The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, scheduled for publication February 2015. It takes place as the author drives into McCook, Nebraska, September 2009.
One of the first newspaper editors described McCook as being along the “verdant banks and silvery waters” of the Republican River. The main street goes north perpendicular from the river up a sharp hill, and for good reason. The “silvery waters” of the river used to rise out of its banks and transform into a roiling black mass of death.
|Highway 83, south of McCook, Nebraska|
May 31, 1935 must have seemed like Armageddon to McCook citizens. Just as a devastating floodwaters rushed downstream killing several residents, a tornado dropped from the sky west of town and wiped out an entire farm family, including three children. The flood killed five.
The Republican was one of those untamed Missouri River tributaries that the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s dammed up in order to save the folks downstream who insisted on building homes and businesses on flood plains. Indeed, the spot between Omaha and Denver may have been somewhat inauspicious. An earlier tornado in 1928 flattened or severely damaged 147 homes. (Miraculously, no one was killed.)
Some of the worst weather in the world takes place in the skies above me as fronts fight it out in the atmosphere over the continent’s vast center. “When
elephants fight, the ants get trampled,” is a
saying I learned when I lived in Southeast Asia. It refers to the plight of
peasants when warlords clash. But it works for weather systems and the humans
down below. Floods, tornadoes, blizzards and hail have wreaked havoc in McCook,
and every community along the northern sections of the road.
|The once mighty Republican River today|
Vivian, South Dakota, on Highway 83 made worldwide headlines the summer of 2010 when the largest hailstone ever recorded dropped from the sky. The local man who found the chunk of ice in his yard put it in his freezer, and at first thought about making a daiquiri with it, but decided to take it to the post office to weigh it instead. It came in at a world record 1.9375 pounds, and a U.S. record for width at 18 inches. The storm brought Vivian national notoriety for a day or two, along with a lot of insurance claims, for other smaller hailstones punched holes as wide as coffee cans in roofs and cars.
And although I am intentionally driving the highway in the late summer, I can’t forget the snowstorms. The Blizzard of ‘49, still talked about in these parts, buried the Great Plains in yards, not feet, of snow. It was actually a series of storms, not one event, that lasted for five months from November 1948 to April 1949. It created monstrous drifts from thirty to forty feet high. Towns like McCook were cut off from rail, highway and phone lines. The first storm in November left the town communicating with the outside world via short-wave radio to a station in Denver. Nebraska had already suffered three blizzards, two of them around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the monster storm hit on January 3, 1949. It continued for sixty hours, left two to three feet of snow across portions of states with winds reaching fifty miles per hour. No other blizzard has topped it in severity in more than sixty years. More and more snow came within the following weeks, with only a few short days between storms for people to dig themselves out. This prompted President Harry S. Truman to declare Operation Snowbound to save millions of cattle and humans on the plains by delivering emergency supplies by airlift or any means possible. There was so much snow, drifts didn’t melt for months and folks out in the country were making ice cream from them as late as July.
The so-called Children’s Blizzard may have been worse in terms of the death toll. Mother Nature sometimes throws sucker punches in the winter by creating some unnaturally balmy days before all hell breaks loose. That was the case on the morning of January 12, 1888, when schoolchildren in dugouts, sod houses and other rudimentary settler dwellings left their homes wearing light coats, or no coats at all, for one-room schoolhouses. Even if there were accurate weather forecasts back then, there was no means to communicate what was about to hit. Just as the children were leaving school on their long walks home, a cold front moving faster than a steam locomotive swept in from the northwest.
As a wall of Arctic air rushed down the plains from the north, it collided with warm moist air from the south. In the morning, the people of North Platte and McCook were enjoying the unseasonably warm weather coming from the south. But within hours, the watery air rose over the curtain of cold air, feeding moisture into the system, and the two became a monster.
Weather watchers in Bismarck were the first to report a rapidly falling temperature and gale force winds at 6 a.m. Five hours later, the storm struck McCook. The temperatures in Nebraska dropped an average of 18 degrees in three minutes.
It did not come gently like a snowfall that starts with some light flakes and then slowly builds in intensity over the next few minutes or hours. This one came like a tidal wave, and those who witnessed it never forgot that inky black wall coming for them out of the northwest.
On the Rosebud Reservation, a teacher walked out the schoolhouse door and was nearly knocked on her feet by a gust of wind. She had only ventured a few yards, but almost didn’t make it back.
Descriptions of the storm were remarkably similar to those seen during the Dust Bowl. It was a black cloud rolling toward them. Instead of carrying topsoil, this black cloud was all ice.
Survivors likened the snow to sand. The particles were so fine, each was like a little sting against the face, and they encrusted the skin within minutes. The particles struck the eyeballs forcing the victims to shut their
eyes. Some died within a few feet of their doors.
Cattle suffocated as their nostrils froze shut. That night, the wind chill
dropped to 40 degrees below zero.
|Blizzard of '49 aftermath|
The cold air mass was felt from the Dakotas to the tip of Texas, affecting every mile of the land around what would one day be U.S. Route 83. By the time it reached Abilene, Texas, it was an ice storm that covered the city in a glaze. When it ended the next morning, hundreds of victims lay dead in the snow, more than 100 of them school children.
Red Willow County, where McCook is located, had an earlier disaster in the 1870s, two years after the duke had come on his hunt.
The locust swarms that swept out of the mountains are almost inconceivable today. There are no living souls who remember the phenomena, and the insects that caused the destruction are now extinct. Similar in appearance, but much more mobile than the grasshoppers that are stuck in the grill of my car, they came from the Rockies in the billions. The larva hatched in the soil in numbers that reached millions of per square acre. The nymphs ate everything in sight, molted five times before sprouting wings, then flew off together, riding the currents east to the lush prairies, where they dropped out of the sky, began the cycle again, and grew exponentially in numbers and began to swarm again. If this wasn’t bad enough for the farmers who watched helplessly as their crops were destroyed, the plagues most often occurred during times of drought. The Rocky Mountain locust used the Great Plains low level jet, a 200-mile-wide stream of air centered in Kansas and Oklahoma that pushes air at altitudes of up to 1,000 feet in the spring and late summer. Separate insect clouds rose from the Earth and converged in the stream to create swarms of Biblical proportions.
Why the mass of insects collectively dropped out of the sky to denude certain areas of land while bypassing others was a mystery. The earliest pioneers of Frontier and Red Willow Counties watched as what appeared to be a black cloud approached from the west. The sunlight reflected off their wings making the mass glimmer as it approached. They came down like hail and the crawled in mass on man and beast. They ate the clothes off farmers’ backs, stripped wood, and cannibalized their own as nothing would sate their voracious appetite.
General Ord, still commander of the Platte in 1874, sent one of his officers west to Red Willow County to ascertain the situation in the aftermath of summer’s locust plague. Of the some 800 residents, he reported that two-thirds were on the brink of starvation and might not make it through the winter. Ord began a campaign to free up stores of military rations sitting in warehouses that could be distributed to the newly impoverished farmers of Nebraska and Kansas. It was a months-long, protracted bureaucratic battle that required congressional approval, but the general prevailed. Not only were food stocks released that prevented a famine that winter, it sparked a massive relief effort that helped the farmers get back on their feet the following spring by providing seeds.
The swarms are hard to comprehend today because the locusts went extinct—mostly likely destroyed when their habitat succumbed to the plow.
McCook was also on the northern edge of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The choking clouds of fine dirt that swept over most of Western Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles in the 1930s were felt as far away as the East Coast, but the extreme drought that sparked the so-called black blizzards stretched along Highway 83 from McCook to the Red River in Texas. The mother of all dust storms occurred on April 14, 1935, and like the Children’s Blizzard, began with a cold front rolling down the plains from Bismarck. There was no warm, moist air in this case, though. By this
drought had spread to the northern plains states, and the savage wind picked up
the loose topsoil and created a two-hundred mile wide cloud of topsoil that
struck as churchgoers were returning home from Sunday services. Sixty-five
–mile-per-hour winds pummeled the unsuspecting victims with freezing
temperatures and grit. Unlike the blizzard of 1888 and the locust plagues, this
was an era when common folks owned cameras. There are dozens of pictures of the
black wall of dirt that hit the day known as Black Sunday. Southwest of McCook,
a twenty-five year old man, Glen O’Brien, his vision impaired by the dust,
collided with a truck and was killed instantly. His girlfriend and the truck
driver survived with minor injuries.
|Black Sunday on Hwy 83, Perryton, Texas|
“The story of human misery from dust continues as stifling and killing storms swept portions of five states,” said the April 15 McCook Daily Gazette article that reported the death.
The unbelievably glorious late summer weather I’ve experienced since I arrived at Westhope two weeks ago still holds as I turn off the co-signed highways and drive up Norris Avenue. I park the car at the top of the hill. No tornadoes, blizzards, floods, prairie fires, dust storms or locust plagues today. The effects of some of these natural disasters have been mitigated. Blizzards and tornadoes are unstoppable, but the Weather Service can at least warn us in advance. The Army Corps of Engineers placed dams on the Republican to stop its semi-regular floods. The Rocky Mountain locust has gone the way of the carrier pigeon, the last swarm was in 1902. Except for a few entomologists, no one misses them.
The Oglala Aquifer is still beneath my car wheels. Geologists were just beginning to understand its magnitude during the 1930s drought years, and they couldn’t take advantage of this vast underground resource. Today, gas-powered pumps draw its fossil water out of the ground, ensuring that crops will be watered in the hottest, driest summers.
Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com. Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com