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Blizzard of 1886

Blizzard of 1886The extremes of Kansas weather created many hardships for the pioneers. The winter of 1885 and 1886 was particularly severe. A series of cold spells and heavy snowfalls culminated in the first week of January, when a huge snowstorm accompanied by high winds hit the central plains. Drifts of six feet or more were common and the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero in some places. Many prairie homes had been quickly and cheaply built, leaving settlers ill prepared to protect themselves from such cold. The snow and wind were so fierce that people became lost a few yards from their homes.

It has been estimated that nearly 100 Kansans froze to death during the storm. Neither were the settlers prepared to protect their livestock. Cattle turned their tails to the wind and "drifted" for miles across the open range until they dropped from hunger or exhaustion. Losses were high, up to 75 percent in some areas, and consequently some large western Kansas cattle companies were bankrupted. Business and rail traffic were paralyzed for weeks. The force of eleven Union Pacific locomotives was unable to "buck" through and cut in the snow near Salina. A train, stopped by the snow in western Kansas, froze to the rails. When the track was finally cleared, each car had to be uncoupled and broken loose from the rails one at a time.

For some the storm was more of an inconvenience than a tragedy. On January 20, an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe west-bound passenger train became snowbound in Kinsley. It was followed by a second train, a special excursion carrying vacationers from Massachusetts to California. More than 270 passengers from the two trains were entertained by the 1,500 citizens of Kinsley for several days. Aided by the publisher of the local papers, some of the travelers passed the time by producing a newspaper, the "B-B-Blizzard." Issued on January 23, its editor claimed that it was "published once in a lifetime by a Stock Company composed of the passengers on the snowbound trains at this point" and it featured many puns about the snow. Other passengers collected money to purchase an engraved silver plated lantern for one of the conductors in recognition of his efforts to make them more comfortable.

When the thaw finally came, there were fewer cattle on the open range and more stories about frontier blizzards, but Kansas remained essentially the same. Spring rekindled the fires of hope.

Entry: Blizzard of 1886

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: June 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.