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Blizzard: 1936

This photo from Feb. 11, 1936, shows Highway 20 after a blizzard. This image was taken approximately four miles out of Sioux City. (Journal file photo)

Most observers would probably agree this year's winter wasn't the worst ever -- yes, there were a few snow emergencies declared, and yes, Interstate 29 did get shut down here and there -- but worse winters have been. 

It's hard to pinpoint exactly which winter of recorded Iowa history was the absolute worst -- for one thing, what makes a winter the worst? Snowfall totals? Bitter temperatures? Extreme blizzards? Late-season snowfall?

It also bears mentioning that a bad winter in Sioux City might have been fairly mild in Ottumwa, and vice versa. 

Still, if any Iowa winter could be called the "Worst Ever," it might have occurred in January and February, 1936. 

According to Otto Knauth's work, "The Winter of 1935-36," published in 1960 in The Annals of Iowa, the 1935-36 winter "stands as the worst in living memory." 

Blizzards struck on Jan. 16-18, 22 and 30. These were followed by more blizzards on Feb. 3, 8-9 and 26. The blizzard of Feb. 8-9 was regarded as among the worst ever -- it brought everything to a halt for two days. Several of the other blizzards were of "disaster proportions." 

Bitter cold arrived on Jan. 18, when the temperature in northwest Iowa dropped below zero and did not rise above zero for more than a month. Thousands of water lines froze as temperatures periodically dipped to 20- and 30-plus degrees below zero. 

Hundreds of incidents of frostbite were reported throughout Iowa, and a coal crisis gripped the state as homes, schools and businesses burned up what coal there was. Then-gov. Clyde Herring declared an emergency and forced miners to work overtime. Coal thefts became common, and the governor asked cities to open their public buildings to individuals who had run out of heating fuel. 

Some people reportedly burned corn and furniture to keep from freezing to death. In Des Moines, then-mayor Dwight Lewis announced the Des Moines Electric Company and municipal waterworks would make their coal reserves available to the public. When it was discovered that these coal piles had frozen solid, they were blasted to extract coal. 

High winds blew drifts that were as high as telephone poles. During the Feb. 8 blizzard, some snowplow crews gave up the fight against the blowing snow and abandoned their overwhelmed plows. A number of farm animals died and farmers ran low on feed, which the animals needed more of in the bitter weather. When a hog train became got stuck by Clarion, several train car-loads of hogs froze to death. 

As of Feb. 6, 22 Iowans had died winter-related deaths. 

The winter's snowfall total was 42.9 inches -- the record at the time. 


Lifestyles reporter

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