History in Focus: Mega winters in Northwest Colorado
As 2023 sets in and we begin to shovel our way out of this monumental winter of “bomb” cyclones and record snowfall, it’s apparent our modern era likes to declare all sorts of weather patterns as “unprecedented” in all of human experience. Perhaps, this is due to our ever-lurking paranoia over manmade climate change.
So, I searched “blizzard” in the Colorado Historic newspaper database, and it became apparent our current winter, while back-breaking for those of us without snow blowers, is nothing new to the Yampa Valley. Along with winter thaws, spring floods and summer droughts, we’ve been here before.
In January 1918, the Routt County Sentinel reported, “from the Rocky Mountains to the Alleghenies and from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay” the whole eastern half of the United States and Canada was shut down by the “worst blizzard in 50 years.” Sounds suspiciously like a “bomb” cyclone.
In early April 1897, the Yampa Valley was surprised by a massive 24-hour storm that drifted stagecoach lines shut and left folks stranded for days. The storm delayed ranchers and farmers gearing up for spring work.
“Many who are feeding cattle find themselves in a serious predicament. Some have hundreds of cattle to feed with only a scant supply of hay on hand and no indication of getting the benefit of the open range for several weeks,” intoned the Craig Courier on April 3, 1897.
On Thanksgiving week in 1919, the area was blessed with an early blizzard that dumped anywhere from 15 to 36 inches of snow across the valley. Another storm a week later left behind 14 inches of white bliss. To top it off, record lows of minus 38 to minus 45 set in after the double-barreled blizzards.
The Moffat Railroad was blocked at Corona Pass, mail service cut off and pipes froze across Craig. Plumber C.J. Kennedy worked overtime when he received more than 40 calls for assistance, according to the Craig Empire on Dec. 10, 1919.
Beyond the trials faced by ranchers, farmers and overworked plumbers, extreme winter weather brought out amazing demonstrations of fortitude and determination.
In early April 1917, Miss Lela Glinkins, a school teacher from Mullen, Nebraska, arrived in Craig with her brother to locate and file a homestead claim just east of Great Divide. The trip turned into a four-day saga.
As a spring blizzard barreled in, her group sheltered at the Mowrey brothers’ place 23 miles northwest of Craig. The next day, and undeterred by the advice of men in her group to quit the quest, they set out on something resembling cross country skis, trudged through and over high drifts, located her claim and returned to the Mowrey place cold, wet and exhausted after a 17-mile trek.
On April 4, 1917, the Craig Empire extolled Miss Glinkins pioneering spirit of grit and determination stating, “And when a real woman makes up her mind to do a thing, she does it, all masculine advice to the contrary.”
In 1939, a young couple, Patricia and John Harrington, came out from Rockford, Illinois, as caretakers of the Elk Lodge near Trappers Lake. In late February, Patricia developed a painful intestinal blockage. Snowed in and desperate to get her to a doctor, John ingeniously fashioned a toboggan from a set of skis and two orange crates, filled it with blankets and laid his wife in the sled.
Harrington and a neighbor pulled Patricia on snowshoes through deep snow for eight miles and overnighted at a cow camp. The next day a blizzard hit, and the two men continued on to Twin Springs, where a waiting sled with four horses pulled her the remaining way to Meeker.
In the Feb. 22, 1939, article in the Craig Empire-Courier, Harrington remarked, “It was awful rough going, but we never lost the trail. But our snowshoes sank deep every step. We were pushing through new, soft snow five feet deep.”
In the past, it seems extreme weather was accepted as part of life in Northwest Colorado. Indeed, a 1920 Chesterfield cigarette ad in the Craig Empire calmly advised readers to, “Let ‘er blow. An exciting yarn, a good fire, the ‘satisfy smoke,’ and you’re fixed for the evening.”
I think I’ll try on that mindset during the next “unprecedented” weather event.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at email@example.com
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