Tuesday, Nov. 12, 1940: Armistice Day blizzard

Posted on August 15th, 2005 – 7:58 PM
By Ben Welter

The forecast for Armistice Day 1940, as reported in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune dated Nov. 11, gave barely a hint of what was to come that day: “Cloudy, occasional snow, and colder, much colder.”

Many took advantage of the mild holiday weather and made plans to spend the day outdoors. Then came rain … which turned to snow, accompanied by howling wind … and more snow … and then the cold. More than 16 inches of snow fell in Minneapolis, more than 2 feet in other parts of the state. Temperatures dropped from near 60 to the single digits in less than 24 hours. Telegraph and telephone lines went down, cutting off communications and complicating the task of reporting the big story. In the end, 49 people died in the Armistice Day blizzard in Minnesota, many of them duck hunters trapped in remote bottom land along the Mississippi when the blizzard hit.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune’s “6 A.M. Alarm Clock Edition” of Tuesday, Nov. 12, 1940, provided exhaustive coverage. Here is the lead story, followed by a few of the dozens of storm-related briefs. The photos below appeared in subsequent editions of the Tribune and the Star Journal.

N.W. STORM RAGES ON

Forecast Gives No Hint of Letup;
7 Die as Zero Wave Rides Blizzard

Motor Traffic Paralyzed;
Scores of Towns Isolated

Gale Hits Hard at Telegraph and Telephone Services — Auto Mishaps
Trap 100 Near New Brighton – Blocked Streets
Send Hundreds to Hotels

The Armistice day blizzard that virtually paralyzed transportation and crippled wire communications in Minneapolis and the northwest, roared into Tuesday with no sign of abating.

The weather bureau offered little comfort with a forecast for today of partly cloudy in the south and west parts of Minnesota, with occasional light snow in the northeast portion; Wednesday; fair and continued cold.

Snow had stopped falling at Bismarck and Grand Forks, N.D., this morning but high winds continued the blizzard conditions of Monday.

The storm, which passed through stages of rain and sleet to a blinding gale of snow, hit telegraph and telephone services hard. Most communities were isolated. Temperatures fell by the hour. At 4 a.m. it was 5 degrees above zero in Minneapolis.

Forty-nine people died in Minnesota in the 1940 Armistice Day storm, including these lightly dressed duck hunters.

The full extent of casualties will not be known until communications are opened up again, but deaths of six men, three of them hunters, and one woman, were reported last night.

The dead:

Walter Strom, 1700 Hawthorne Av., Soo Line fireman, killed in wreck at Watkins.

Mrs. E.Y. Arnold, 2124 Ann Arbor St., St. Paul, traffic victim.

John C. Johnson, 55, 222 Tenth Av. N.E., died of exhaustion.

Harry S. Mason, 75, 329 South Warwick St., St. Paul, died of exhaustion.

Herbert Junneman, Wabasha, Minn., a hunter.

Theodore H. Geiger, Eau Claire, Wis., a hunter.

Thousands of persons stranded in the loop crowded downtown hotels, taking every available room, and overflowing into dining rooms and lobbies. It was the buiest night hotel men could recall.

During the storm, winds reached a velocity of 60 miles an hour, drifts piled up as high as five feet, and there was a temperature drop to sub-zero depths, Williston and Minot, N.D., and Hot Springs, S.D., reporting 10 below.

Practically every road in Minnesota was blocked early today, the state highway department reported.

Plows were kept off highways because of poor visibility, and the danger of accident, but officials said every effort would be made this morning to open up the travel lanes.

Motorists Warned

Meanwhile, they warned motorists not to venture forth unless they had specific and authentic information about road conditions. Those who had found shelter were urged to stay there until conditions improved. Plans were made to send out bulletins on the radio this morning.

Storm Causes Train Wreck

Blanketing out visibility by the storm caused a train wreck on the Soo line at Watkins, Minn., in Meeker county, west of Minneapolis. Passenger train No. 106 coming into Minneapolis from Enderlin, N.D., overran a switch signal and collided head on with a freight train. Fireman Strom on the freight train was killed and Engineer Floyd Terpening, 2408 Central Av. N.E., was seriously injured. Two other trainmen were injured.

Minikahda Club, 1940
Only the tops of cars are visible in this view of snowbound Excelsior Boulevard, looking west toward the Minikahda Golf Club overpass in Minneapolis.

One woman was killed and her husband and another woman were hurt when their car apparently was thrown into the path of an oncoming truck by the strong winds near the Ramsey county line on highway No. 212. The fatality victim was Mrs. Arnold. Mr. Arnold and Mrs. Nels Chamberlain, 139 East Winnifred St., St. Paul, were taken to Mounds Park hospital. The truck was traveling about 15 miles an hour when the crash came, Mrs. Arnold being thrown out as a door of the automobile was sprung open.

Nearly 100 Marooned

Nearly 100 persons, a dozen of them cut by flying glass, were marooned near New Brighton following a mass traffic accident in which 30 or more cars piled into each other on highway No. 8.

Ramsey county deputy sheriffs, with one of them injured in the mixup, helped to get the motorists to New Brighton, while others found refuge in a farmhouse. One of the sheriff’s squad cars was almost demolished as it got caught in the crash of cars.

The jam started when an automobile collided with a White Bear-Stillwater bus. Three more cars piled into the bus, and one of them sideswiped an oncoming car in the opposite traffic lane. Within a short time two dozen other motorists, blinded by the snow, slid into the pile of disabled machines. The injured deputy, Kermit Hedman, was severely cut below the knee.

Pedestrian Collapses

Johnson collapsed while walking at University Av. N.E. and Broadway. Passersby carried him to a nearby filling station, where he died a few minutes later. Dr. A.N. Russeth, deputy coroner, said death was due to a heart attack, brought on by exhaustion.

Mason, a retired St. Paul police lieutenant, was found dead in the garage of his home. He apparently died of over-exhaustion while digging tulip bulbs to keep them from freezing. He was found by his daughter, Mrs. John W. McBride, with whom he lived.

Junneman, 38, a barber of Wabasha, Minn., drowned in the Mississippi while he was hunting with several companions. The boat was capsized by the storm. He clung to the side of the overturned craft for awhile, but became numb and exhausted and slipped into the icy water when rescuers were stalled in attempts to reach him.

The bodies of Geiger, 30, and Detra, 34, both of Eau Claire, Wis., were washed up on the shore of the Mississippi river seven miles north of Alma, Wis., last night, victims of the violent snow and windstorm. The men apparently had been hunting ducks in the vicinity.

Duck Hunters Marooned

Hundreds of Holiday duck hunters were marooned – 100 along the Mississippi river between Winona and Wabasha, and another 100 near Parkers Prairie, in addition to smaller parties in various sections. One group on an island near Winona was rescued by a government tow boat.

In Minneapolis, where the rush hour of automobile traffic late in the day packed ice into the ruts of trolley rails, street cars were practically at a standstill by nightfall. Every available plow, 17 in the Twin Cities, of which 11 were in Minneapolis, got on the job, but the fact that nearly 40 street cars were of tracks in various parts of the city served to stall the plows, too. Under the direction of Fred Bjorck, general superintendent of the Twin City Lines, an all-night fight was made to open up street car traffic.

Early today Mr. Bjorck said it appeared likely that most lines would be open to the public in time to get to work today.

Pack Ice Into Tracks

Not only did motorists pack ice into the streetcar tracks, but in some instances, motorists who got stalled on tracks locked their cars and abandoned them. Ice on trolley wires also served to handicap the service.

In the effort to open up the lines, Mr. Bjorck made arrangements to hire a number of city trucks to help the streetcar company. These, in turn, supplemented a fleet of private trucks hired by the company.

Streetcar busses were blocked as well as the street cars by the traffic jam, and by icy hills.

Warner's ad
Warner’s Hardware must have had this ad on standby, ready to appear after the first big storm. It ran alongside storm coverage inside the Minneapolis Morning Tribune on Nov. 12, 1940.

Games Called Off

The storm came on a holiday, when schools were closed. Holiday football games between prep school teams were called off, and Armistice day ceremonies, including a parade in Minneapolis, were curtailed or cancelled entirely.

In Minneapolis, the prevailing wind was 27 miles an hour from the northwest, though gusts at times reached 40 to 50 miles. By 7 p.m., the moisture brought by rain and snow measured 2.13 inches in a 24-hour period. There was a high temperature of 38 degrees at 3 a.m. yesterday and then throughout the day and the night, the mercury fell steadily.

Communications Hard Hit

The fact that telephone and telegraph service was hard hit added to the isolation of various communities of the northwest. Towns were cut off from towns and farms from farms. Scores of communities were able to grope about only within their own immediate snowbound areas and could only surmise what was going on in other places.

The storm brought special handicaps to various services.

Power company officials, fighting to restore lines, were hampered by road and street conditions, which made use of trucks and automobiles nearly impossible. It was difficult, too, because of the condition of communications, to locate fallen wires.

It was the worst November storm in years, and it was all the more demoralizing because it marked a swift turn from rain to snow, with little warning. Railroads, street car companies and other transportation agencies were caught by surprise and were not immediately prepared to muster equipment and crews. That gave the storm quite a headstart.

Then, too, because of poor visibility and the danger of accidents, snowplows were kept off the highways in many sections.

The Milwaukee railroad’s westbound transcontinental Olympian train, which left Minneapolis at 9:25 a.m., got as far as Bird Island, Minn., 98 miles west of Minneapolis, where it was tied up because broken wires interfered with the dispatching system. From their car windows, the passengers watched the drifts pile up around them.

A dozen other trains were either halted or slowed down.


5 Get Rides Home When
Ambulances Answer Calls

Fifteen persons, stymied in efforts to get rides, thought of a novel solution to their problem. They went to the General hospital receiving station to await ambulances calls which might send an ambulance to their section of town. Five rides were obtained this way.


CHIP OF WOOD HITS EYE

At the peak of the storm Claus Johnson, 57, who lives in a small cottage at Twenty-seventh avenue north and the river, was chopping wood to replenish low fuel stock. A chip hit him in the eye, perforating his eye-ball. He was in fair condition in General hospital.


Mrs. Anna Tollefson, police matron, was hostess for the night to 30 women, who, marooned in the loop, sought lodging in the matron’s quarters. An emergency kitchen was set up, and sandwiches were served to about 100 people. A number of men were given lodging in the city jail.


HOUSE IS RAZED
WHILE FIREMEN
BATTLE DRIFTS

The two-story home of Nick Smith at Nineteenth Av. S. and Sixty-sixth St. in Richfield burned to the ground last night while a Richfield fire truck was trying to reach the home. Three times the truck was blocked by stalled cars — first at Portland Av. and Sixty-sixth street, then, as it tried another route, at Cedar Av. and Seventy-eighth St., and, on its third and final unsuccessful effort to reach the blaze, at Thirty-fourth Av. S. and Seventy-eighth St. For an hour and a half, while they futilely tossed buckets of water on the blaze, Smith and his neighbors could hear the siren of the fire truck as it cruised to the vicinity.

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