Deadwood Magazine
January/February 1999
Remember the Blizzard of '49

Succession of storms isolated West River

Undeniably, western South Dakota can be a land of extremes. Bragging natives like to describe the Black Hills as the banana belt, particularly when talking to East River friends.

But bananas often freeze when wild winter blizzards roar out of the north, usually after the first of the year.

Fifty years ago the Blizzard of '49 roared into western South Dakota on January 2,1949, ushering in what many residents remember as "the worst winter ever."

Actually a series of snow storms that started on the day after New Year's and raged on until February 22, the Blizzard of '49 stranded travelers, buried houses, brought traffic and communication to a standstill.

Tens of thousands of cattle and sheep perished; some ranchers lost entire herds. More than 16,000 head of cattle were wiped out and sheep ranchers estimated a loss of at least one-fourth of their flocks.

Although actual total snowfall amounts weren't that excessive, ranging from a foot to 30 inches, howling winds reduced visibility to less than five feet and piled drifts as high as 30 feet. Winds averaging 56 mph gusted to 72 mph or higher. An Ellsworth AFB wind indicator registered gusts above 90 mph.

Thermometers registered 24 degrees when the snow began falling Sunday morning. By midnight the wind was blowing at 63 mph and temperatures plunged below zero. The storm howled for four days, depositing more than 14 inches of snow in Rapid City and piling 15-foot drifts on streets. People who had to leave the shelter of their homes tied ropes to the door to find their way back

Digging out began after the first blizzard blew out on Thursday, January 6. Belle Fourche high school students built a snowman under the town's lone overhead traffic light. The night patrolman who sent them home didn't even demand they demolish their snow project. Traffic wasn't moving on the streets anyhow.

The next day the temperature hit 55 degrees in Rapid City, but the respite was short lived. A newspaper headline warned, "Second blizzard heads for the Hills." That second storm blasted into the area right on schedule. Then another storm hit. And still another. Severe winter weather settled in for more than seven weeks, developing into an emergency situation that existed until February 22.

New snow blocked highways and railroads; rail traffic to the east was at a standstill for several weeks. As fast as roads got plowed out, new snow and strong winds drifted them shut again. Smaller communities and rural areas were the hardest hit.

A West River "air lift" flew tons of Red Cross food to isolated towns and ranches and dropped feed for cattle and horses. Private planes delivered groceries and medicine, or flew doctors in and sick people out.

State and federal emergency relief included help from the Air Force and the 5th Army. More than 100 bulldozers and snow vehicles operated around the clock. The commander of the 5th Army's Operation Snowbound project said it was like wartime, "the greatest bulldozer operation ever organized."

Although it wasn't as widespread and didn't last as long as the Blizzard of '49, last winter's five-day blizzard buried the Northern Hills with the deepest snows in recorded history.

The storm blew in on Wednesday, February 25, 1998, to deposit 105 inches at the Homestake gold mine in Lead. Snowfall amounts ranged from more than 4 feet in Deadwood to 18 inches in Spearfish, 12-18 inches in Belle Fourche, but dwindled to just 6 inches on the northern plains.

Powerful winds driving that much snow created towering drifts impossible for plows to blast through. Fighting drifts up to 10 feet high, snow removal crews worked 12 to 18-hour shifts throughout the storm to open roads and streets. In the interim, Lead firefighters got out the snowmobiles to deliver medicine and check on stranded residents.

One of the scariest stories to come out of the '98 storm was related by Sturgis Public Works Director Floyd Baird. He said a snowplow operator noticed a hole in the drift blocking a city street. Instead of plowing through, he drove the drift and, just as he passed, two children popped up out of the tunnel they'd been digging.

"The Lord was smiling on those children, or sitting on that operator's shoulder," Baird said.

Judging from past winters, weather prognosticators say the best (or worst) of winter is still to come in the Black Hills.

A reminder to Northern Hills businessmen who hoping for an end to the prolonged mild, dry weather: The same snow that covers the ski slopes can also block the roads that lead to them.

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Copyright 1999  Deadwood Magazine

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