The Blue Norther of 1948: Prelude to a Deadly Winter

February 24, 2013
By

The Blue Norther of 1948 was a deadly blizzard that left residents of the American Midwest, particularly Nebraska, stunned by its suddenness and ferocity.

Storm Clouds moving in on Colorado.

Image by Darla Sue Dollman

Like a curtain dropping between scenes in a play, the Blue Norther is a dramatic weather event that signifies the end of autumn and the beginning of cold winter days. It begins with unseasonable, record-breaking warm temperatures, then the day suddenly turns dreadfully cold.

A few scattered, fast-moving clouds rush past followed by a dark bluish-black, massive front barreling across the horizon. Sometimes the clouds drop rain so heavy there is zero visibility. Sometimes the storms blanket the fields with layers of hails stones, or they might spawn tornadoes, or downbursts, then straight-line winds.

The temperature drops with record-breaking speed. The blizzard arrives with swirling, blinding snow mixed with chips of ice. Then, just as quickly as it arrived, it is gone. The skies are bright and clear, but the temperature maintains a winter low.

The phrase originated in Texas where ranchers believed Texas Longhorns instinctively knew a Blue Norther was about to arrive. The cattle would form a line facing south and slowly leave the ranch before the clouds appeared on the horizon.

Ironically, it is generally the cattle, and cattle industry, that suffers the most during a Blue Norther, and this was certainly the case in November of 1948.

Weather Forecasts Preceding the Storm

The Blue Norther that struck the American Midwest in 1948 was particularly insidious. In addition to the immediate damage caused by the storm, it also signaled the beginning of one of the worst winters on record, extending well into 1949.

Steve McMaster’s “Blizzard of 1949 and its aftermath” states that Nebraskans enjoyed an unusually warm September and October in 1948 resulting in abundant harvests of corn, wheat, and soybeans.

Catherine Renschler, writing for the Adams County Nebraska Historical Society, states that a few days before the Blue Norther hit Nebraska, November 15, 1949, the temperature was 71 degrees, the warmest November day on record and a typical harbinger of a Blue Norther.

On November 18, 1948, the Hastings Tribune warned of a sudden drop in temperatures and gusting winds, but no snow fall at the time of publication, though the headline declared, “Winter Bearing Down on City.” The forecast called for scattered showers and cooler temperatures, so residents worked to prepare their farms for fall or left for their usual work day in cars and on the local train.

Later in the evening, the clouds rolled in, announcing the arrival of the Blue Norther. Powerful winds blasted across the land with blinding snow and ice flying through the air like shrapnel, trapping commuters in their cars and farmers in their fields, and leaving millions of cattle stranded without food or shelter.

The Blue Norther Strikes Hard

By Friday, November 19, 1948, the city of Hastings, Nebraska was under siege, held captive by some of the fiercest winter weather they had ever experienced with snow and ice whipped by 40 mph winds into snow drifts 10 feet high. Bloomfield and Hartington received 24 inches of snow and Wausa, 30 inches.

Winds shattered the windows in buildings and homes. Buses, cars and trains were all snowbound and commuters huddled together for warmth in bus depots and train stations. Hotel rooms were quickly filled and some commuters were forced to spend the night sleeping on benches and chairs at the local police station.

Steve McMaster reports that some areas of Nebraska experienced winds of 50 to 70 mph creating massive snowdrifts. Roads and schools closed. The snow was wet and heavy and numerous roofs collapsed, including that of a block-long greenhouse in Hastings.

Many residents lost both electrical power and telephone service, leaving them completely stranded and unable to call for assistance. More than 1700 telephone poles were knocked down by the winds and heavy snows.

As residents worked feverishly to dig their way out of the snowstorm, in typical Blue Norther fashion, the sun eventually reappeared. However, unlike other Blue Northers, in 1948, the sun quickly disappeared once more behind the dark blue clouds. This storm was actually a warning of far more dangers to come.

The Blue Norther as Prelude to the Nebraska Blizzard of 1948-49

The state of Nebraska experienced continuous blizzards throughout the winter season. It was the most expensive–and least profitable–winter in the history of the Burlington Northern Railroad. Eventually, the blizzard shut down all but one east-west railroad line in Nebraska.

In Nebraska alone, one and a half million cattle–worth 250 million dollars at that time–were stranded by the snow and as soon as they could be organized, hay-drop missions began flying into Nebraska out of Lowry Field in Denver.

Operation Haylift and Operation Snowbound

In Nebraska, a state of emergency was declared in 29 counties. According to The Blizzard of 1948-49, a Nebraska PBS station presentation, Governor Val Peterson and Major General Guy N. Henninger, adjutant general of Nebraska’s National Guard, determined to assist Nebraskans in any way possible, established a command post in the basement of Nebraska’s capitol building for what was later named Operation Snowbound.

Operation Snowbound involved National Guardsmen forming eight-man “mercy teams.” The teams used bulldozers and military vehicles to deliver hay to desperate ranchers. Though they were often stopped by massive snowdrifts, in most attempts, they were successful.

The federal government also responded quickly with Operation Haylift. The US Air Force, which was less than two years old at the time, dropped supplies to stranded residents and hay to stranded animals using cargo planes.

It was difficult, and sometimes impossible, to save some of the cattle and sheep that were trapped by ice and snow, but rescue workers were eventually able to save those animals that could still move around the snow drifts.

Statistics cited in “The Blizzard of 1948-49,” obtained from the Fifth Army’s Disaster Operation Snowbound records, says that 4,011,184 cattle were saved by Operation Snowbound, and 243,780 stranded Nebraska residents were rescued from their homes.

Operation Haylift, the Movie

A Hollywood docudrama entitled Operation Haylift was released in 1950. The film, starring Bill Williams and Ann Rutherford, follows the struggles of a Nevada farm family trying to save their cattle in the 1949 blizzard.

Although the writing did not boost the film into blockbuster range, it did succeed in increasing awareness of the struggles farmers experienced during the storm, as well as documenting the US Air Force assistance in the disaster recovery efforts.

Sources:

  • Freedman, Russell. Cowboys of the Wild West. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston: 1985.
  • McMaster, Steve, CFM. “Blizzard of 1949 and its aftermath.” FSI Flood Scene Investigation. Flood Plain/Dam/Safety Survey. Nebraska State Government. Retrieved November 7, 2011.
  • Operation Haylift. Dir. William Berke. Perf. Bill Williams, Ann Rutherford, Tom Brown. Lippert Pictures, 1950. Running Time: 73 min.
  • Renschler, Catherine. “The Winter of 1948-49. ” Adams County Nebraska Historical Society. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  • “The Blizzard of 1948-49.” The Beef State. Net Television: Nebraska’s PBS Station. Retrieved November 2, 2011.

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