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Column: Think this year's ice storm was bad? 1896's may have been worse

WORTHINGTON -- In the wake of April's calamitous ice storm, few likely knew of the icy precedent that befell Worthington and the surrounding area almost 117 years ago. Seen then as "one of the hardest, far-reaching and most destructive storms of modern times," the November 1896 storm crushed southwest Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, with its "chilly blasts [that] swept the country o'er, dealing death and destruction on all sides."

The rain began on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 1896. Worthingtonians were in full autumnal spirit, as they prepared for the next day's Thanksgiving celebrations, but the rain that began falling that afternoon portended to something much darker. By the next morning, the rain had transformed from a fall shower into an icy barrage that felled trees and crushed utility poles. One resident reported that, "all night long, the steady 'smash,' 'smash,' 'smash' [of falling trees] was kept up" (a sound that likely rings a familiar note to many that experienced the April 2013 ice storm). Worthington seemed to be frozen solid.

With a heavily damaged electric plant and countless downed wires, Worthington was in darkness. Authorities assured residents that repair work would begin immediately, but they soberly remarked that it would take days to recover "reliable service" for electricity users. Residents were advised to "keep their lamps trimmed and burning." Superintendent Garretson, aiming to stay the impatience of those huddled in the dark, declared that, "in the meantime, it will be well to possess your soul in patience and burn oil. Don't swear." Some were resigned. One journalist remarked that "it is simply one of those cases when it can't be helped and our people have to get along the best manner possible. ..." By the following Thursday, Dec. 3, the electric plant was still down. (In 1896, Worthington papers were published weekly, so the exact date that light service was restored is unknown. Even by Dec. 3, the Worthington Advance predicted that it would take "quite a number of days" to restore it to "temporary working order.")

If losing electricity began Worthington's process of isolation, the destruction of its local telegraph service surely finished it. One Worthington Herald author quipped, perhaps not entirely in jest, that by Thursday morning, Worthington was "shut out from the world at large as effectually as if we were inhabitants of the moon." Not only were all telegraph wires down, but they were also lost to the operators and train crews who were desperately trying to find them. The town was cut off from outside communication until wires were reconnected on Saturday, Nov. 28. By the time residents were reconnected to the outside world, they were just beginning to estimate the amount of damage Worthington had suffered.

Despite the heavy (and costly) damage wrought by the storm, Worthington witnessed zero fatalities and thus fared much better than surrounding regions. After snowing for 60 hours straight in Jamestown, N.D., the town was left with no mail or rail service, and houses were buried under 30-foot snow drifts, some of which had frozen solid and needed to be broken apart with dynamite charges. Men went missing in Morehead, Minnesota and Devils Lake, North Dakota after becoming lost in the snow storm. In Fargo, Frank Vack (originally of Chicago) walked to town from his farm to get whiskey, but became intoxicated and was lost in the snowstorm on his return. He was never heard from again. Cattle died by the thousand in Montana when feeding grounds became frosted over by thick ice. In some areas, trains were blockaded for a week at a time, and temperatures reached -38°. The exact range of the storm system cannot be ascertained, but there is no question that it was grand in its scope and fierce in its wrath.

Following the storm, the area "resembled the scenes of the Arctic region." In some towns, the dead would not be tallied for months, and the loss of cattle for some farmers was calamitous. The damage to property--cattle, structures, and otherwise--was immeasurable. The 1896 tempest served as a destructive introduction to winter, but as with the ice storm of 2013, residents refused to despair, and instead moved forward together.

n All quotes taken from 1896 editions of the Worthington Advance, Herald and Globe.

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