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A Look Back At Winter Of 1880

September 17, 2010, 6:06 PM by Brian Karstens

A Look Back At Winter Of 1880
SIOUX FALLS, SD - If you thought last winter was bad, history would argue it mild compared to the winter of 1880. Those early settlers to Dakota Territory were in for a shock that has yet to be challenged more than a century later.

Blizzards come and go, so does the cold, and every year the people of KELOLAND experience the harsh reality of what winter can offer.  But nobody alive today can recall anything like the winter of 1880.

Bob Kolbe, president of the Minnehaha County Historical Society, spoke about the worst winter imaginable at the Old Courthouse Museum.

"The first snowstorm of that big event started on the 15th of October, 1880," Kolbe said.

We don't have many official records from that time, but drifts up to 11 feet deep were recorded in eastern South Dakota. Canby, Minnesota, recorded drifts up to 20 feet.

From there, the winter only got worse.

"By major accounts, there was a major blizzard every month," Kolbe said.

What was most astonishing was the snow depth on the prairie, which was six to 11 feet deep.

At that time Sioux Falls had a population of 2,600 and the railroad was a lifeline to early settlers in Dakota Territory. But the railroad closed service to the region in late December.

"They didn't get rail service back until mid-April or early May. And it wasn't just bringing in supplies, but it brought in food and people were running out of everything," Kolbe said.

History is a great resource to gauge just how fortunate we are today to have the modern conveniences that make it possible to react and deal with winter weather, which recent history shows isn't as it might seem.

"When you look at today's weather, you just have to look backward to find out life was really tough," Kolbe said.

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