Sunday, January 29, 2017

Snow Flakes the Size of Watermelons

Enormous snow flakes fell on Ft. Keogh in Montana in 1887.

Note:  By coincidence, yesterday’s post about the fate of the cow pony Old Blue touched on one of the same series of storms as this entry which made the winter of 1886-87 so memorable on the High Plains.  

The winter of 1886-87 was the most brutal ever recorded over a wide swath of the West.  East of the Rocky Mountains from Indian Territory to Montana storm after storm dumped white stuff on the open range where much of the nation’s beef was raised.  The Great Blizzard of ’87, which lasted for ten days from January 9 to 19, was worst in Montana.  Sixteen inches of snow came down the first 16 hours amid driving winds and temperatures that dipped to -47˚.  And it just kept coming.

Cattle, already weakened by a summer drought and poor grass, floundered and died by the hundreds of thousands.  As ranchers began to try to dig out of drifts that covered their cabins and reached high lofts of their barns, they hoped things would get better.

It was a good thing troopers at Fort Keogh were issued warm, heavy buffalo robe coats and hats.  They needed them in January 1887 when the snow was significantly deeper than in this earlier 1880 photo.

But on January 29 at Fort Keogh near Miles City in southeastern Montana huge flakes began to fall.  And I mean huge.  Flakes were gathered and measured at 15 inches across and 8 inches thick weighing several ounces.  Men, horses, and cattle were actually injured by the falling flakes, the largest ever recorded anywhere.  The reports we so outlandish that they might have been dismissed as tall tales had they not been witnessed and attested to by a whole Army post.
More blizzards fallowed in February.  When the spring thaw finally came, coincidentally unleashing devastating floods, the corpses of millions of cattle littered the plains.  The industry was virtually wiped out and the old system of open range feeding never recovered.
Charles M. Russell was a working Montana cow hand during the brutal winter of 1886-87.  He rose to fame on the basis of sketches and watercolors like this of the storm some of which were made into engravings for the popular illustrated weekly.  The Last of 5000 means the steer was a survivor of a vast herd killed by the storm--and it looks like his days are numbered.  Russell became one of the great Western artists, which was good because after the storm devastated ranching it was hard times for former cow pokes.   
So, campers, if  it’s been a rough winter where you are, thank your lucky stars the flakes of Fort Keogh did not fall again on you.

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