This was not your ancestor's blizzard!
Those of us in America's Upper Midwest recently experienced one of the worst blizzards in 130 years during the middle of April. In a 3 day period, Green Bay, Wisconsin received 24.2" which ranks second all time since records began for Green Bay in the late 1800s. The great blizzard of 2018 fell 5 inches short of the all time record blizzard of 1-2 March, 1888. Not only was this a historic event, the fact that it occurred in the middle of April made the situation even more difficult.
The watches and warnings came out a couple of days ahead of the storm. That placed many of us, including myself, into preparation mode. I made sure the snow blower was operating and making sure there was enough food in the house because there would be some time spent at home and one did not want to undergo the inconvenience of not
having enough food in the house for the day when all the stores were closed.
As it turned out, the storm was everything as
Figure 1 Green Bay, Wisconsin,
April 15, 2018. Photo by Dave Miller
predicted. Churches, restaurants, gas stations and pretty much everything else was shut down for at least a day and a half. Even the pizza delivery guys were put on hold due to the low visibilities and several hours of heavy snow and windy conditions. I was outside several times just trying to keep the driveway open especially after the plows moved the snow off the street making it passable again within hours of the storms departure. The day and a half of "inconvenience" returned to normal within 36 hours although snow removal still took place for the remainder of the week. Warmer temps also helped melt off some of the many mounds of snow that made up the city's horizon.
While I was busy snow blowing several inches of snow off the driveway, my mind started to wonder about the intensity of this storm versus the storms from the past. At one point, I started thinking about the storms of the 1880s. What took me about an hour to snow blow would certainly have been a much different scenario compared to what my ancestors had to go through over 100 years ago.
Although pictures from the late 1800s showing men using shovels, there were no snow blowers or plows that we have at our disposal today. They apparently attached blades on carts or horse drawn carriages which smoothed snow drifts around these massive mounds of snow. This allowed horse drawn carriages easier access around these massive piles of snow and along paths and roads.
But what about the forecasts. The Great Blizzard of 2018 received a lot of attention at least five days prior to it's arrival. Even 36 hours prior to the storm's arrival, the National Weather Service had issued Winter Storm Watches, which later became Winter Storm Warnings within 24 hours. As the storm intensified over the Great Lakes, those warnings were upgraded to Blizzard Warnings. All these watches and warnings allowed folks to do the necessary storm preparation ahead of time. Doing grocery shopping, making sure there was gas in the car as well as for the snow blower.
What kind of warnings were around in 1888? First, what is now the National Weather Service was created in 1870 under the U.S. Army Signal Service's Division of Telegrams and Reports for
the Benefit of Commerce to take observations from military stations and give notice to the northern lakes and seacoasts "of the approach and force of storms." The actual name of the U.S. Weather Bureau was started until 1890.
Figure 2 Snow banks following late 1800s blizzard in Green Bay,
Wisconsin. From 18 July 1934 Special Tercentennial Edition
Green Bay Press Gazette. Courtesy Brown County Library.
A look at the newspapers back in 1888 shows a section for the weather forecast provided by teletype from the War Department, Signal Service from St. Paul, Minnesota from that morning. The Green Bay Daily State Gazette was considered a late afternoon and evening paper so the forecast that showed up in the Daily State Gazette each afternoon was essentially for that evening and into the next morning. There was a section that showed "the local record" which essentially was five observations, three from the previous day and two from earlier in the day the newspaper was printed.
The 29 February 1888 edition on page 3 hinted at changing weather in the Daily Weather Report when it printed, "Fair weather followed by light local snows and a cold wave."
The Daily Weather Report on the following day 1 March 1888 called for "threatening weather and snow." By this time, the snow and even sleet/hail was mentioned just below in the observations from earlier in the day. Also, the report is also misdated listing March 29, 1888 instead of February 29, 1888. That was probably a "bad sign" right there. On the 2nd of March, the Daily Weather Report only stated, "Wires down. No indications." That was it! So what type of warning did you receive in 1888? Unless you read the newspaper that day, none! If you had managed to read the paper that day, you probably had just a few hours given it was most likely
Figure 3 Green Bay Daily Gazette, Daily Weather Report,
March 1, 1888, Courtesy Brown County Library.
already snowing at the time the newspaper was released.
The brief notes column for that day does state that Sergeant Schley "makes affidavd that the snow fall during the twenty four hours preceding this morning aggregated 27 inches on the level."
There is another note that indicated that "It is reported that the east and west highways leading
from the city are impassable. Those running north and south are not in as bad a condition." That is really the only reference as to how the city of Green Bay was handling the blizzard of 1888.
There is an article on 5 March describing how ice boats were observed on Saturday 3 March describing how ice boats were crossing the river below the Main Street bridge. This is followed by a note indicating the strength of the crust in the snow. It states the crust of the snow "is strong enough to bear up a man." It then goes on to state how the youngsters were also enjoying the snow "sliding and skating on its slippery
Figure 4 Green Bay Daily Gazette, Daily Weather Report,
March 2, 1888, Courtesy Brown County Library.
What really surprised me from looking back at the newspapers in 1888 is that there didn't seem to be any great concern regarding the size of the storm. Most likely, no one realized this was a record snowfall for the area at the time. It was probably like any other winter storm. Snow fell many times with little warning due to the inability to provide warnings in a reasonable period of time compared to today. Although there were no indications of any serious injuries or deaths during and after this blizzard, it was not unusual for deaths to occur as a result of these unexpected storms.
A few weeks after this storm roughly 400 people were killed in a blizzard along the Atlantic coast and into New England. So our ancestors constantly found themselves trying to always be ready for the unexpected especially when it came to winter weather. Many of our immigrant ancestors were unprepared for these types of weather conditions especially when they began to migrate further into the interior of the United States. This would be very true depending upon where they originated. Some managed to survive such blizzards as this one while others didn't.
Much like what we went through during our Great Blizzard of 2018, our ancestors also made the best of the situation during their blizzards of 1888 and 1889. In fact, the best way to sum it all up was a brief note in the Green Bay Daily State Gazette in its 1 March 1888 Thursday evening edition. During the peak of the greatest blizzard in the city's history two lines were printed in its
Figure 5 Washington St. following late 1800s blizzard in
Green Bay, Wisconsin. From 18 July 1934 Special
Tercentennial Edition Green Bay Press Gazette. Courtesy
Brown County Library.
"Brief Notes" column of 1 March that read "March has indeed been ushered in like a lion." Now that's an understatement!
Special thanks to Dennis Jacobs and the Brown County Library for their help in researching the information for this story.
"Daily Weather Report," Green Bay Daily State Gazette, page 3, microfilm, Newspaper series 101 Reel 17, Green Bay, Wisconsin, February 13-March 23, 1888, in possession of the Brown County Library, accessed 23 April 2018.
"Biggest Snow Storms in the United States from 1888 to Present," online, National Weather Service, Milwaukee, WI., (https://web.archive.org/web/20070324154647/http://www.crh.noaa.gov/mkx/climate/big.php), accessed 23 April 2018