Winter of the Big Snow

I was intrigued by the picture appearing in the Sentinel of December 10, 1970 and it started a chain of thought in my mind that I am sure you would be interested in and I will try and get it to you before you leave for a warmer climate.  We have been getting your overflow cold waves regularly about two to three days after you send them on east. We are not complaining because if we didn't get them through North Dakota they would come from Canada and those are usually colder than your variety which seem to get somewhat tempered down by the time they reach us.

The storm that blocked Main street in Cooperstown in 1896 started on election day, the first week in November and I think it must have been on a Saturday because we kids were not in school but played all day long in Marquardt's ice house while it snowed like the dickens outside.  They had cleaned out the sawdust to ready it for the new crop of ice and with the ropes hanging from the rafters; it made a great place to play.  The weather was mild and the snow kept coming down about as hard as it could, all day long.  This icehouse was later converted into the opera house and was situated on the block back of P.K. Moe's hotel but if I haven't lost track of the time, it then belonged to Pete Johnson.

I would venture the guess that by nightfall there was two to three feet of fluffy white snow on the ground and shortly after dark the wind began to rise and it turned into a typical North Dakota blizzard and the first of many that followed, some of them of three days duration throughout the rest of the winter.  When they dug themselves out they found all roads blocked completely as well as the railroad and the west end of Main street was so effectively snowed in that no attempt was made to clear it out and there was never a vehicle that went up or down it until it thawed out the next spring.  Someone carried the election returns from Hannaford on their back by way of the railroad grade and the returns from the rest of the county, especially up toward Aneta were weeks in arriving.  You have to remember that telephones were unheard of and even graded roads were almost non-existent.  Cooperstown was the end of the ranch line from Sanborn and the Great Northern had not been extended west from Hope so it left a great scope of country northeast, north and west entirely dependent on Cooperstown for supplies and communication with the outside world.

This picture must have been taken after the election-day storm because the snow got above the second floor windows of many of the buildings and a tunnel was dug from the hotel on the south side of the street across to Tang's pool hall on the north and it served as a crossing the rest of the winter.

This storm was only the fore-runner of many, some of them of three days duration and even worse intensity and the snow became drifted so hard that no attempt was made to dig through them but they cut steps in order to go over them.  They became glazed on top and we kids could skate any place on them.  Of course, bobsleds were the means of travel and the roads became built up so high by spring that they stood two to three feet above the ground level with passing tracks every so far apart.  If a sleigh got off of the track it was some job to get it back on and much of the traveling was done in groups so that they could help each other.

W.T. McCulloch and some of his neighbors who lived around Lake Jessie cut tree branches and stuck them in the snow every so far apart the whole 12 miles from Lake Jessie to Cooperstown as a guideline in case of an emergency and nearly every farmer had a rope stretched from his house to the barn.  This may sound a little farfetched to some people who have not experienced the full force of a North Dakota blizzard but it can blind a person almost instantly and it comes with a whirling motion that seems to hit you in the face no matter which way you turn so you lose all sense of direction almost at once.

The railroad had just as hard a time as everyone else and the problem of keeping the 32 miles of track open so that the train could get through was more than they could keep up with.  The first storm or two was not so bad and the ordinary wedge plow would clear it out but as the cuts got narrower and higher they became useless and the rotary was the only thing that could get through and as it was so much more important to keep the main line open than the branch lines and they did not have very many rotaries on the prairie division, the branch lines were the last ones open.  If my memory serves me right, there was one stretch of 13 days that Cooperstown was without a train.  Now you can visualize what that would do to the distribution of supplies, especially fuel which had to be all brought in by rail with the result that it was rationed all winter long and many farmers were forced to twist straw and hay to burn to keep from freezing to death.

The long winter finally came to an end and then it was water everywhere.  Cooperstown was an island in the middle of a lake and getting in or out was almost as much of a problem as when everything was blocked with snow and again the railroad grade became about the only route in and of course this ran only to the south.  Ills situation lasted for nearly three weeks.  One day some of us kids fastened some railroad ties together and launched our raft at the depot.  We pulled it clear around the town, down past Glen Dyson's farm to the Langford farm.  I suppose that was about four miles.

The snow came so early that fall and so much of it that the ground hardly froze at all so that when it started to go in the spring it thawed from underneath and would leave what looked like a solid bank which in reality was nothing but a hollow shell and if you attempted to walk over it you might fall through and disappear from sight.

Yes, this was well named "the winter of the deep snow" and it is hard to realize that 75 of them have come and gone since and not many are still alive who can remember the discomforts and privations that were experienced by so many.

Basil Edmondson
(Written to Mildred Udgaard Johnson in January of 1971.)

Source: Cooperstown, North Dakota 1882-1982 Centennial Page 261

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