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Record Blizzard: January 12, 1888

Cover/Children's Blizzard (2004)
Dan Collins


The anniversary of one of the worst blizzards in recorded history happened on January 12th, 1888. There were many heroes afoot that day, school teachers in the one room school houses on the open Dakota prairie who protected the children as if they were their own. Strangers helping others to safety and shelter wherever they could find it.

This happened 125 year ago this week.

David Laskin’s “The Children’s Blizzard” (2004), painstakingly researched the stories of the families, children of witnesses, teachers, and journals, to bring this incredible and tragic story together.

The storm began forming in the first week of January 1888 in the Canadian interior. By Sunday, January 8th, it was above the Montana – North Dakota border. The next day, in Helena, Montana, the temperature dropped by a staggering 50 degrees over four hours.  The sudden, bitter cold caught many people unprepared, and more than 230 lost their lives from exposure to extreme temperatures. Then, on January 11th and 12th, it moved into Dakota Territory and Nebraska.

Excerpt from the book:

In three minutes, the front subtracted eighteen degrees from the air’s temperature. Then evening gathered in, and temperatures kept dropping. By morning on Friday, January 13, 1888, more than a hundred children lay dead on the Dakota – Nebraska prairie…”


It was the most powerful storm to hit our area in recorded history. Two fronts collided in the atmosphere that packed enough energy to make it sound like a train was approaching. School teachers gathered students in the classrooms and prayed. The noise was deafening. Crystal-like pellets of ice gathered in every seam of clothing freezing people where they stood.

Northern Nebraska prairie schoolhouse after the blizzard of 1888 (

In an even more gruesome detail, two school students were found the next morning standing by a tree, apparently frozen in place as if still in casual conversation. That harrowing incident happened on what is now the Minnehaha and Lincoln County line in South Dakota.

Author David Laskin recounts the history of families, looking for a better life, arriving and settling homesteads in towns we know well. Wessington Springs, Huron, Sioux Falls, Yankton, and several small towns in Nebraska. My co-worker and friend, Jay Murphy’s great grandfather is mentioned in the book. You will find names and surnames that will be familiar to you.

In the days of the late 1800’s, weather forecasting and meteorology was just coming into existence. In fact, signal flags were used on post office roofs to let people know what kind of weather was expected. The same pattern, cold fronts approaching, rain, etc.. It was difficult in those days to warn people who lived outside of the town limits of dangerous weather. And unfortunately, many parents allowed their children to walk to school that day.

The book is heartbreaking, brilliantly written, and not soon forgotten.

On January 12th, remember how fierce, powerful, and unforgiving weather can be. Please be prepared for changing conditions, and never forget to say “I love you” to your kids as they leave for school.



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