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What America learned from the sweeping Great Plains blizzards of 1949

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE - Seventy-five years later, the blizzards of 1949 remain one of the worst recorded storms that have ever crossed the northern Great Plains.

Reports tally more than 70 people who died in the storm, hundreds of thousands of lost livestock and hours upon hours of gale-force winds that cut through Wyoming, the Dakotas and Nebraska.

Although the storm ended with a significant death toll and carnage in its wake, David Mills, author of "Operation Snowbound: Life behind the Blizzards of 1949," said the storm system also brought America together during a difficult time.

The book was a merging of genres for Mills, who teaches military history now at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Kansas and also worked as a Great Plains historian while at North Dakota State University.

In an online presentation last week hosted by the Rockpile Museum, Mills also argued that the storm was one of the factors that shaped the federal government's approach to disaster relief.

"The idea was that the federal government did not come and help the average person out of a humanitarian disaster. That's just not what the federal government ever did," Mills said. "But starting in 1949 with these blizzards throughout the Great Plains and the Midwest, the federal government did start taking responsibility for humanitarian disasters more and more and more."

How bad was it?

The storm that began Jan. 2, 1949, was made up of 18 snowstorms and lasted more than 27 days as they crossed the Great Plains.

The storms varied from "full-blown" blizzards to dustings of snow, but combined into the most severe winter in Great Plains history in terms of cold, snow accumulation and duration, Mills said. Generally, the snow emergency lasted from Jan. 2 through the end of February and on average, there was 3 feet of snow in affected areas.

In some areas, snow drifts as tall as 25 feet were recorded.

Different states' abilities to respond to the blizzards were affected by the limited equipment they had available. At the time, snow plows were much smaller than the ones seen today and would often become stuck in the large snow drifts, Mills said.

Most trains were still steam engines, amid upgrades to diesel engines.

"In the battle between boiler and drift, the snow often won," Mills said.

Many photos and stories document residents pitching in to dig trains out of snow that had covered railroad tracks and made travel impossible.

Besides poor equipment compared to that of today, Mills said another issue stemmed from the snow not melting, stranding those who lived in rural areas and leaving them with shelves bare of food. In Wyoming, Mills said 20% of the population at the time lived in rural areas. Of those rural residents, 55% had electricity and 31% had a telephone.

The first day of the storm, Mills said telephone operators in Rapid City, South Dakota, received 67,000 phone calls.

"Telephones were indispensable as the only form of communication for many people," he said.

Government support

Mills said private pilots were some of the unsung heroes of those blizzards 75 years ago.

The pilots flew mail between towns and rural homes, delivered groceries and also responded to emergencies. Those emergencies varied from people requesting whiskey and cigarettes to those in need of medical help.

To communicate with pilots, stranded residents would carve military distress signals into the snow.

Air Force and Army posts also began to join the action as volunteers, Mills said. Military members used "weasels," tracked vehicles that were designed in World War II to travel through swamps and rough terrain. They were used in the U.S. invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Thankfully for those stranded at home, the weasels also drove well through cold weather and deep snow.

At the end of January, Great Plains governors requested money from the federal government for aid.

Unfortunately for them, Mills said that in 1949, there was no such thing as an emergency plan at the federal level. Every disaster was handled on a case by case basis. So when the governors requested money, President Harry Truman pulled the remaining $300,000 from an emergency fund to help in the disaster. He also requested another $1 million from Congress, $500,000 of which Congress approved, Mills said. Eventually, more than $3 million of federal money was provided.

The governors contracted workers to remove snow and pay for bulldozers to use in clearing the gravel roads, but no amount of workers could keep up with what the storms left behind.

The governors again requested federal help.

"If the state requested federal assistance, not just dollars, the governor had to certify an actual emergency existed," Mills said. "They had to request specific federal aid."

The governors issued a state of emergency and the next day, Truman ordered the Secretary of Defense to provide help to the states that needed it. Mills said Truman also authorized the Secretary of Defense to "spend the limit of the entire defense budget to do it."

The Army was put in charge of the relief effort and began work opening roads, a project known as Operation Snowbound, while the Air Force and Air National Guard began Operation Haylift, where pilots and crew would drop hay to starving herds of cattle.

Military officials at the time estimated that between Jan. 28 and March 1 about 240,000 people were freed from snow-clogged roads, 4 million cattle were saved from starvation, and about 115,000 miles of roads were cleared by those in the military and residents, Mills said.

He credited the blizzards of 1949 as the turning point for the government's involvement in creating a plan of action for emergencies.

Truman organized the creation of the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1950 and at the end of the 1970s, President Carter established the Federal Emergency Management Agency with a mission geared toward civil defense and emergency management.

"The military and the federal government continue to be involved in emergency response, way more than they were before the blizzards of 1949," Mills said. "But as I said, those blizzards really mark the beginning of federal involvement in disaster aid."

To listen to Mills' full presentation, visit Those interested also can find his book, "Operation Snowbound," online.

The Gillette News Record included with the above story several vignettes in separate boxes. You are welcome to include them as you choose – just be sure they are either obviously part of the main story or given clear attribution to the GNR.

A chilly first date

Justin Horn, Rockpile Museum assistant, recalled his own family story from the 1949 blizzards.

The story as he knows it goes like this:

Horn's grandparents Mark Gertner and Florence Lambrecht first met at a Christmas or New Year's dance in Colorado. At the dance, Mark asked Florence out on a first date, which happened to line up with the incoming storm.

"It's starting to snow so he heads out to go pick her up," Horn said, "not wanting to stand her up or anything, obviously, and he ends up getting stranded in the snow."

Horn said his grandfather was stranded in his car overnight but once the blizzard slowed the next day, he walked the rest of the way to Florence's home. He showed up apologetic for the box of chocolates he'd eaten while stuck overnight, which was meant to be a gift to her.

"It kind of brought my grandparents together, the blizzard did," Horn said.

The two were married for more than 50 years and raised 10 children together before they died.

75 years ago

Below are some of the stories that were recorded by the News Record during the blizzards of 1949:

From the Jan. 6, 1949, News Record:

Dr. R. W. Least and Jerome Noecker, in the ambulance of the Gillette Funeral home, left Monday in an attempt to reach Dutch Zimmerschied at his ranch on Lower Cabin creek.

He sustained a pelvic injury when his horse bucked, and he was thrown against the saddle. He was knocked unconscious, regaining consciousness after several hours.

Dr. Least and Mr. Noecker made several attempts to reach him, but were stalled at the top of Porter Virtue hill, where the snow plow could not push through a drift about 100 yards long and 10 feet high.

Telephone conversations with Mrs. Zimmerscheid established the improved condition of her husband, and it is not believed he had any broken bones.

The sun shone through the overcast for the first time at 8:40 a.m. Wednesday. The town and country is covered with huge drifts which were accompanied by a high wind for approximately 60 hours. A heavy stock loss is feared throughout the state.

From the Jan. 13, 1949, News Record:

Reports of the livestock losses are beginning to come in, as the elements relented the early part of the week and ranchers could more freely move about their ranges to check on their stock. Cattle are reported dead on their feet throughout the state, some of them held by snow banks on either side. In many instances, they had drifted until they reached a fence they could not break through, then frozen.

The sub-zero temperature brought new suffering to an area still groggy from last week's blizzard, which took 22 lives in the tri-state area. The Red Cross set up a blizzard relief service at Rapid City, S. Dak., and sent out planes to search for storm victims in drifts 10 to 20 feet high.

Gov. (A.G.) Crane asked railroads to give hay and concentrate priority over other freight, and requested the assistance of the secretary of agriculture in securing reduced rates on hay and grain.

This story was published on January 30, 2024.