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The Poetic Snowstorm Coverage of 19th Century Reporters

Watching cable news anchors' breathless coverage of winter storms, such as yesterday's incredible blizzard or the one that mostly spared New York City last week, you'd think snow had suddenly become more of a menace to civilization than it was in the past. Surely our ancestors were made of heartier stuff and didn't suffer fools or sensationalistic coverage of semi-annual blizzards. Well, a look at newspaper archives suggests that, at the very least, they certainly had a way with words. Take this this 1863 Tribune report as an example: the blizzard in question was "almost unparalleled in history in extent and violence" and the whole area had been "bowed down by its visitation."

During the 19th century, much of the reportage on snow focused on railroad delays, but many articles did take an almost poetic license in describing winter weather. An 1871 Tribune piece about a snow-storm in Milwaukee painted a picture of "clouds of crispy petals from some mystic garden to this desert plain ... sometimes coming in soft silence, sometimes coming in gusty breaths." The wind was "like hungry wolves, now here, now there, howling at opposite doors."

Few storms could match the Children's Blizzard of 1888, so called because the suddeness of the January storm caught many unprepared, leading to the death of children across the Midwest. The coverage was on par with the extreme weather. Papers ran lists of the dead, and on January 21, 1888, the Tribune wrote about "Thrilling Tales of Suffering From Exposure — Men and Women Perish on Their Own Premises — The Dire Distress of the Passengers on a Blocked Train — Babies Frozen in the Arms of Their Mothers."

A similarly cataclysmic storm, the Great Blizzard of 1888, or the "Great White Hurricane, hit the Eastern Seabord later that March. The Hartford Currant, while noting the record-breaking snowfall, said that "like a child's hand in a sand box, the wind pushed the snow into drifts." The New York Herald told readers "How The Tempest Howled and Raged Through the Dark Wilderness of Streets," and The New York Sun went metaphorical: "It was as if New York had been a burning candle upon which nature had clapped a snuffer, leaving nothing of the city's activity but a struggling ember."

Thankfully, it's not all frozen children and titanic storms. A Tribune story from 1862 recounts an unsuccessful attempt to attach a snow plow to a team of mules, which became "snow blind" and stumbled about, to the "no small enjoyment of certain ragged urchins, who were content to show their satisfaction by pelting them with snow-balls."

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin [Google Books]
·Chicago Tribune Archives
·Previous Chiberia 2015 coverage [Curbed]