A wide-ranging, catastrophic storm that hit Wyoming almost 70 years ago is the subject of a new book by Cheyenne historian James C. Fuller.
The Blizzard of 1949, which started on Jan. 2, 1949, and is remembered as the worst storm of the century. It came on quickly and caught many Wyomingites off guard, stranding travelers and trapping people in their homes with frigid temperatures, gusting winds and drifts that persisted for weeks.
“The Wyoming Blizzard of 1949: Surviving the Storm,” from Arcadia Publishing, is a collection of accounts from storm survivors, many of which have never been published before.
Fuller began his research on the topic in preparation for a Wyoming PBS documentary of the same subject several years ago, and the stories just kept coming.
“There were so many stories that were coming out,” he said. “I had a pile of pictures of stories that never made the documentary.”
He said the stories of the blizzard might seem unbelievable if they weren’t true, so powerful was the winter weather that year. The day started in typical Wyoming winter fashion, however, with temperatures in the 20s and a forecast calling for light snow.
“It seemed like the folks in Wyoming were not worried about it, or it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal,” Fuller said.
In a few accounts, he learned of older residents warning their younger counterparts to head home as the storm approached, perhaps with a better sense of what was coming. Fuller said older storm survivors compared the Blizzard of 1949 to the winter of 1887-88, considered to be one of the hardest on record.
Mary Ruth and Carroll Rahm were a young married couple living in Laramie while Carroll attended the University of Wyoming. They were visiting family in Pinedale over New Year’s and left on Sunday, Jan. 2, to drive home for work and school the next day.
They drove through heavy snow with no visibility until the drifts were so high they had to pull off. They were planning to wait out the storm in the car, which easily could have killed them, when a snowplow came by. The driver informed them he was the last plow heading that direction, as the roads were closed all around them.
The Rahms followed the plow to Rock River, and then followed another plow to Laramie. They spent the following days helping neighbors gather food and supplies to survive. Their daughter, Mary Carroll Johnson, remembers hearing stories about the blizzard as she grew up.
“Let’s just say this is the kind of story that would be deemed ‘fake’ if it weren’t for the fact that some photos of it still exist,” she told Fuller.
The blizzard was wide-spread, hitting six states, shutting down transportation across the region and isolating towns. Additional storms hit the region for the next six weeks, compounding the drifts on roads and railways. Survivors remember drifts up to the second and third stories of buildings.
“They could not move for days,” Fuller said. “It’s hard to understand how much snow there was.”
The UW men’s basketball team was stranded in Green River during the storm, along with hundreds of other Union Pacific passengers across the state. In Laramie, Fuller writes, the Laramie Chamber of Commerce, Elks Lodge 582 and UW organized events for stranded passengers. Several celebrity passengers put on a show at the Connor Hotel, which stands at the corner of Third and Grand.
When the sun came out in Laramie a few days later, some passengers didn’t understand why they were still stuck. Down the line, however, were a hundred miles of track covered in 50-foot drifts, while the wind was blowing 80 miles an hour.
Fuller also writes of stranded travelers across the state finding shelter in the homes of strangers.
“They were taking in dozens of people at one time and not even blinking an eye because they knew that was the right thing to do,” he said.
Even as Fuller tours the state to talk about the book, he said, stories keep coming. Sometimes he hears first-hand accounts of the storm from people who lived through it — the youngest survivors are at least in their 70s today. Other times, he hears accounts passed down to children and grandchildren.
“I don’t want that story to disappear,” he said.
Fuller runs a business called Discovering History and Heritage LLC, and he works with a variety of clients on historical research projects.
“I count it an honor to tell Wyoming’s history,” he said.
Fuller is planning promotional events for “The Wyoming Blizzard of 1949” at the Wyoming State Fair on Aug. 15, Dubois Museum on Aug. 16, Riverton Museum on Aug. 17 and Rock Springs Library on Sept. 27.