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Bismarck’s Longest Winter


In the harsh winter of 1880, the Northern Pacific Railroad experienced its longest and most strenuous blockade of snow on its tracks. The winter was “exceedingly blizzardy,” as one storm after another piled deep snow on Dakota Territory, causing the railway to be blocked much of the time from Christmas of 1879 into March of 1880.

Railway snowplows tried to keep trains running, but the snow constantly drifted over the tracks. A crew of 112 men with snow shovels tried valiantly to open trouble zones, but the snow was piled as high as the windows on passenger cars and sometimes as high as the locomotive’s smokestack. Some drifts were solid walls of snow – eight to ten miles long. The snowplow piled hardened snow ever higher, but the “almost continuous winds” rebuilt the colossal drifts.

No trains arrived in Bismarck from February 15th through March 14th, with four passenger trains stuck; and 1,000 loaded railway cars sidetracked at stations between Fargo and Bismarck. A group of “eight prominent Eastern businessmen tired of waiting for a train” traveled 200 miles from Bismarck to Fargo on a sleigh in late February.

When a train finally broke the blockade on March 14th, Bismarck rejoiced. The train had 121 mailbags and many weary passengers, happy to have arrived.

The snow blockade was disastrous for the railway and created negative publicity for Bismarck as an icy, isolated outpost of civilization.

The summer before, the railway supervisor, Mr. H.A. Towne, had urged the company to disburse $60,000 for raising the railroad grade and for repairing snow fences. The money the company lost because of the blockade, reportedly $200,000, would have paid for a lot of snow fences and grade-work.

On this date, a newspaper reported that H.E. Sargent, the Northern Pacific general manager, had arrived in Bismarck and was contemplating how to best solve the problem. In the following year, Mr. Sargent and Mr. Towne fixed it all. The railway put up snow fences and upgraded the lowest tracks.

Bismarck’s leaders wanted the longest winter of 1880 to be forgotten, but it became legendary for its icy, whirling snows and the isolating blockade.

Dakota Datebook written by Lacey Garrison and Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Northern Pacific,” Standard [Albert Lea, MN] , April 1, 1880, p. 8.

“Successive Snow Storms; Only Three Trains Arrive This Month,” Bismarck Tribune , February 20, 1880, p. 1.

“Tribune Local Blockade,” Bismarck Tribune , February 20, 1880, p. 4.

“The N.P. Blockade,” St. Paul Daily Globe , March 3, 1880, p. 1.

“Great Snow Storm,” Standard [Albert Lea, MN] , March 4, 1880, p. 8.

“News From Bismarck,” Standard [Albert Lea, MN] , March 4, 1880, p. 8.

“The Recent Blockade,” Bismarck Tribune , March 5, 1880, p. 6.

“The Train,” Bismarck Tribune , March 5, 1880, p. 1.

“North Pacific Blockade,” Bismarck Tribune , March 5, 1880, p. 2.

“Bismarck Business Boom,” Bismarck Tribune , March 19, 1880, p. 1.

“The Iron Highways,” Minneapolis Tribune , March 16, 1880, p. 1.

“Raise the Grade; What It Will Cost,” Minneapolis Tribune , March 18, 1880, p. 1

“General News,” Rocky Mountain Husbandman [Diamond City, MT] , March 18, 1880, p. 2.

“Items of General News,” Maine Farmer , March 27, 1880.

“Who Is At Fault,” Bismarck Tribune , April 9, 1880, p. 5.

“Ten Car Loads,” Bismarck Tribune , September 24, 1880, p. 8.

“Snow Fences,” Bismarck Tribune , December 9, 1881, p. 7.