FARGO — Widely considered to be one of the worst blizzards in the recorded history of the Midwest, the Armistice Day blizzard, which happened 79 years ago this week, cost 154 people their lives and forever changed how weather would be forecast here. In Minnesota, the storm was particularly devastating for duck hunters, many of whom left home the morning of Nov. 11 wearing only light jackets, entirely unaware of the devastating storm they would soon face.
Just another fall day
In 1940, Veteran's Day, was still known as "Armistice Day." World War II was already raging in Europe, but America was staying out of the conflict. Just the week before, Americans voted to keep Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House, a vote of confidence that the Great Depression was truly over. Moviegoers were flocking to see "The Knute Rockne Story" starring a young actor named Ronald Reagan. Once home, they might turn on their radios to hear a skinny kid named Frank Sinatra sing the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra's latest hit "I'll Never Smile Again."
Going out to hunt
Throughout much of the Midwest, the morning of Nov. 11 was seemingly a perfect day to go out for a hunt with temperatures in the upper 50's to low 60's. By afternoon, things were changing. It began to sprinkle, then rain, then snow. The temperature nosedived into the single digits. Winds were clocked at 50 to 80 miles per hour, causing wind chills in excess of 40 below zero. Before it was over the next day, more than two feet of snow covered the ground. The huge storm spread from the Dakotas to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.
In 2004, columnist Bob Lind spoke about the storm with Wayne Wilson of Fargo, who, at the time, was a teenager driving to Minneapolis to help a car dealer friend pick up some cars. He says that weekend they stopped for breakfast in Fergus Falls, Minn., where he says the local café was filled with duck hunters, out en force, obviously taking advantage of the gorgeous fall day to get some birds.
Wilson and his friend left the restaurant and eventually made it to Minneapolis, but later got stranded in Cambridge with relatives for three days because of the storm. Many of the state's duck hunters weren't that lucky. Caught off-guard by the weather, under dressed with no place to seek shelter, many perished. Of Minnesota's 49 deaths, 30 were hunters. In Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois it's estimated 85 duck hunters were killed — some frozen, others drowned — all caught by surprise. While Fargo-Moorhead escaped the worst of the storm, front pages of The Fargo Forum from Nov. 12-14 document the tragedy.
"Outdoor Life" magazine said the weather at first that day was a "waterfowler's dream," with ducks coming in by the thousands. (We now know the reason there were so many ducks in the air that day — they were trying to escape from the worsening weather, flying together in a pack for protection and shelter.)
By sundown on Nov. 11, the hunters knew they were in serious trouble. Howling winds and blowing snow made rowing a wooden boat, sometimes now navigating through five-foot waves, nearly impossible. Larry Reid wrote in "Wildfowl" Magazine, "Imagine, if possible, that day on the waters of the Mississippi or a tributary, without today's technology. No outboard motor, no cell phone, no high-tech warm clothing, only a man-powered wooden boat for transportation. Those hunters and fishermen caught offshore did everything possible to keep from freezing to death. They burned decoys, blinds and even boats."
"Outdoor Life" went on to say, some hunters waded into water as it was warmer than the air ... and died there, "frozen like fence posts".
While the storm was rated #2 in Minnesota's worst weather events of the 20th century, and is remembered largely for how quickly it hit, there were indications that an intense weather system was headed this way.
The weather pattern that caused the Armistice Day blizzard just days earlier, on Nov. 7, was partially responsible for the destruction of the brand new Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge in Washington state.
"Winds above 40 mph caused air-pressure changes and created vortices that swirled around the bridge, twisting, lifting and dropping it, which caused it to break apart," Bernard Feldman, a professor of physics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis told The Seattle Times. Physicists now believe the famous footage of the bridge swaying in the wind was actually sped up, making it a little less dramatic, but nonetheless still an engineering catastrophe.
As the weather system moved eastward, the U.S. Weather Bureau in Chicago — the office which forecast weather for the entire upper Midwest — knew a storm was headed for Minnesota, but officials later said they underestimated the strength and scope of the storm. They were harshly criticized for failing to properly prepare residents on what to expect. Shortly afterwards, the Twin Cities Weather Bureau office was assigned to issue forecasts for the region instead of relying on Chicago, more than 400 miles away.