Blizzard of ’49—Nothing Compares To It

Once in a while in my 50+ years in Laramie, a “blizzard” warning has been posted, meaning high wind with drifting snow should be expected. Highways are treacherous, but schools and UW don’t usually shut down. An exception that I remember was in 1969, when a storm caught Dennis and me at a house on W Hill Road, only 10 blocks from our apartment on 17th and Baker St. We couldn’t drive home for three days after an evening with friends Marjorie and David Anderson.

But that is nothing compared to the stories that the old-timers tell about the great Blizzard of 1949—the “storm of the century,” as Lusk native Phil Roberts described it.  He tells of his dad digging a tunnel from the front door so the family could crawl out several days after they thought the blizzard had ended. All across eastern Wyoming, nothing moved except emergency vehicles for many days.

Not one, but three blizzards

The unique thing about the Blizzard of ‘49 was that there were several in a short time. The first one blew into Wyoming on Sunday, January 2, 1949, though it had started farther north on New Year’s Day.  That storm didn’t let up for three days, and was followed by one on January 23 and another on February 6. The high wind and freezing temperatures didn’t ease until the beginning of March.  Snow drifts 20 to 30 feet high were reported all over southeastern Wyoming and neighboring states. 

The snow was unique too. People reported that the flakes felt like blowing salt and solidified into something resembling concrete.  In a 2015 Wyoming PBS documentary on the storm, folks talked about odd natural phenomena also, like upside down rainbows, thunder and lightning, and spontaneous sparks of static electricity inside houses.   

Abandoned cars on the highways often weren’t dug out until two months later.  Whole buildings were completely covered, though there were windblown spots of bare grass, too.  Roofs caved in, telephone and power lines went down, and those lucky enough to be indoors made do with whatever food they had on hand.  Some families resorted to burning furniture when heating fuel ran out. 

Professor Burns Gets Frostbite

UW Professor Robert “Bob” Burns, an Albany County native and sheep expert, had driven northwest of Laramie on the morning of January 2, 1949 with two other couples to help at the Three-Bar Ranch on Sprague Lane where his daughter Margaret and her husband Tom Page needed help cutting ice for food storage. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) had not yet completed power lines to isolated Wyoming ranches like theirs. 

In an oral history archived at UW’s American Heritage Center (AHC), Burns recalled in 1971 about the ordeals the four families had at the ranch when the unexpected storm bore down on them that afternoon.  At first they all tried to reach Laramie (the Pages to buy more heating fuel), but their vehicles were hard pressed to get through the drifts that were already forming.  Eventually the cars died, forcing all to walk a half-mile back to the ranch.

They were prepared for cold since they had expected to be cutting ice, but Burns’ face got frostbitten in the driving wind. They were forced to go out of their way, following a fence line instead of taking a cross-pasture short cut since the blinding snow made it impossible to see.  The Pages, like most ranch families, had plenty of food stocked up, but when heating and cooking fuel ran out, the men had to go to a machine shed to bring back the old cook stove. They walked backwards to keep their eyes from freezing shut and then took turns stoking the stove with wood day and night.  

When the storm let up they had expected to find the cattle dead, but when riding out on horseback three days later, they found most of the animals had been able to graze on the patches of bare ground. Despite frostbitten feet and tails, they had made it.

Warren Livestock Personnel are Heroes

Dave Cook, foreman for the Warren Livestock Company for 40 years, recorded in 1971 one of the most harrowing stories of the ordeal.  “Of all the storms and everything that I experienced, there was nothing like the ’49 blizzard,” he said in an oral history also at the AHC. 

Warren Livestock was mainly a sheep ranch north and west of Cheyenne.  Cook was in charge of 10 sheepherders who had been “scattered all over the country.”  Though some say the Blizzard of ’49 struck without warning, Cook says that he heard a Weather Bureau radio announcement of an impending blizzard that Sunday morning, so he rode out to gather up his herdsmen.

Several days into the storm, there was still one sheepherder and his sheep who he couldn’t find. A low-flying airplane (probably volunteer Civil Air Patrol) dropped a stone from the cockpit with a note tied around it, notifying him that the missing shepherd had been found about 8 miles away in a road ditch, frozen to death.  Cook eventually found that herd of prize sheep—all dead. 

On the fourth day, Wednesday morning, the storm started to let up. Someone banged on the Cooks’ door.  A man familiar with the area had walked from his stuck vehicle to report that there were “a bunch of people freezing in their cars on the highway.”  The house door wouldn’t open so Cook climbed out a window and took the man to the bunkhouse where most of the sheepherders had gathered.  They warmed him up, put on all their gear, gathered up all blankets and heroically managed to rescue about 30 people including a baby. Despite the 60-80 mph wind, all arrived safely at the ranch headquarters after three nights in their cars. 

A battery radio at the ranch picked up broadcasts naming these people as missing, so when the weather cleared that afternoon, Cook rode out on a snow-caterpillar to look for a break in the telephone line. He was overjoyed that he could fix it and was able to call Cheyenne to report that the missing were at the Warren Livestock ranch headquarters.

About 2 a.m. Thursday morning, a huge convoy of army vehicles, snowplows, ambulances and doctors arrived at the ranch. They carried away all the victims. Some lost limbs as a result of severe frostbite, but they survived.

Wyoming counts its dead

Across Wyoming and nearby states, 76 people died as a result of this blizzard.  At least 12 deaths were in Wyoming.  The toll on livestock was staggering, especially sheep.  Antelope numbers plummeted; only elk, of native animals, were reported to have weathered the storm fairly well. Some cattle and sheep that survived were unable to reproduce as a result of storm injuries (frostbitten testicles), causing more loss to stockmen who had many repairs to make to fences and buildings, not to mention the cost of building up their herds again.

Miraculously, the anticipated spring floods did not materialize. The reservoirs filled gradually and an abundant hay crop was harvested. 

Do you have a Blizzard of ’49 story to tell or snapshots?  If so, contact the Laramie Plains Museum (307 742-4448) to have your written recollections archived or to arrange an oral history recording. If you are old enough to have experienced it, your memories are valuable history.   

Editor’s Note:  This is one in a series recognizing the 150 years since Laramie’s founding, prepared by the Albany County Museum Coalition, a group that promotes interest in area cultural and natural history.  Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum.

By Judy Knight

Caption:  UPRR engine 3949 was at the head of one of 50 trains that were stuck during the Blizzard of ’49, stranding 8,000 passengers. It was 13 days before train traffic could resume anything like their regular schedules. Animals frozen stiff and hidden in the drifts were hazards when the powerful rotary plows hit them. The plows had to go back to the shops to be straightened before they could be used again. Photo courtesy of Laramie Plains Museum