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Blizzard of Eighteen Eighty-Eight

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, March 18, 1934


By Howard Burba


     There ought to be a law to prevent people running around declaring that “we don’t have old-fashioned winters like we used to have.”

     It would seem that getting through a February like the recent one was sufficient punishment, in itself, without being forced to hear of worse ones in years gone by.  In the first place, no one is going to believe it would be possible for any month to be worse than February, 1934, and in the second place it’s nothing to the credit of anyone to brag about it even if such were possible.

     But the “oldest inhabitant” still persists in declaring “we don’t have winters like we used to have,” so in the hope that there in some way to stop his mouth we’ve checked up on him.  The oldest resident asserts the winter of 1888 holds an all-time record in the Miami valley.  And in one way he is right.  It was more prolonged, in the matter of low temperatures and snow, because it started in November and hung on until April.  It didn’t come “all in a bunch,” however, as did the winter through which we are now joyously emerging.

     The winter of 1887-88 was a strenuous one, as a thumbing of old newspaper files will reveal.  It started on Sunday, Nov. 28, 1887, and with the first snowfall of the season we find a local scribe dashing off these appropriate paragraphs:

     “Snow suggests sleighing, sleighing suggests speed and by easy transition the reader is carried to the subject of fast horses.  ‘Has Dayton any good snow horses?’  Emphatically yes.  She has 30 that can trot in 2:40 and better, besides 10 that can pace in :38 and better to say nothing of nine of the finest double teams that ever pulled a cutter.

     “Of the trotters, the fun at the opening of the carnival will be between Ed Rowe’s ‘Lottie W.’; Stoddard’s ‘John B.’; Lytle’s ‘Trinket’; Myers’ ‘Aleen Amont’; Brice’s ‘Go-Fetch-Cap’; Platt’s ‘Busy Boy’; and Smith’s ‘Western.’  The favorites are ‘John B’ and ‘Western,’ with the rest about equally divided.

     “So bring on the beautiful!  Secure your seats early and keep your eyes open for Mike Nipgen’s new turnout.  Walter D. Jones and his ‘yellow skipper’ cannot be overlooked with impunity.  He will take no man’s snow.  There will be plenty of members of the ‘Turnover club’ on hand.  Sam Wagner has ordered a new speed cutter that will give Billy Anderson first place.  Hurd Anderson says when O’Dell comes to First st. with ‘Sickle Legs’ he wants a seat in the Episcopal church steeple.  He won’t make but one heat a day for it will take the rest of the afternoon to drive back to town.

    “In order that the owners of fast horses who drive on First st. during the sleighing carnivals may estimate the distance they drive, Samuel B. Shoup has kindly furnished the distance from the west alley, known as Lovers Lane, to Main st.  It is 2112 feet, or two-fifths of a mile, up a grade that pumps wind out of a flyer mighty quick.  Five round trips, which is four miles is as far as any horse ought to be called upon for speed in one afternoon.”

     But that fall of the beautiful did not last long, though low temperatures obtained generally throughout the country until well into the new year.  For two weeks following the New Year celebration Dayton had enough snow to provide generous sleighing.  It was not until the middle of January, or on the 14th, however, that old 1888 started in to smash all records for severity.

     It came in the form of a blizzard that was nation-wide in scope.  It started far up in the Dakotas, and we find a brief telegraphic dispatch announcing it had swept out of that territory, across Minnesota and had struck as far south as Texas.  In the Lone Star state the mercury dropped to 40 and 50, and in some places as low as 60 degrees below zero.  It was 16 below at Chicago at midnight on Jan. 14, and was headed across the middle west.

     At Belgrade, Mont., cowboys were reported to be freezing to death in the Madison valley.  At Brainard, Minn., it was 58 below zero, and it was but three degrees warmer at Faribault.  St. Paul reported a list of 10 dead from exposure to the storm.

     It was not until the following night, Jan. 15, that the blizzard hit Dayton. Then the thermometer registered but a few degrees below zero, but a wind of cyclonic proportions accompanied the snow and caused great suffering.  The first casualty of the storm locally was reported in these words:

     “Joseph Puterbaugh, a farmer residing on the Wolf creek pike while en route to the city with a two-horse wagon early this morning discovered a man apparently dead lying along the edge of the pike.  From appearances the man had died from exposure.  Mr. Puterbaugh put the body in his wagon, wrapped it up and drove to Stillwater Junction, a short distance away.  The body was left there and the coroner notified.

     “The investigation disclosed that the dead man was John W. Porter, 55 years old, and well known as a barber.  He had recently been admitted to the infirmary and it is presumed he wandered away from the institution during the night, was caught in the blizzard and froze to death.”

     The 16th brought more snow, though there was an abatement of the high wind throughout the Miami valley.  Then, on the morning of the 17th, came this report from the far west, showing no cessation in the storm and even greater suffering than had been previously reported:

     “The terrible storm which has swept over the northwest, blockading railroads in the five states, still rages, though the worst is believed to be over.  The death list is growing almost every hour.  It is not improbable when the record is complete that it will show at least 100 lives sacrificed to the awful blizzard.  Next to this the worst blizzard the northwest ever experienced occurred Jan. 7, 8 and 9, 1873.  In that storm 70 people were frozen to death and thousands of dollars worth of property destroyed.

     “The present storm promises to be even more terrible in its results.  It came without warning.  At sunrise last Wednesday Dakota never had more lovely weather.  In an hour snow was falling and a violent gale was sweeping over the state.  The air was full of snow as fine as flour and the roaring of the wind and the darkness caused by so much snow in the air made the scene the most dismal and forsaken any one of this generation every gazed upon.  Within a few hours the temperature had dropped to 12 below zero.  Within a period of 24 hours it had gone down to 40 below.”

     It was on this bitter cold morning, Jan 17, that another victim of the blizzard was recorded in the Miami valley.  Early in the morning of that day a report reached the city that Abraham Denlinger had made a grewsome find on his farm in Madison tp., northeast of Dayton.  While passing through a cornfield, he stumbled and fell over an object which he at first supposed to be a log, covered with snow.

     When about to remove the obstruction he was horrified to find that the object was the dead body of an old man.  It lay deeply imbedded in snow, with the face upward.  The weirdness of the sight unnerved Mr. Denlinger and he hurried away to make known his discovery and summon assistance.  Several neighbors joined him and an effort was made to take up the body and determine its identity.  The body was almost wholly nude and from appearances the man had been lying in the snow for several days.

     “The coroner was notified and ordered the body removed to an undertaking establishment at Trotwood.  There it was identified as that of the venerable Michael Sloughman, who has been missing from home for the past six weeks.  Positive identification was made by a son, who called attention of the coroner to a missing finger on one of the dead man’s hands.”

     Winter was on in earnest from that time on though the ground had been covered with snow for three days.  It brought that for which a large part of the populace longed—enough snow to permit racing on the streets.  For long years First st., between Wilkinson and Main sts., had served as a speedway during the winter months.  But it does not take a dyed-in-the-wool old timer to recall those scenes.  As late as 1909 racing on First st., was still a winter custom in Dayton, though the sport had gradually waned with a series of mild winters after still another record breaking February—the February of 1900.  That the public was perfectly willing to undergo a blizzard to get its favorite winter sport started, however, is indicated in this announcement in a local paper of Wednesday, Jan. 18, 1888:

     “The long anticipated snow, brought in by a blizzard out of the northwest, came on Sunday.  The owners and drivers of local flyers are taking advantage of the beautiful and a great skating carnival got under cay this afternoon.  So good is the course that the street is lined with cutters and sleighs, and a regular old-time sleighing carnival is assured.

     “Frank Huffman, with his trotter and Lew Reynolds with his side-wheeler were the first on the course, but were speedily followed by Mike Nipgen, J. Lytle, Sam Wagner, Lew Lang and a host of others.

     “The feature of the first afternoon was the brush between Reynolds and Huffman and the defeat in two heats of ‘Magnetic Sam’ by Mrs. T. A. Phillips’ pacer.  Mike Nipgen’s pacer was sent to the stable early in the afternoon on account of his being hitched too close to the new cutter.  The corks on his hind feet had split the footboard of the cutter.  Later in the afternoon Henry Pruden’s ‘Darby’ appeared.”

     The snow racing on First st. was first page news in those days and each local paper assigned a special reporter to cover it.  That they found much entertainment in the sport is indicated by such paragraphs as these, culled from the column of notes accompanying the longer accounts of each day’s speed events:

     “The beer wagons as usual marred the sport by driving slowly up and down the full length of the course.

     “Adam Schantz is in the same boat with Dr. Howe and did not know that there was snow on the ground.  He was on the street with a buggy and tried to get up a brush with several of the steppers.

     “Bellbrook Sam,” with Brown at the ribbons, could not down Mrs. Phillips’ little pacer and it didn’t have Brown feeling any too good.

     “A driver furnished considerable amusement by appearing on the street with a sulky.  He stayed there, too, all afternoon.

     “S. T. Brice has rung in a dark horse.  What horse is it and where did he get it and what can it do?

     “Joe Dowling, Charles Hanitch and Lew Lang were there with cutters and critters ready for the fun.

     Charlie Freeman, W. F. Stark and Capt. Patton were enthusiastic curbstone rooters.

     “Mrs. Ed Rowe’s handsome colt, Peter P., was out and in action.  He is a beauty.

     “Smiley Turner occupied a gallery seat and Hurd Anderson said he saw the whole performance from the Episcopal church steeple.”

     The second day of the carnival started early, and the sport was not concluded until dusk.  Two solid rows of humanity packed First st. to the curbs from Main st. to Wilkinson.  Commenting upon the large attendance and the special features a newswriter of that day said:

     “One of the features of the carnival was the appearance of ‘Busy Boy,’ who was driven several fast heats by Col. Platt’s 6 year-old daughter.  The little miss was attired in a coquettish poke-bonnet, sealskin sacque and wore a pair of brown kid gloves while her hair was worn down her back in long, golden curls.  As she handled ‘Busy Boy,’ guiding the famous trotter in and out of the almost inextricable crowd of cutters, her face was a picture of animation and confidence.  The harder the colonel urged ‘Busy Boy’ with the whip the keener was her enjoyment of the ride.

     “P. A. McGowen takes the entire bakeshop with his four-in-hand team.

     “John C. Shafor’s sorrel pacer showed the spectators that he still knows how to pace.

     “Rad Waymire had Smiley Turner’s coupon for a seat yesterday—on the curb.

     “A runaway and two men knocked down was one of the divertisements of yesterday’s racing.

     “Owen Smith says he knows a fellow who went to church Sunday morning and then lost his religion by spending all Sunday afternoon greasing his sleigh.

     “’Juliet,’ J. S. Artz’s black mare was seriously hurt when she was run into and a shaft penetrated a shoulder.

     “Uncle Charlie Burroughs is sadly missed on the street this winter, and so is that rattling old-time sprinter “Joe Davis.’”

     Thursday brought no break in temperature.  Old winter was “strutting her stuff” and those who prayed that there would not be an early moderation had their prayers answered.  On the following day the skies were bright and clear, but the mercury remained low enough in the bulb to insure perfect sleighing.  In Friday’s paper we find this:

     “Yesterday dawned bright and clear with the thermometer low down in the teens.  All morning a keen north wind seemed to establish the fact that there would be no sports on First st. in the afternoon.  These predictions fell flat at 2 o’clock and tumbled completely at 3 o’clock, when the street presented a more animated scene than on the day before.  The number of cutters and sleighs was greater than on the previous day while the number of spectators was not diminished by the extremely cold weather.

     “The fun began yesterday when ‘Billy Anderson’ appeared with Brown in the cutter and was followed almost immediately by ‘Clara Bell’ driven by her colored trainer; ‘Darby’ in a speed sleigh driven by her owner, H. B. Pruden; ‘Uncle Ned’ behind whom sat his owner, Mike Nipgen.  The sport began in dead earnest when ‘Uncle Ned,’ ‘Trinket’ and ‘Time Medium’ whirled into line for a fast heat.  At Ludlow ‘Trinket’ spurted into the lead, and ‘Uncle Ned’ finished at the runners of ‘Trinkets’ sleigh, with ‘Time Medium’ close up.

     “One of the chief attractions at the carnival yesterday was the appearance of a large black dog hitched in full harness to an elegant dwarf cutter and driven with reins by a handsome little girl.  The team occupied the north pavement between Main and Ludlow sts.

     “During the early part of the afternoon Pete Satalia appeared on the street speeding his iron gray trotter to a road wagon.

     “The sleigh of Morris Woodhull is one of the most unique and pretty seen on the streets this season.  It is not calculated for a speed cutter.

     “’Brickdust’ was mistaken for old ‘Coon Hunter’ yesterday.  The latter is dead.  Mr. Markley was driving.

     “Considerable sadness was caused along the course yesterday when it was reported that Col. D. E. Mead had been seriously hurt when his sleigh overturned.  The accident occurred on First st. near Sears when the Colonel was about to turn into the latter street.  A runner of the sleigh caught on a frozen stone in the gutter and tipped the sleigh over, throwing Col. Mead on the street where he lay insensible until carried into a neighboring store by several gentlemen who ran to his assistance.  No bones were broken, but his injuries are a severe shock to his nervous system owing to his advanced age.  The horse proceeded to run away when the sleigh was overturned, and the cutter was reduced to splinters.”

     Even in 1888 it was possible to get too much of a good thing, and Dayton got too much winter, as she did in the February through which we have just passed.  It was not until the first week in February, 1888, had slipped away, however, that we find evidence of that fact.  Dayton had enjoyed her long spell of winter, but she apparently had hoped February would bring a cessation of hostilities by the weather man.  On the 7th of February we find the editor from all indications as much disgusted with his lot as modern editors become in more recent zero weather, unburdening himself of this criticism:

     “Most people are satisfied by this time that this has been a real, old-fashioned winter.  Winters like this one are by common consent held to be remarkable, if not really phenomenal.  The oldest inhabitant may perhaps remember a winter which afforded as much sleighing and as much snow, but he has not yet made announcement of the fact.  The thickness of the ice this winter and the protracted freeze without a letup of any special consequence, is also a marked feature of the season which the oldest inhabitant may be able to compare favorably with some in the early period of his history.

     “Although, the winter which is now on the home stretch and soon to finish, it is hoped, has made a record which will be remembered for a great many years, even by those who do not make a specialty of keeping such things in mind for reference or comparison.  Its peculiar characteristics will not soon be forgotten.  The weather specialists, however, will have a rich store of incident and temperature from which to draw in the years to come when some other winter like this is under discussion.

     “The terrible northwestern blizzard of the present winter will again be made to do duty when a future blizzard remarkable for its fierceness shall come to the front.

     “The winter of 1887-88 will afford material for the use of the coming ‘oldest inhabitant’ when ice and snow and unusually low temperatures are under consideration.”

     To the editor’s hopes and entreaties the weather man turned a deaf ear.  February continued cold and snow fell intermittently throughout the entire month.  February 16, unable to stand it longer and apparently obsessed with the belief winter had decided to remain as a permanent fixture in the Miami Valley, we again find the local editor swinging a mean and hateful pen.  He said in his issue of that day:


     “The assortment of cold waves which the present winter has kept in stock was much larger than the current demand.  If there are any remnants on hand they might as well be carried over.  Next winter may need cold waves to stimulate trade in heavy goods, or to give the season its proper characteristics.  The winter which ought to be drawing to a close has given us from the beginning a continuance of frost, snow and ice with scarcely a letup.  The stock of ice secured is unmistakably large and fine; the ice harvest has continued for eight or10 weeks; and it is not yet over, in fact many people still being engaged in filling their ice houses.

     “The season has been remarkable as affording material for winter festivities even in excess of the demand.  It is about time now for the ‘ode to spring’ to be around.  Justification for its appearance would be gladly welcomed.”

     The blizzard which started on Jan. 14 played no favorites, as reports appearing from day to day in local papers indicated.  Not only did it sweep to new low temperatures in the far west, and produce zero weather where it had never before been known in southern sections, but it struck the Atlantic seaboard with all its fury the day after it set the middle west to shivering and piling on more firewood.

     Temperatures in New York state ran from 10 to 20 below; in the New England states they were reported as low as 40 below.  But it was the terrific wind accompanying the snowstorm which produced unusual suffering, tied up traffic and brought industry to a standstill.  New York papers of today refer to February, 1934, as having brought the worst conditions since 1888.  But more modern methods of combating cold and snow reduced suffering to a minimum as compared with the winter of 1888.

     The winter of 1887-88 still holds a place in history as the most severe in 50 years.  But history cannot turn up its nose to the fact that throughout the entire winter of 1888 there was no single month in which low temperatures were sustained as long--nor as low when taken for the entire month—as in February, 1934.

     And history can also record the fact, if it likes, that even the “oldest inhabitant” is praying that it doesn’t happen again.