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‘If You Thought ’78 Was Bad…’

By Rose McIlveen Jan 7, 1984

Say “blizzard” to a Monroe Countian who was around 66 years ago, and you probably hear – with embellishments – a first-hand account of the blizzard of 1918.

Polaroid photo from the blizzard of ’78. Photo from the MCHC (1990.007.0032)

It wasn’t exactly one of the better aspects of the “good ole days.” The facts – as reported in the Weekly Star and in the Weekly Courier – were these: between Friday, Jan. 11 and Tuesday, Jan. 15, 1918, 18 inches of snow fell on Monroe County. If the inconvenience of deep snow was not enough misery, the weather in that period also included a 23 below zero temperature and  40-mile-an-hour winds(wind chill factor of minus 84 degrees).
Rural mail carriers, reported the Star , dutifully started their rounds, but “were forced to turn back and abandoned their routes.” Farm families were snowbound, with the exception of the lucky ones who managed to get to town in “oldtime” horse-drawn sleds.

In fact, horse-power was the order of the day. Firemen used horses to drag their truck to small fires at the home of Dr. J.W. Wiltshire and J.O. Payne, and merchants reverted to horse-drawn carts for deliveries. America was at war, and coal was in short supply. The two biggest local users were the Central Indiana Lighting Company and the Shower furniture factory. During the emergency only one Monon train with a few coal cars got through the drifts to Bloomington. Reported the Star, “…many trains were stalled in the snow along the line, in some cases causing much suffering to the passengers. Some engines froze their cylinders with 180 pounds of steam.”

Bloomington’s telephone exchange logged some 200 calls for help from persons out of food and/or coal. According to the Star, a dozen families found food and emergency shelter in the city hall. The Showers Company followed suit with cots and food for the families of some employees.

B.F. Adams, appointed war-time county fuel administrator, used his discretion and authority to confiscate one of the railroad coal cars headed for the Central Indiana Lighting Company and had its contents distributed in small lots to homes where the bins were empty. The Star editor estimated that some 500 families, half the families in Bloomington, got coal from the commandeered railroad car.

Not all Bloomingtonians rose selflessly to the occasion. During the emergency a “gang” of four men and one woman was arrested for stealing railroad shipments. Their loot included a sack of beans, 121 tons of coal, 15 quarts of liquor and other merchandise. The Star of Jan. 25 included a terse announcement – in a box – which read, “Where consumers have as much as one ton of coal on hands, no order shall be given to local dealers. B.F. Adams, Fuel Administrator.” Presumably the “gang” didn’t need to re-order anyway.

Other effects and events of the blizzard of 1918 were reported in bits and pieces in the Star and the Courier:

-When the daughter of Gabriel Aynes died, the hearse was a sled drawn by four horses;

-Monroe County school children got an unexpected week of vacation between semesters due to the coal shortage;

-The six-month-old baby of Samuel Stewarts of Smithville was officially listed as a blizzard casualty when it died of croup, because the doctor couldn’t reach the house.;

-Pipes in the Buskirk Building (a half-block on the south side of the square) froze, and some burst.’;

-The Courier saluted Harry D. Orchard, secretary of the Bloomington National Building Association, for remembering the birds during the snowy cold spell. “Every morning and afternoon Mr. Orchard carried out a quantity of feed in the street in front of the office on South College Avenue. The birds now expect their meals and are there regularly for them.”

Between 8 am on Jan. 24 and 8 am on the 25th the temperature rose 44 degrees, and the blizzard of 1918 had earned the name of “legend.”