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Freezing, hungry and trapped: Remembering the once-in-a-century winter of 1948-1949

December 25, 2018

Editor’s note: Originally published Feb. 23, 2014:

On a sea of snow, John Klaasmeyer aimed his bulldozer for what he thought was the center of a road outside Albion, Neb. The tops of buried fence posts served as his guide.

It was the winter of 1948-49.

From Kansas to the Canadian border, an area nearly the size of France lay buried in snow and ice from blizzards that had begun in November.

The region’s economy was teetering on the edge of collapse. Cattle and sheep by the tens of thousands were dying of starvation and exposure.

Death and illness stalked people, too. Whole towns were rationing food. Some people were burning furniture for household fuel.

The problem: ceaseless winds and rounds of fresh snow defied efforts to keep roads and rail lines clear.

Among these storms was one of the worst blizzards on record: on Jan. 2 and 3, 1949.

All of Nebraska was suffering, except for the southeast corner of the state. Then-Gov. Val Peterson declared it the worst disaster in the state’s history.

And after a late January blizzard made it clear that livestock by the millions were at risk, President Harry Truman declared the region a disaster.

On Jan. 29 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched Operation Snowbound, a massive disaster response. Crews opened roads, cleared farmyards and carved paths to haystacks.

Twelve states were affected by the storms, but four — Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota — were the focus of Operation Snowbound. Sixty-five years ago this week, the effort was declared a success.

Corps records indicate about 240,000 trapped people were rescued, 115,000 miles of roads were reopened and more than 4million head of livestock were fed. But despite the effort, dozens of people and more than 158,000 cattle and sheep died.

Roy V. Alleman, a Nebraska editor, farmer and rancher of that era, wrote in his book “Blizzard 1949” that 76 people died.

Today, if such a series of storms struck, the consequences would be far less severe.

Better road construction would mean fewer insurmountable drifts would form. Improved weather forecasting would allow people days to prepare rather than be caught unaware. Larger fleets of more powerful plows would act more quickly to prevent drifts from becoming impenetrable.

In 1949 the corps and Union Pacific Railroad dispatched a total of more than 20,000 people to clear roads and lines. At their disposal were about 2,000 pieces of heavy equipment.

Military and private planes also undertook aerial reconnaissance, rescue and relief. Food and feed were dropped by air to remote ranches or brought in on a vehicle known as a weasel, a hybrid of a Jeep and snowmobile.

Among those hired by the corps were Klaasmeyer and his father and uncle. They were drafted because the family ran a bulldozer business in southeast Nebraska.

A high school senior at the time, Klaasmeyer remembers workdays that stretched longer than 12 hours. The ’dozer didn’t have a cab, and there was no such thing as a lunch break.

“It was cold, you were by yourself, and at night the only light you had was the moon,” Klaasmeyer, now 83, recalled.

His face and coat would turn black from diesel smoke. When his shift was over, he would collapse into the smelly, unwashed sheets of whatever open bed he could find at a hotel in Albion, the little town northwest of Columbus.

And he was lucky.

Combined, the corps and Union Pacific recorded 11 deaths among workers. Others suffered from snow blindness and such severe frostbite that amputations became necessary.

For rural families, a single dozer operator such as Klaasmeyer was as good as the cavalry.

Betty Stolle Schwarten remembers hiking a half-mile through the snow with neighboring farm kids to watch a ’dozer open their lane outside Concord in northeast Nebraska. She was 11 at the time.

“We jumped and hollered and waved white cloths,” said Schwarten, now 75.

“The biggest concern was hoping everyone stayed healthy,” she said. “No way could we have gotten to a doctor.”Like many others, her family kept fed thanks to a larder of garden produce and meat and a stable of chickens and cows. The value of a cleared road, beyond ending their isolation, was access to a doctor.

Townspeople weren’t immune from that worry, either.

When 16-year-old Carole Anderson Seiborg became ill with acute appendicitis, impassable roads meant she couldn’t get from Newman Grove to a hospital in Norfolk.

The Red Cross would retrieve her by airplane, if the town cleared a landing spot. When they couldn’t open a strip of roadway, the town plowed a clearing in an alfalfa field.

Seiborg, now 81, remembers balking at being driven to the plane. The reason? Her “ambulance″ was the back of a hearse.

“It was really upsetting,” she said, adding that she had been without her family to console her. As a farm kid, she had been boarding in town when she fell ill.

Elsewhere, hundreds of rail passengers were trapped on isolated lines and found refuge in towns so small, they overwhelmed populations.

“Travelers huddled in wayside refuges or felt the spreading numbness of frostbite in snowstalled cars,” wrote The World-Herald. “Whole towns went on short rations.”

The storms found countless ways to suffocate, freeze or starve cattle, sheep and horses. One farmer had to ship half of his small herd of dairy cows to slaughter because their teats had frozen, turned black and fallen off.

Many of the people who died fell victim to the cruel timing of the storms.

January’s infamous Blizzard of ’49 began at the end of the weekend that concluded the Christmas holiday. Mild weather that had lulled people out of their homes for visits with family and friends turned violent without notice, trapping them on the way home.

After his car stalled along a northwest Nebraska road, it took a husband two hours to carry his wife and their 18-month-old child a quarter-mile to safety. The frostbitten baby would require skin grafts.

Others froze to death in their cars or stumbled to their deaths in desolate fields.

At the Harimon farm outside Scottsbluff, the family strung rope from the house to the barn so that they could find their way.

“You could get lost in your own yard,” said Harold Harimon, now 81, but 17 at the time. “It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like that and I hope I never do again.″

This report includes material from “Blizzard 1949” by Roy V. Alleman.

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