Storm of the Century – the Blizzard of ’49
Articles,  Blog

Storm of the Century – the Blizzard of ’49


– [Announcer] Your
support helps us bring you programs you love. Go to wyomingpbs.org, click on support and
become a sustaining member or an annual member. It’s easy and secure. Thank you. (white noise) (electronic drone) – [Voiceover] Please do
not adjust your television. The following program
is brought to you in beautiful black and white. A good Sunday morning
to all you cowpokes, and Happy New Year 1949. Your weather forecast
for January 2nd calls for partly cloudy
skies, with highs in the 30s, and the possibility of some
snow flurries in the mountains. Safe travels, partners. (swinging jazz music) (wind moans) – [Voiceover] On Sunday
afternoon, January 2nd, 1949, an unexpected Arctic cold
front swept down from Canada and collided with
heavy, moisture-laden
air from the south. A massive, multi-state,
winter weather event was born. Portions of Colorado, Nebraska,
Wyoming, and the Dakotas were pummeled by heavy
snow, unrelenting winds, and sub-zero temperatures. The blizzard didn’t let up
until the following Wednesday. But this was just the beginning. Like the Dust Bowl
storms of the ’30s, with their ominous
walls of black clouds, the 1949 blizzards raged
white for nearly two months. The winds seldom ceased
their incessant howling. Temperatures bottomed out
the mercury in thermometers. Although much of Wyoming
was blasted by the storm, it was the state’s eastern
and southeastern counties that took the brunt
of the beating. Wind gusts of over 80 miles
per hour, in some places, created drifts 20
to 30 feet high, yet left the ground completely
bare in other areas. The storm blanketed 3,300
miles of Wyoming roads. All auto, bus, rail, and
air traffic came to a halt. Thousands of travelers
were stranded. Ranches, farms, and
entire communities became islands in
a sea of white. Livestock and wildlife
suffered and died. 17 people in Wyoming perished. It was the worst sustained
winter weather event the Upper Plain States
have ever experienced. Dubbed “The Great White Death” and “The Storm of the Century,” this was the Blizzard of 1949. (wind howls) – No, January 1st,
1949, was a nice day. Really for winter time,
it was a very nice day. And so was the early
part of January 2nd. I lived just 50 miles
east of Cheyenne, and about four o’clock
in the afternoon is when the wind came up and
the snow started falling, and we didn’t see
sunshine until the morning of the 5th of January. – I think that was one of
the more extraordinary things about the Blizzard of 1949 was that it started
unexpectedly, it brought with it high
winds and deep snow, and it lasted much, much longer than most winter storms. And so it goes down
in Wyoming history as one of those once
in a generation, or once in a century, events, because it combined
all of those qualities of surprise and ferocity that come with blizzards. – It caught people by surprise. Even the US Weather
Bureau experts didn’t see it coming. They were predicting
possible snow flurries. – [Voiceover] In
1949, weather reports simply weren’t as accurate
as they are today. Satellites and Doppler radar, computer models, and
other high-tech tools simply didn’t exist. – 1949 weather forecasting
was very simple in comparison to
what we do today. They would likely have a staff of about four to six people that were taking observations,
weather observations, at specific sites
across the country. They were using
those observations to get some sort of an idea of what the prediction
and what the weather would be going forward. But you can see here on the 1st, you start to see this deep
trough of low pressure developing across the northern
Rocky Mountain states. We’ll continue forward in time, and you can see it
really takes shape, and deepens across
the Four Corners into the day on Monday. And this would be about
when the conditions were the worst. Move forward into Tuesday, you see this big low pressure still really close to the area, even 48 and 60 hours later, into the day on
Tuesday, January 4th. It moves up into
the Central Plains by late on the 4th, and that’s when we start
to see conditions improve in eastern and
southeast Wyoming. – [Voiceover] Because of
bitter cold temperatures, the quality of the
snow was unusual during the Blizzard of ’49. – It was a funny snow. Real small, granulated, hard. Wasn’t any flakes to it much. It was more like… Well it was… Kinda like salt. – That snow was so hard, it was like cement. In fact, some
places, I understand they had to blast it out, because it was so hard. (wind howls) – [Voiceover] Accompanying
the cold and the snow were fierce winds that
seemed to never let up. – There was so much wind. That is what I remember
the most, is the wind. It was so cold. And always the wind was blowin’ 24 hours a day. It just never stopped. – We found rocks up
on top of the snow. Maybe it was half inch,
three quarters inch rocks that the wind had blown
up on top of the snow. And it was so, that was what
was so vicious about it. – [Voiceover] When strong
winds combine with snow, the smallest obstacle, a
rock, shrub, tree, or fence, can be the start of a snowdrift. Drifting during the Blizzard
of ’49 was monumental. – And there was this drift,
it was probably 20 foot deep, right in the middle
of the highway. It had just hit that snow fence and just went up and dropped. And there was this
massive drift. You know, I don’t know,
couple hundred feet long. Right there in the
middle of the road. – One of the neighbors
was snowed in in Lusk and he walked home clear
to north of Harrison. He remembers sitting on the
top of a telephone pole. It was that deep. – [Voiceover] During the
initial storm of January 2nd, state and county agencies
that usually combatted winter emergencies soon realized their equipment and
capabilities weren’t enough. The Wyoming Department
of Transportation deployed snowplows as usual, but the roads kept re-drifting as quickly as they were plowed. Wyoming governor A.G. Crane declared a state of emergency. The Wyoming legislature created a state emergency relief board to combat the crippling
effects of the storm. County relief boards, city and town
disaster committees, worked on a local level. By January 7th,
WYDOT, National Guard, and county plows
were finally making some headway against the drifts. But, oftentimes, they’d
hit something solid. Sometimes an abandoned
car or a frozen cow, a fence line or
small outcropping. There was no telling
what lay beneath the towering white blockades. (melancholic piano music) Besides the wind, snow,
and low temperatures, these storms also generated unique and weird phenomena. – So we had gotten
up that morning to feed the cattle, and it was cloudy, and it just started
lightning and thunderin’, and then it started snowing while we were out
feeding the cattle. – I think one of the
things that I remember the most about
the storm, though, other than the severity of it, was the static
electricity in the air. I’d never seen anything
like it before or since. We had six guns and rifles hanging on our living room wall. They were all pointed
the same direction. They were not pointed together. But there was a steady
stream of sparks come out of those gun barrels for three days and three nights. – While we were shoveling snow, I happened to look up, and… I turned around and told my dad, “Look up here, what we
have over our heads.” And it was a perfect rainbow with the exception of the fact that it was upside down, and the points were
up on either side, and the bow came down almost to the top
of the snowdrifts. – [Voiceover] Like that
rainbow, the Blizzard of ’49 turned people’s lives
upside down, as well. Those traveling home from the
Holidays in their automobiles were caught by surprise and
stranded by the blizzard. Some pulled to the
side of the road to sit out what they thought
would be a short-lived squall. Others slid off the
road into ditches or were stopped in their
tracks by impassable drifts. There they sat, marooned
for as long as three days. Some travelers
carried extra blankets in their cars for emergencies. Others raided their suitcases, and put on all the
clothes they had. In desperation, some
even ripped the stuffing from their car seats
for added warmth. Many were without much in
the way of food or water. As gas ran out and
car heaters failed, their misery only increased. – The man was trapped in
his car for three days. I think there was two
or three other people in there with him. But, uh, he compared it to being in prison camp during World War II, and he said this was worse. – [Voiceover] Other
storm-imperiled motorists slowly made their way
to roadside taverns, cafes, and filling stations. Rockport, Colorado,
was one such place. – Rockport located
about, oh I think, what, 15 miles
south of Cheyenne. Was a gas station
and a nightclub. They served food also. And, uh, a small facility. – [Voiceover] 365 people were
stranded there by the storm, including 19 infants. People were sleeping
on the floor, taking up every square inch
of the tiny establishment. Kids were crying,
food was running out, and a makeshift latrine was
set up in a utility room. – In addition to that,
there was a Greyhound bus with all of their passengers. In this small facility, they
were just jam-packed in there. Conditions were miserable. – [Voiceover] Eventually,
supplies were parachuted in from Lowry Air Force
Base in Denver. And snowplows and
tracked vehicles eventually reached the victims. Like those in Rockport,
most stranded motorists were finally rescued, but a few didn’t make it. – My aunt and uncle,
they were visiting. They lived east of Rockport, about four or five miles, and they went to
visit their neighbors, which was about three
and a half miles away, and they decided to start home. It was Sunday afternoon. And they got about
three-quarters of a
mile from the house, and the pickup got stuck. Lot of storms blow over,
you know, overnight. Well, they stayed and stayed, and then it got
colder and colder, and so they decided
that they’d start back. And they started walkin’ back, and two neighbors
survived the walk, and they said that
my aunt and uncle were tryin’ to hold up a blanket so the kids could
walk behind it, and it just didn’t work. And they went and went, and the kids couldn’t make it. When they found the bodies, well, my aunt was
reachin’ down… on her knee to get
the little girl, and she froze in that position. My uncle was tryin’
to hold up the boy, and they found him
froze in that position. – [Voiceover] For all the
tragedy, suffering, and loss, the Blizzard of ’49
also had a lighter side. People often turned to humor
to keep their spirits up. – Oh yes, after it was over, why here came Edwin’s dad
and his older brother. And I thought, “Oh my gosh,
I’ve gotta scrub my floor.” So, of course, I had the
warming oven on the stove, and I put some water in a
bucket, and a mop in it, and I stuck it down
to mop the floor, and the mop froze to
the floor. (laughs) So that ended that. – And they asked him why
he was digging a hole in the top of the
snowdrift, and he said well the last time he saw it, there was a windmill down
there that needed oil, and he thought that was
a good time to do it. – Yeah, they tell the
story of a bunch of people were sitting around somewhere, tellin’ stories
about the blizzard, and this one bachelor
he kept saying, “We lost every chicken we had.” And somebody else would
tell another story. “Yep, we lost every
chicken we had.” Finally, after about
three or four times, why, somebody said, “Well, Hap, how many
chickens did you have?” And he said, “One.” (laughs) – [Voiceover] During
the blizzards, many Wyoming
citizens unselfishly gave their time and resources
to help those in need. The Blizzard of ’49 broke
down social barriers and leveled the playing field. Rich and poor,
city-dwellers and ranchers, government workers
and civilians alike, came together to work
for the good of all. – Everybody knew everybody. And no matter what happened, if you’re havin’ trouble, hell, everybody
pitched in and helped. It was good people. – They helped each other
tremendously, you know. People that didn’t
have family or whatever would let, you know,
somebody stay at their house. Like the kids that
were stuck in town, that were goin’ to town school, that lived out on
ranches and stuff, they’d open their
house to ’em, you know, and take care of ’em. – [Voiceover] In one
instance, in Goshen county, a fleet of vehicles carrying
vital supplies from Torrington, drove thirty miles into the
northern part of the county, where people were
in desperate need. 65 men with nothing
more than snow shovels cleared the way during
terrible weather conditions. They shoveled at the rate
of one mile per hour. But they succeeded
in their delivery. People driving back home
would often come across cars that had slid off the road. They’d stop, pick
up the passengers, and take them into their homes. Other times, people
abandoned their vehicles and walked to nearby farmhouses, where they were taken in, fed, and provided with blankets
and a place to sleep. Some homes were so crowded
with storm refugees that they had to
take turns sleeping, but none were turned away. – When somebody knocked
at the door in the storm, there was no question but
what you would take them in and do everything you could
to make them comfortable. – [Voiceover] But autos
weren’t the only conveyance in which people found
themselves stranded. Trains, both steam locomotives
and powerful diesels alike, simply couldn’t move forward when huge drifts filled up cuts. Many froze to the tracks, waiting for help to arrive. – In the entire area, there
were more than 50 trains stalled on the tracks, with
over 8,000 passengers aboard. And the Burlington at
Casper was snowbound, and, there again,
another situation, the Chicago Northwestern,
east of Casper, over toward Lusk,
that was snowbound. And then further north, up toward Newcastle, in Black Hills, in Black Hills, It just was a continual thing and it cost the railroads
millions of dollars, and millions in those days
is a lot of money today. – [Voiceover] Along its
line, the Union Pacific mobilized rotary plows,
V-plows, bulldozers, Carry-Alls, and other equipment. Flamethrowers were used
to thaw frozen trains. Thousands of employees
devoted their time to fighting the tempests
across the UP’s lines. Five died in the line of duty. In the first week of the storm, nearly 1,000 passengers
were stranded on westbound trains
stalled in Hillsdale, Egbert, and Pine
Bluffs, Wyoming, near the Nebraska border. Egbert was a town of 60 people. A whistle-stop on the railroad between Pine Bluffs and Burns. Union Pacific employees
melted snow to make coffee. Mothers with babies used
towels and napkins for diapers. As supplies began to run low, a stalled freight
train was raided for its cargo of eggs, ham,
bacon, chicken, and lettuce. By Tuesday, the sub-zero
cold froze the steam lines and disabled the heating system, dropping the in-car temperatures
to 10 degrees above 0. The passengers were evacuated. Women and children were ushered into the nearby train
depot to keep warm. Others trekked through
50 mile per hour winds and waist-high drifts to a
schoolhouse four blocks away. Most weren’t dressed
for cold weather. – They didn’t anticipate
terribly cold weather or a snow storm. They just thought they
were going from Chicago to San Francisco. (laughs) It wasn’t prepared for that. – [Voiceover] On Wednesday,
as the weather cleared, the passengers finally
received some good news. Buses were coming to
take them to Cheyenne. By noon the next day, they
were aboard another train, bound for the West Coast. Some stranded trains had
to be dug out by hand before rotary plows could
arrive and attack the drift. – We dug out the engine, shoveled and shoveled
and shoveled. A lot of the water we
threw into the tender, or the snow we threw
into the tender, and, like has been said before, that was really
pretty hard snow. – They were steam engines then. They couldn’t really
get her, so they went. I don’t know where they
found a great big rotary. And it was a big one, mounted
in front of a steam engine. And they’d get in them cuts, and there’d be cattle
in there, froze, solid. And it’d tear up
their big rotary, so they’d take her back to
Shad-er and patch it up. By the time they come back, they had to start all
over again. (laughs) – [Voiceover] Although
the blizzards created tremendous hardships
for many people, it was a different story
altogether for children. During periods of clearing,
the world was transformed into a winter
wonderland for kids. – Kids that were seven,
eight, nine, 10 years old that just thought it was
just the greatest time. They didn’t have
to go to school. They could run out there
and sled down these hills and throw snow around, and never have to worry
about going to school for six weeks. It was a highlight in their
education career, you might say. – The next day, there
was drifts everywhere, and you couldn’t see from
our house to the barn. It was just a skier. We could jump off the barn. You could walk up on a
drift and get on the barn and then jump off in the snow, and just go right back
up on the barn. (laughs) – Our farm was totally
level as a tabletop. And it was the first time we had hills to sled on. Snowbanks close to
15, 16 feet deep, up the sides, and clear
over the roof of the barn, and crushed some of the
timbers of the barn roof. We played on that snowbank
for the next six weeks with our sleds. – [Voiceover] But as
kids were having fun, ranchers were worried about
being cut off by the storms, and working harder
than ever to dig out. – Our ranch house was essentially under an entire snowdrift, and so my dad had to
shovel out these tunnels out of the front door. And, of course, you couldn’t
even see out of the windows. So we were sort of like moles down in that hole, that house. We waited for my dad to
shovel out the front door and get out to the
front of the house. – We had to take the glass
out of the storm door to get out on the doorstep, to shovel the door open
to get out of the house. I don’t think I ever want to
shovel snow like that again. It drifted so badly that
we would have to shovel out every door that we entered. The barn doors, the house door, all of those we would have
to shovel out every morning. And then every evening
when we did the chores, we had to shovel them out. – I always said that
anyone who lived through the Blizzard of ’49, especially if they were
out in the country, should never have
to shovel another shovelful of snow
in their lives. They had fulfilled their
snow shoveling for life by the time they got
through that storm. – [Voiceover] Most
farmers and ranchers had home canned and
other food supplies stored for emergencies
like blizzards. – Rural people do very well, keeping themselves supplied with gasoline and
groceries and supplies. So we didn’t suffer from that, except where families
took in extra people. And then that became a problem. But, for the most part, the self-sufficiency of the
families served them very well. – [Voiceover] But some
were stranded for so long that supplies and medicine
did become an issue, as the storms raged on. – My mother kept the
records of the snow, and we were snowed
in nine weeks, before anybody could
go, get out of there. – [Voiceover] Those
without telephone service relied on radio broadcasts for
vital emergency information regarding the storms and
the safety of loved ones. If they were in need, they were instructed to leave
coded messages in the snow. – See, they made
signs in the snow. They were given a
code over the radio, if you needed food or
if you needed something, you used the different codes. – [Voiceover] The coded
messages were sighted and acted upon by a volunteer
auxiliary of the Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol. These pilots flew food,
fuel, and medical supplies to isolated families, completing thousands
of missions, often in terrible
weather conditions. – There were two
pilots in Pine Bluffs going, making runs
off of Highway 30, right downtown Pine Bluffs, and delivering groceries. – They had people
with private planes. They would have ways of marking
out there in the country, “We need a doctor,” or
“We need this medicine,” “We need this
food,” or whatever, and they would do airdrops in. – The amazing thing
that I have found, over the ’49er Blizzard, was very few heart attacks. The people were used
to shoveling manure, grain, hay, sand, whatever. We had strong hearts,
and we could take it. – [Voiceover] But there
were medical emergencies. Appendicitis attacks, accidents,
and other severe illnesses required immediate attention. In those instances,
Civil Air Patrol planes equipped with skies, flew in doctors
to isolated areas, and transported sick
people or pregnant women to hospitals. On the ground, the Western
States Telephone Company provided tracked vehicles
that could negotiate the drifted terrain. – The sudden drop of
the barometer caused every woman that was
near to giving birth to think she was
having her baby. And they did use
the little Weasel through the telephone company, and they did take a lot of women in to the hospitals
for their babies. – [Voiceover] Besides
food and medical support, staying warm indoors
during the blizzards was a top priority. Farmers and ranchers
relied on coal, gas, oil, and firewood. And if these began to run out, drastic measures
were sometimes taken. – Some people ended up burnin’
furniture to keep warm. – We did have an oil furnace. So, yeah, we were pretty good, but, like you say, you just
stayed in the main rooms, ’cause you couldn’t
heat everything. You shut everything else off. So you just stayed
in small spaces. – The snow actually blowed
through the cracks in the walls. I can remember, and
when it was cold you just couldn’t
keep the house warm. That old heater would
be red-glowin’ hot, and you’d eat your
meals standin’ around
the heatin’ stove in that old house. And there was an inch board
and some hand-hewed shingles between us and 40 below sleepin’ up in the
loft of that old house. – One thing that made it bad was most houses
were not insulated and built like they are today. I said a bushel full of snow
woulda come in a nail hole. And I believe that’s right. – [Voiceover] The
poor insulation and
weather resistance of old ranch and farm houses led to other problems, as well. – And the snow would blow
through those wooden shingles and accumulate in the attics. And then, of course,
having heat in the kitchen or in any of the rooms, then it would melt and
ceilings would fall in. – [Voiceover] But it
wasn’t just attics that filled with snow. – Barns filled up, granaries
got snow through a keyhole. (laughs) That drift, a big
old drift inside the granary right through the keyhole. You couldn’t believe
how much snow could go through a keyhole. – [Voiceover] As barns and
outbuildings filled with snow, the animals housed in them, although protected from the
direct blast of the storm, had other problems
to contend with. – And these poor bulls… the wind kept blowin’
the snow in, evidently, and they just kept
packin’ it down and packin’ it down, and when we got there,
there wasn’t about an inch between their back and
the roof of the building. It just, they were all right, but, man, I never
saw anything like it. – [Voiceover] But
it was the livestock in the fields and pastures
that suffered most from the Blizzard of ’49. Some cattle and sheep died
standing in place from exposure, or from suffocation. The fine snow froze
in their noses and cut off their air supply. Others simply starved to death. Official estimates put
Wyoming cattle loss at 55,000 head. And sheep at about 150,000. Other estimates projected
that over 1,000,000 cattle and sheep would be
lost in the four state area. But stockmen considered all
of these figures to be low. – I remember looking out
the window, and I thought, “Jesus, there’s an old boy “made a sculpture
out of a horse.” And an old roadhand would go by, and it wasn’t a
statue, it was a horse. It was actually a horse,
and it was frozen solid. And he was standin’ up. Hell, there was cattle frozen, and sheep frozen, and even antelope. – I remember the cattle. After the storm, their
heads would be down and there would be an
icicle from their jaws, from their chin, to the ground. And they were, it
was just a big like. They were, they were, I said
they were welded to the ground. And Dad would have to take
an ax and chop ’em loose. – That is sad, I tell ya. The livestock,
they were helpless, just completely at the
mercy of the storm. And they were just frozen
right into their tracks. And you can’t get
to them to help. It’s sad to see them. It was a great loss. (melancholic piano music) – [Voiceover] The situation
was getting desperate. To get feed to starving
cattle and sheep, the Air Force launched
Operation Haylift. C-45 and C-47 cargo planes
were loaded with tons of hay, feed, and other supplies and flown into cities like
Casper, Cheyenne, and Rawlins. The provisions were then moved to outlying farms and ranches, sometimes by
snow-busting convoys. In really inaccessible areas, the hay was dropped
directly onto the range as close to the snowbound
livestock as possible. In addition to the military
flight crew on each mission, there were several civilians. A “spotter” was someone
familiar with the area who guided the pilot
to the animals in need. Then there were the “kickers,” other locals whose job
it was to shove the hay out of the open cargo
doors of the aircraft. – We did anywhere from four to
eight or nine flights a day, depending on how fast, you know, we could get the hay,
you know, to the plane. We would fly over
where we were supposed to drop the hay out. We’d get our hay hooks and
start thrownin’ ’em out one at a time. Well it took a
long time to do it, and we missed the
target most of the time. But we figured out a method. We had this, basically
the same thing, where we made a big slide, so when we got where we
wanted to drop the hay, the pilot would just
head up and all the hay come tumbling out all by itself. So we were able to
really dump all that hay real quick that way. And make a lot more trips. – [Voiceover] These
operations could be hazardous. The planes often flew
over rugged mountains, then dove low to get the
feed close to the animals. The threat of
free-falling hay bales damaging the aircraft
was ever present. Once dropped, the
tightly pressed bales frequently burst like bombs
when they hit the ground. The loose hay scattered,
ready for feeding. There were mishaps, but
no serious accidents. One rancher, who
asked that a bale be dropped as close to
his house as possible, was aghast when it
crashed through the roof of his front porch. Not everyone was convinced the
hay lift flights were useful. Some thought the vast
number of cattle and sheep needing feed made
airdrops impractical compared to
ground-based operations. But the flights did help
as a temporary measure, getting food to
inaccessible livestock that were in critical shape. It kept them alive until
they could be fed normally. Operation Haylift was
repeated many times across Wyoming,
Nebraska, and the Dakotas during the Blizzard of ’49. Some 2,000,000 cattle and sheep received hay from the air. Among all the residents of
the Upper Plains States, some of the hardest
hit during the blizzard were Native Americans, both on and off reservations. Indian life in the
late 1940s was tough, without much material security. This was exacerbated
by the blizzard. At the request of the
Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Red Cross delivered
food and supplies when roads were blocked or when reservations
had insufficient funds to meet the emergency situation. Indians living off the
reservation suffered as well. Some lived in tents, burning
old tires and railroad ties to stay warm. They sometimes ate
blizzard-killed beef, despite the possibility that
the meat might be toxic. – They were pretty
destitute people. You know, they didn’t
have much of anything. Imagine livin’ in, they
probably some of ’em lived in just a canvas tent
during that ’49 blizzard. – I heard from more
than one source that the Indian reservation
up in South Dakota was one of the last
areas to be cleared. And one party told me
it was almost April 1st before they got in there. – [Voiceover] It wasn’t just
outlying farms and ranches and Indian reservations that
were impacted and isolated by the storms. Cities as big as Cheyenne
and towns as small as Lusk were drifted over with snow. Hotels and restaurants
were crowded with stranded travelers. Because of closed
transportation corridors, emergency food supplies, as well as those on
grocery store shelves, began running low. – The one aspect
that’s interesting
about the small towns is that, uh, Wyoming
in those days was very well served,
generally, by railroad. And, uh, not only for
as passenger trains, but also most of the supplies that were brought into
these towns came by rail. – We got most of our groceries
and stuff by railroad. And there was no
railroad train in here for 13 and a half days. – The stores were out
of products, you know, like meat and, you
know, normal stuff. You know, milk and eggs
and stuff like that, they were out of them. Pretty bare pickings
in the stores. – It got so bad in Rawlins that the bars, uh… were not selling,
uh, packaged goods, because they wanted to
keep what liquor they could for their shots, you know, for their regular drinks. That’s bad. – [Voiceover] Rawlins escaped
the first storm of January 2nd with only three inches of snow. A short time later,
all that changed. – We had passenger trains
stranded in Rawlins. First time, 250 passengers. And the last time, 650. At one time, the Red
Cross was feeding 1,700 meals a day for stranded passengers and otherwise. – [Voiceover] Six foot
drifts on Highwaty 287 were reported on January 18th, with a temperature of
22 degrees below zero. A new onslaught of snow
hit on January 23rd. Then, on February 6th,
yet another blast. – The houses on the
south side of Rawlins, several of ’em, were
covered entirely, and they had to
evacuate the people. And, uh, lodge ’em elsewhere. On the west end where
the highway went through, it drifted into the Ideal Motel. I would say up to the eaves
of the tourist cabins. – [Voiceover] Railroad service
between Rawlins and Laramie finally resumed after almost
two weeks of inactivity. It was then that
Rawlins received its first carload
of mail in 12 days. In Lusk, drifts piled
up 12 to 13 feet high. Outside of town, they
approached 30 feet. A drift towering over
a highway patrol car puts it all into perspective. – Well, that same
patrolman was standing on that ’49 Ford car, with his hands
stretched up in the air. He was at least six
foot tall himself. And those drifts were several
times taller than he was. There was drifts 20 to
30 feet deep really, on the highway and the railroad. – [Voiceover] Main
Street Lusk businesses were nearly inaccessible. – I recall going out and climbing on a pile of snow that was out in the yard. It was like ice. So I could see up
and down Main Street, to see what it looked like. Snow, just snow. Everything was covered. You didn’t see any
buildings at all. No cars moving, the cars
were all covered with snow, and would be for quite a while. – [Voiceover] 450 persons
were stranded in Lusk, filling the local hotels
and tourist courts. Discovering this, Lusk
citizens voluntarily called the hotels, offering to share
their homes with the marooned. Casper received only
eight to 10 inches of snow during the first blizzard, but it was cut off
from the south and east by snow-clogged roads. The state highway
department in Casper reported that snowplows
sent out Monday on the highways to
Douglas and Midwest were lost. Additional plows were dispatched to locate the men
and their vehicles, but they, too, failed
to report back. Finally, on Wednesday,
all were accounted for, some spending the time
in their vehicles, others taken in at ranches. Also on that Wednesday, Casper’s little airlift began. Light planes took off
from Wardwell Field to search the area for herds
of lost sheep and cattle. A reporter flew up with
them to take pictures. When they were developed, his editor thought there
was something wrong with the camera. All that could be seen
were fields of white. Those who could reach Cheyenne
by train or automobile packed the hotels. Others were housed in
the Naval Reserve Armory, which was turned
into a dormitory for
stranded travelers. The initial January storm dumped an estimated 20 to 30
inches of snow on the city. Drifts piled high
from winds gusting to nearly 60 miles per hour. Over the next few weeks, Cheyenne slowly dug out. (melancholic piano music) On Monday, January 3rd, Laramie seemed to have
escaped the severe storm, but by Tuesday, January 4th, the city was bogged
down in drifts. All roads were closed
in the Laramie area. No rail, bus, or highway
traffic was moving. The University of Wyoming
halted registration activities for the winter term. – What’s extraordinary about it is that the
University of Wyoming almost never closes down. There has to be, really,
a pretty monumental event, snow event, for UW
to cancel a class, and yet it did so
frequently during January and early
February of 1949. – [Voiceover] The
Blizzard of ’49 not only had a significant
impact on humans and livestock, wildlife suffered, too. Although adapted to
normal winter conditions, Wyoming’s hoofed and
feathered creatures had a hard time coping with
this most abnormal winter. – December ’48 was much
tougher than usual, both temperature-wise and snow, and so deer and antelope
were in tougher condition going into January and
when the big blizzard hit. – [Voiceover] Deer
fatalities were heavy, especially in the upper
Platte River country. With the storms covering much of the natural
forage in the state, the Wyoming Game
and Fish Department initiated an emergency
feeding program. – [Voiceover] We found out it was a little
trickier than usual. We thought we would, you
know, just herd ’em to it, and then they’d just
start lappin’ up the feed. Well, wasn’t the case, as
it seemed like the stress from the herding took
away their appetites. We actually observed
higher mortality with fed deer than
corresponding deer that were on natural range. – Before the blizzard, we
had a pretty good population of pheasants and, uh, there wasn’t hardly
a pheasant left. They couldn’t survive it. They were buried too long. – Up in the area
around Hawk Springs, it was really noted for
good pheasant hunting, and after this blizzard,
it wiped out the pheasants. – [Voiceover] The pheasants
in Goshen and Platte counties were hit hard, you know. Also, though, the nesting and
brooding conditions that year were excellent, so that helped. The pheasant population
bounced back. – [Voiceover] But among
all of Wyoming’s wildlife, it was the antelope that
really fared the worst during the Blizzard of ’49. – [Voiceover] With those bad
conditions of December ’48, we had already
seen more pronghorn comin’ down and hangin’
out around highways, particularly US 30
and also, you know, the main UP line. There had already
been more animals, more pronghorn, than usual, escaping the snow
along those corridors, so it really got worse
after the blizzard hit. Quoting the 1949 Annual Report, Red Desert antelope were
all but “annihilated,” is the term they used. They say that 1,800
antelope were killed on the UP mainline during
the 1949 winter, from trains. – [Voiceover] Out
of all the wildlife, only the elk made it
through the winter without significant loss. Old records for
wind, cold, and snow were falling like dominoes. Storm after storm
lashed the area. No one had ever experienced
this much severe winter weather for so long. Governors of the affected states began asking for federal help. On January 29th,
1949, President Truman declared the region a
major disaster area. He commanded Major
General Lewis Pick of the US Army
Corps of Engineers to spearhead
Operation Snowbound. – President Truman
gave Major General Pick a blank check, and told
him to dig out the west. And that they did. Army, Navy, Air
Force, National Guard, private contractors came in with thousands of
pieces of equipment, opened roads and rescued people. – Convoys of trucks usually following a bulldozer. They went north,
south, east, and west. – [Voiceover] From command
headquarters in Omaha, General Pick described the
work of Operation Snowbound in the Dakotas,
Nebraska, and Wyoming as the greatest bulldozer
operation ever organized. Operation Snowbound had
three major objectives. One, relieve human
adversity and suffering. Two, clear ice and snow
from rails and roads to open supply channels. Three, conserve livestock. Speedy coordination
and implementation was a high priority of
Operation Snowbound. The four state
theater of operation totaled 193,000
square miles of land, about the size of Spain. The far-flung military
and civilian units needed to organize, mobilize,
and follow through fast. Any delay would mean
more livestock damage, continued human suffering, and the possible loss of life. The resources of each state were integrated into
the Army program. State, county, and local
disaster committees provided Army officers with maps and guides familiar
with the area. The Red Cross furnished
food, clothing, medicine, and medical care. State highway departments,
civil air patrols, highway patrols,
and National Guards all worked together with
the Army and the Air Force to combat the effects
of the storms. They were assisted by
agricultural organizations, civic groups, medical
societies, veterinarians, and news organizations. Private contractors
were also a big part of the operation,
with their bulldozers, snowplows, and manpower under
contract with the military. Army Weasels, M-29
tracked cargo carriers, ran atop the snow to bring
supplies and assistance to storm-bound residents. Following up the Weasels
were mobile strikeforces made up of
bulldozers, snowplows, fuel trucks, wreckers, tractors, and cargo vehicles. But sometimes even
these weren’t enough. At one point, a Sherman
tank was dispatched from Green River to rescue a
sick Union Pacific employee at an isolated pumping station. Those in the field faced
hazardous conditions. Incessant high winds
blew granular snow and splinters of ice, cutting faces and visibility. Extreme cold caused frostbite. The glare of the snow
led to snowblindness. One soldier and
six civilians died during their involvement
with Operation Snowbound. By February 19th, the
last of the great storms had rolled through the
Upper Plains states and the weather
began to improve. Now, Operation Snowbound
could work at full capacity, unhindered by severe weather. The mission that began
under presidential order on January 29th, 1949, ended some 45 days later, on March 15th. By all measures,
Operation Snowbound had been a resounding success. In Wyoming, over 4,000
people received federal aid. Nearly 1,000 Wyoming ranches
were assisted in some fashion. Snow-moving equipment logged
over 18,000 machine hours, and 139,000 man hours, opening thousands of miles of
Wyoming roads and feed lanes. Almost 28,000 tons of
food, fuel, and feed were hauled over these pathways. But after the storms, there was still more to be done. – There was a lot of work. There was certainly a
lot of buildings, too, that had been damaged by
the heavy weight of the snow or by the wind. So there were sheds and
other outbuildings at ranches that had to be repaired, so it was a costly cleanup over a rather lengthy
period of time, and so when you totaled
up all the economic costs, you have to take that
into account as well. It was not just all of the
delays from the blizzards stopping off traffic, but it was also the
cost of repairing things after the blizzard
was long gone. – [Voiceover] By the
time it was all over, Wyoming was left reeling
from the blizzard’s punch. In their wake, the storms dumped an economic catastrophe
on the state, estimated at $9,000,000, roughly $90,000,000
in today’s currency. General Pick estimated
the overall cost to the Operation Snowbound area at $190,000,000. As the weather cleared and
the temperatures warmed, there was fear of
massive flooding in many parts of the
state prone to this. In addition to the snow that
still lay on the ground, there were huge accumulations
in the mountains as well. But in Wyoming, spring thawing
occurred very gradually, and the massive snowbanks
were slow to melt. – One of the last
things that we ever hear of the winter of ’49
was in September. Many months afterwards, that they were diggin’ a line, and they found a
snowdrift still there under a layer of cinders, and in it they found a
well-preserved frozen hog. In September. – [Voiceover] The rushing
streams and full resovoirs provided the state
with the largest amount of irrigation water
it had seen in years. In many places, it
was a green spring, a productive summer,
and a bountiful fall. And so the winter of 1949
ended on a positive note. But the memories
of that epic event would never be forgotten. – I know they’ve
had winters since, and everything, and blizzards… Believe me, it was
nothin’ like ’49. – Comparing the 1949 blizzard with all of the subsequent
storms that we’ve had, and they’ve been many,
and I’ve observed them… there’s nothing that compared
with the 1949 blizzard. – It was unlike anything
I’d ever seen before, and I hope I never see
anything like it again. – We’ve had winters where
we’ve had big storms, but they weren’t as big as that, they weren’t as cold as that, and they didn’t last as long. – This was so blistering cold that it suffocated you, it suffocated the livestock. You couldn’t do anything in it. You couldn’t see. You couldn’t keep from
sliding, slip-sliding, or running into snowbanks. It just was totally miserable. – We’ll always
remember that storm. It stands out among all the
other storms that we’ve had. And we managed to
live through it. Thank the Lord. (laughs) We’re Wyomingites,
we can take it. – [Voiceover] In
the final tally, 17 Wyoming residents
died in the storms. The official toll
for the entire region was 76 fatalities. Some were not found until
the drifts began melting. But for all the
tragedy and loss, suffering and death, there was also hope and heroism, unselfish sacrifice,
and generosity. The blizzard, for the most part, brought out the best in people. By working together to
overcome sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the storm of the century
was ultimately defeated. ♪ Now the old folks
say that back in 1949 ♪ Was a long, cold storm ♪ When the sun refused to shine ♪ The snow so deep ♪ And thick as London fog ♪ You could step
over phone lines ♪ Like you’d step over a log ♪ The people in the houses ♪ Buried deep beneath the snow ♪ Dug tunnels from
their doorways ♪ Up and out they had to go – [Voiceover] Production
for Storm of the Century, the Blizzard of ’49, was supported in part by a grant from the Wyoming
Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the
Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. By Rocky Mountain Power,
a division of Pacificorp. And by the Wheeler
Family Foundation. With partial funding by the
Wyoming Humanities Council. By Rose Brothers, Incorporated,
of Lingle, Wyoming. By the Rocky Mountain
Power Foundation. And by the members
of Wyoming PBS. Thank you. – [Voiceover] Storm of the
Century, the Blizzard of ’49 is available on DVD for $30.00. To order go to
shop.WyomingPBS.org.

100 Comments

  • Paul Beebe

    So sad, for everyone, but most especially the Native Americans. As usual, they were last on the list for help and rescue… shameful.

  • Dewalt 459

    The first thing that came to my head when i started watching this video was ,
    All the cry baby whimpy kids now a days . Always off school for the littlest amounts of snow or if it is just cold out .
    Alot of people choose not to see the connections to alot of things from the pass and then now a days . Things are so so terrible now a days an only getting worse. Everyone is babying these kids now and they are turning out to be such whimps and true sissys . Young men are nothing an i mean nothing like they use to be !!! I have a 22 year old daughter and some of these lazy ass losers that want to date her are such a joke .

  • Dewalt 459

    All white people in this video!!
    All helping each other and opening their doors to each other .
    Not one single person in this documentary said that anything was stolen from their homes or the stores .
    No windows were smashed and stuff stole.
    Hmmmmm , i wonder why this was ???
    Sure was the good ole days

  • M E

    Elk form big herds and move single file in deep snow.
    If you have ever shot at one among the herd during the season, you'll see them funnel together and march away in a single or double column.
    Deer and antelope scatter.
    I bet that is why the elk survived so well.

  • John B

    I'm guessing most of the people watching this would do everything that they could to help in such circumstances. It's nice how people pull together when they really need to.

  • B B01

    wow. heartbreaking up until last 10mins or so. all that aid sent in. amazing. thats how it oughta be. my mom is from casper wyoming. thank you for this documentary. greatly told. beautiful people too btw. kind hearted.

  • Jen A

    GEOENGINERING HAS BEEN GOING ON SINCE THE LATE 18 HUNDREDS.
    CHEMTRAIL SPRAYING POISONS UPON THE UNSUSPECTING POPULACE.
    THERE'S PATENTS ON THE WEATHER MACHINES.

  • jettrod69

    Its a good thing climate change is now here, so we have something to blame for every extreme storm such as this one, otherwise we'd have to be content calling it weather….
    Btw, I don't deny the climate changes, it always has, I just don't believe every storm or forest fire we have today is the result of human caused climate change, unlike the media and those that profit(eg;Al Gore) from carbon taxes claim every time it rains, or whenever its sunny and warm….
    Isn't it kind of odd that Al Gore bought a $14million ocean front mansion immediately after releasing his fictional movie that claimed the ice caps would melt within 10 yrs, resulting in oceans rising to catastrophic levels and killing millions of people?
    It's almost as if he doesn't believe his own B.S. isn't it, or was he just trying to panic the market to get a cheaper price by scaring the mansions previous owner into thinking it would be washed out to sea within that decade of disaster that didn't happen…
    Too bad there's so much money involved that we will never know the truth regarding whats actually causing our climate to change, cuz there wasn't SUV's causing every previous change, nor have SUV's caused Mars' current changes in climate.
    Its almost as if the Sun could be having an input isn't it? Too bad scientists don't get paid to do anything besides blame people, regardless of what actual, unaltered data says…

  • redbirdacres

    Really enjoyed this show. It's well done and informative. I can tell this came out before the Climate Change Nazi's took over all the weather information.

  • American First

    A STORM LIKE THIS TODAY WOULD PROBLY WIPE OUT OVER HALF THE POPULATION IN IT'S WAKE…BACK THEN AMERICA WAS SATURATED WITH REAL AMERICANS…THE MEN WOULD HAVE SHOVELED OUT IF NEED BE..AND THEY DID…TODAY IF YOU AIN'T A FARMER OR AMISH….??…LOL…CLEARLY WE NEED A CLEANSING..

  • BLACK.LIKE. ME

    I wonder how many of these "good people" opened this houses and homes to stranded black neighbors in need, or even took assistance from a black neighbor?

  • Flying Bob

    Some of this film is not from 1949 but more like 1971. My dad said he walked to school 4 miles every day in the snow uphill both ways.

  • steven herrold

    back in the early day of tv and radio weather forecasting was very crude in the beginning all they could do was to look at the sky if it was clear then the forecast was for sunny skies cloudy chance of rain remember i said C R U D E today's weather man are only slightly better they just have fancy technology to help them get an idea what the weather is getting ready to do as for how they do it like how do they know several days ahead if its going to rain or not sometimes they get it right sometimes not its not an exact science i think the accuracy about 90% to day it will never be 100% i live in topeka kansas because when its cold in the winter it is not as bad as up north and the summer its not as hot as down south 9 times out out 10 north east kansas we miss the worst of the storm that goes around us i don't understand why it works out that way i remember several times during the winter months these storms come out of colorado and it goes south before it gets us then oklahoma city is in the middle of a major winter storm while we are sitting pretty maybe a little chilly but but nothing to panic about i could tell you stories like that from the north / east /west and / south of us

  • Arthur Fiorillo

    A.O.C. AND Al Gore NEED A FEW OF these storms to push the climate change b/s narrative?. How much looting went on like the doges we have today that's when America was GREAT…

  • Chazz man

    My parents lived in Rapid City SD, and the gas pressure fell so low the furnace wouldn't work, and snow was blowing like dust through any gaps around the windows. I have a picture of my father waist deep in a snow drift. The next time they heard that a blizzard was coming, they got out of town rather than stay.

  • Angael Tartar Rose

    Something sounds unnatural about this storm. However, these people seem filled with good sense, self-sufficiency, concern & helpful action toward all life, & good strong hearts. The average people have always been the amazing ones, & with good humor & great humility. Dear country folk. State cost: 9 million dollars. 90 million in today's dollars. Mmmm.

  • Abel Padilla

    This was a Amazing time in Wyoming I’m heart goes out to all the people that lost there lives in this storm that Mother Nature let loose on Wyoming.

  • Blue Orbiter Corporation

    I remember the blizzard of January 1977. It took me six days to make it from Sacramento to Chicago, got stuck in a truck stop with hundreds of others for more than a day.

  • Chuck Sandelin

    I,m the oldest family in Steamboqt Spgs, near the Wyo border and the winter of 49 will remain with me for ever we had 150 head of cattle to feed and the snow was 6 feet deep on our meadows and The accounts that an be told could fill a book

  • indiana146

    I live in a 270 yr old weavers cottage in northern England we have a coal fire
    In winter it's warmer than the gas heating
    If power ever goes off we always got the coal fire and a coal bunker with 500 lb of coal

  • LtRuss

    I just watched this video and it was well done.  The only thing I found wrong was a modern day Freightliner Tractor Trailer parked on the highway with a picture of some dead animals.  Other than that, well done.

  • Dick B Dragging

    I live in Missouri I have learned a lot about Wyoming, such a beautiful looking state on the videos I can’t wait to go there one day

  • karen stauffer

    I saw an upside down rainbow once. A small one, and no snowstorm, but it was very chilly. I watched it for a half hour, lying in a hammock out in the yard.

  • Tom Hill

    I guess storms like this will never happen again. I suppose there is a bright side to global warming after all….I've always hated the cold.

  • glimpseofparadise

    Snow is still better than dust bowl, right? 🤔 At least in snow, you can still breathe. Oh maybe I should watch the dust bowl next.

  • MrRickostby

    What an Awesome Testament to the Incredible Character of so many that live in our country. Wonderful people who stuck together and helped one another through such a Tremendous Storm.

  • Faye Cox

    So sad but also showed you courage and people help each other in times of need this is how it should be all the time but sadly our world not like that anymore maybe we can all learn something from this x

  • Frank Toledo

    We have over 100 inches in the South Hills today 19 Feb 2020. Watching the weather patterns up their is alot different. Good chance of more snow on Sunday. You never know when mother nature takes a turn. Respect to Wyoming in 1949 and all harsh winter storms.

  • Pamela Meeks

    "Everyone knew everyone, and helped everyone" . In 2020, where I live in the U.S., 90% would be robbing, stealing, raping and murdering people. This area will never again be worth living in. 🖤

  • Efren Laboy

    That's.was the time in what humanity came together but painfully few places like Puerto Rico in some areas are good person and I said person because people is too many is incredible the change humanity gone true and if the change continue in this destructive cicle they're going to give us a time frame and after you have no idea .remember they are a super advance when the government is incapable no one is save but when this government no and didn't say nothing and attack them that's a problem we are the laboratory in all the experimental evolution create us and they dispersed us try the galaxies or we are here because we are too destructive to be able to travel to other planetary system and they are whachin us and keep us in this state of evolution .let them evolve but they're not gone anywhere if they evolve to be equal in love an respect too advance whel comes

  • B.R. HHH

    "…They were visiting their neighbors about 3 1/2 miles away…"
    I WiSH I had that kind of distance to my neighbors. We've got closer to 3.5' here in the southern region of the state of goldeness…

  • audiotomb

    There is a weekend snow shut in in NYC and the city acts like it is the end of the world. Sorry to say few of those people woud have the shear will to touch out someting like this. Chaos would insue. Oh wait – there are some midwest and western people that moved there and could bail them out.

  • Gary Howard

    I remember that storm although I was only 9 at the time. We lived in Northern Ky. just across the Ohio River from Cincinati Ohio. That storm covered a lot of territory. We found drifts and made our way up high and jumped into them. I recall my parents being worried but us kids thought was fun.

  • J D

    Growing up in eastern Montana in the late 40's and 50's was very different than now days. It was primitive living conditions, but, everyone was able to cope with the extreme cold, snow and travel conditions.

  • Dave Hartz

    I was two years old and my father had went out of town a few days earlier in search of a job leaving me, my brother of three and my mother in a small house out of town. The blizzard came and buried us in under a 15 foot snow drift. We ran out of food after two days and my mother brest fed us for a few more days until she dried up. My father finally made it back 10 days later just in time with a friend to dig us out. We were out of food and logs and coal for the kitchen stove.

  • Lee Hansen

    I was 9 yrs old & I remember my Dad had to throw the snow OVER his head in some places, to pile it up! He was 6ft. 2inches tall! We lived in Iowa & my brother & I had fun playing in the big snow drifts! ☺

  • Bebopalula

    Great story great people. I wonder if this happened today if we'd see the humanity that these people showed. Just letting people into our homes to escape the weather. I'd like to think yes but I don't know really.

  • Karen Gummer

    Yep. You win the moniker of storm of the century.
    Documentary was presented extremely well. Very informative and never boring. Thank you!

  • Karen Gummer

    My parents always had me keep a flashlight and a blanket in my car. Since they were already married in 1949, they may well have learned from that winter. (East coast folk)

  • Wayne Davis

    these were the good old days.. Life was an adventure, kids had moms and dads, schools taught knowledge not garbage people were a whole lot more independent then than they are today. Much has been lost in the name of progres.

  • Walter Shumate

    Although despite all these hardships and loss of cattle and sheep and all the food animals the prices never did go up by $5 a pound and then irevocably never go back down.
    That was reserved for droughts in the 90s that affected mostly range cattle which was about 10% of what America consumes. The rest were raised in feedlots with no shortage of water, yet we pay more a pound for any of it every year..? Why?

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