PHOTO: Gene and Neil Linehan pose on Highway 18 near their home in Oglala after the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ plow opened the highway.
By Katie Merdanian
OELRICHS - Those who lived through the January Blizzard of ‘49 remember it vividly to this day. At the Oelrichs Historical Society meeting Thursday, January 25, local residents shared their stories and pictures.
Maynard “Brit” Britain was 17 years old and staying in Chadron, Neb., while attending high school when the blizzard hit. The snow started on Sunday, Jan. 2, 1949, making travel difficult. But it didn’t stop, and by Monday travel was impossible. Temperatures dropped to dangerous levels and 70 mph winds blew the 20+ inches of snow into 20-30 foot drifts. Heavy equipment, what little there was, and trains could not get through.
Chadron had at least 60 inches of snow in the month of January. Maynard and a group of friends hired themselves out for snow removal. Once they started, they weren’t sure it was worth the money to continue - the snow was so thick and heavy.
Britain did not make it home to help his family for two weeks. His older brother, Clarence, was at home and helped their dad. They did not lose any livestock. Five hogs and a turkey gobbler hunkered down together in an A-frame structure normally meant for one hog. The corral fence was completely buried, and they could not get to the bales of hay in the pasture for some time. The livestock relied on a pile of straw for survival. Finally, a CAT arrived and moved snow on the backside of their fence so they could get the cows out of the deep snow.
Joe Logue was 10 years old during the blizzard. He remembers his dad taking a long stick and poking it down into the snow in order to find the sheep. When one was located, Logue dug down to free the sheep before they suffocated. The sheep would get blown back in, and they would have to be dug out again until a path to the barn was completed. Logue remembers his dad digging out a ewe he was sure was dead. But after a short time, she recovered and birthed her lamb later that spring. Logue doesn’t remember how many cattle and sheep they lost.
Logue remembers it was possible to ride a horse through some of the drifts, and after a couple of weeks, his dad went to Oelrichs to get supplies. His mother canned fruit and vegetables, as did many of the local ranch wives, so they were never without food. The horses were also able to pull sleds to get feed to the livestock, but it was not possible for a hay wagon to roll through the snow. It was weeks before kids were able to go back to school.
According to the January 27 issue of the Hot Springs Star, Trainmaster Robert J. Dimmit supervised a hundred-man crew who worked in around-the-clock shifts. It took about three weeks to open up the tracks. Dimmitt recounted, “The men had trouble keeping warm. They slept when and where they could.” Dynamite was sometimes used to blast through packed snow. The Hot Springs Star described the section men working near Oral as “blocks of ice, staying out all day scooping the snow from the rails where plows could not reach....” Logue remembers it took a very long time for train service to resume.
Airplanes from the US Air Force out of Rapid City dropped bales of hay and feed for livestock. Britain said sometimes the hay would not land where the cattle could get to it. Food and medical supplies were also dropped from the air. People wrote on the snow to communicate their needs. Coal and fuel oil ran low, and the Pine Ridge Hospital almost lost its ability to heat the building.
Gene Linehan was 9 years old. His family lived at Oglala, where his dad and uncle ran the Oglala Store. At that time, the store was near the dam. He remembers the worst part of the blizzard was the wind blew in every direction. He said you would get one place dug out, and the next day it would be blown closed again. Linehan said the drifts were so high his brothers and he could walk from the peak of the house for about 100 yards.
Linehan said Mr. Coomes had bought a small CAT the summer before, but he didn’t know how to run it. Luckily, neighbor Bill MCarter knew how. During January, they left it running unless they had to fix or maintain it. They didn’t charge their neighbors any money; they just dug out as many as they could. Linehan said McCarter built a cake feeder he could pull behind the CAT to feed the cattle on his ranch that stretched from Manderson to Oglala.
Unfortunately, many ranchers, including his uncle, lost livestock. Linehan and his brothers worked for a man who had the contract to furnish hides to the tribe, so they and others would skin the dead cattle. He said, “there was a never-ending supply.”
The US Army Corps of Engineers launched “Operation Snowbound” on January 29 to help rescue people who were trapped, reopen roads, and feed starving livestock. Linehan said, after what seemed like forever, Army trucks (called FWDs) came from Hot Springs. The trucks were equipped with a snowplow and a wing. It took two men to run them. This is how they opened Highway 18 that went by Linehan’s store. Men were hired to hand dig as well.
Linehan said, “We were one of the luckier families. We had a 34-volt wind charger and a light plant with storage batteries, so we had electricity. And we had an oil-burning heat stove to keep the house warm.”
Linehan’s wife, Lee, was born in Elgin, ND, on January 10 during the blizzard. Her dad was snowed in and couldn’t make it to town to pick up her and her mom, so they stayed at the hospital until the road to their ranch was plowed. Her dad said it was like driving through a tunnel; the snow was so high on both sides.
Ron Rickenbach once told the historical society that it was the winter of 1949 when the United Methodist Church in Oelrichs was raised and a basement dug under it. He said that, after the blizzard, they had to dig out all the snow from under the church to continue with the basement.
According to the National Weather Service, January 1949 was the snowiest January on record, and it was one of the coldest. The snow continued intermittently until mid-February. Britain remembers it was months before the snow melted.
Dewey Trent, long-time resident of Oelrichs, asked his grandson to share this important fact at his funeral, “Yes, the Blizzard of ‘49 was that bad.” As time goes on, more people with first-hand knowledge of the blizzard are leaving this world but, luckily, not before their memories have been passed down to the next generation.