily routines. However, blizzards also took time and effort as people tried to live through them and recover from them. Snow removal took the lives of three men; men working for the Highway Department risked their lives to rescue stranded travelers on the highways. Two weeks after the blizzard, Ida Kellogg was still exhausted, still drained by worry, and still fearful that she and her “boys” might have died in the storm while trying to save their livestock.
Snow is part of winter routine on the northern Great Plains. Rather than drive people away or prevent the development of towns and cities, people learn to adapt to the usual cold and snow of winter and to accept unusual storms such as that of March 1966 as part of life in the semi-arid north.
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Bismarck, North Dakota 58505
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