Blizzard therapy: Find solace in reading about storms that were even worse

December 15, 2022 4:54 pm
Snow piles up under an interstate bridge during a December 2022 winter storm in South Dakota. (Photo courtesy of SD Department of Transportation)

Snow piles up under an interstate bridge during a December 2022 winter storm in South Dakota. (Photo courtesy of SD Department of Transportation)

What better is there to do during a four-day snowstorm than to think about past snowstorms?

“Blizzard therapy” is what author Carey Goldberg called such behavior after he read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter” during a 2015 snowstorm.

My blizzard therapy caused me to stumble across several little-known historical writings. 

One comes from the “History of South Dakota, Vol. 1,” written by Doane Robinson in 1904.

Writing about “The Hard Winter of 1880-1881,” the author says, “The great blizzard of the middle of October 1880, was the initial performance of a winter unprecedented, and never succeeded in severity, in the history of Dakota, or the northwest.”

On Feb. 2, 1881, “a snow storm set in which continued without cessation for nine days.”

While there was great hardship, there was little suffering. “The people were as a rule young and healthy, and it is almost universal testimony of the pioneer that they have never gotten more real enjoyment out of a winter than they did from the winter of the big blockade.”

We complain when we perceive that the snow plows don’t get to our street fast enough. 

The 1880-1881 winter still stands as our most severe. Major spring floods follow hard winters. The historic April 1997 Big Sioux River flood was matched by one in 1897 and surpassed only by flooding in the spring of 1881. 

A major blizzard in 1897 was detailed in a Jan. 6, 1897, New York Times article. “The greatest snow and windstorm since the settlement of that part of South Dakota round about Huron abated this morning.

“It was fifty hours duration. Two feet of snow fell, and it is piled in immense drifts so solid that several days will elapse before the streets are passable. Snowplows and gangs of shovelers were sent south, north and west this morning by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway to clear the tracks, while a rotary snow plow set about clearing the main track from Tracy to Huron.

“Railroad officials here say there is snow all over the Dakota division from five to twenty feet deep.”

On Jan. 10, 1997, just over 100 years later, another deadly blizzard hit. 

A deep snowpack whipped by 50 mph winds and temperatures at 12 below zero killed about 100,000 cattle. Snow drifts up to 20 feet deep were reported. 

Then there is the Jan. 18, 1888, event that became known as “The Children’s Blizzard.”

“Despite prior heavy snowfall and brutal winter conditions in December 1887, several accounts from the northern Plains reported that January 12, 1888, started as a surprisingly beautiful, mild day with temperatures well above freezing that melted snow throughout the region,”  The National Weather Service’s Heritage website said.

“However, the warmth didn’t last: within a few hours, temperatures plummeted as low as -40 F and icy winds ripped through the air at almost 60 miles per hour. In the whiteout, between 250 and 500 people perished. Nicknamed ‘The Children’s Blizzard,’ this devastating storm resulted in the deaths of many children on their walk home from school. “

Then came the blizzard of 1949.

Rapid City Weather Bureau Office Meteorologist-in-Charge Fred H. McNally wrote, “This is rated as the most severe blizzard in Rapid City history, considering wind, snow and temperature factors.” Winds roared up to 73 mph at the city’s airport and “in excess of 90 mph” at Ellsworth Air Force Base. 

Dynamite later would be used to loosen the ice-encrusted snow so a plow on a train could clear the North Western line from Pierre to Rapid City. 

And when it comes to modern day snow storms, the current one may be remembered for shutting down Terry Peak Ski Area in the Black Hills. 

“Terry Peak will not open today, Dec. 14, 2022,” its Facebook page said. “We have received approximately 40-48 inches of snow.”

That’s probably more than the resort received all of last year. 

And more was on the way.

In the meantime, as this storm stretches into four days, blizzard therapy is a good way to stop from going stir crazy. 



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Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a Watertown real estate appraiser, former newspaper reporter and editor, and longtime opinion columnist. He is president of the South Dakota Lakes and Streams Association, vice president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation and served 16 years on the South Dakota Board of Water and Natural Resources.