It began quietly enough as Sunday January, 2 1949 dawned under partly cloudy skies and a forecast for temperatures in the 20’s and 30’s with scattered snow showers. Later that day, the skies darkened, the winds picked up and the temperature began to drop. It began to snow. By that evening a full raging blizzard was upon the eastern portion of the state. It didn’t let up for three days.
But that was just the beginning.. Additional violent snow storms continued to sweep through the state for the next 45 days. Throughout this series of storms, wind speeds fluctuated between 30 and 80 miles per hour. The snow drifted 20 to 30 feet high in places. The average temperature was consistently below zero.
Within 24 hours of the beginning of the first storm, all bus, rail and air traffic was effectively shut down. Entire communities were snowed in and immobilized. Ranches were cut off and isolated. Thirty-three hundred miles of state highways were inundated. Thousands of motorists and rail passengers were stranded.
Men digging out a train, Rawlins. American Heritage Center Collections.
As the storms continued to rage, Wyoming towns began to run out of food. People, livestock and wildlife began to die.
The Air Force and Army were mobilized. Air Force Cargo planes dropped hay bales to starving livestock and food and medicine to isolated families. The U.S. Army mounted the largest bulldozer operation in history in an effort to clear roads and reach stranded cars.
Under Operation Haylift, the U.S. Air Force flew 550 tons of hay from Kansas and Colorado to Casper. Shown here is a C-47 at what was still the Casper Army Air Base at the time–now Natrona County airport. Photo courtesy Casper College Western History Center.
But initial efforts at clearing roads ended in failure. As soon as a passage was opened it quickly shut down again with another storm or ground blizzard. The snowdrifts became so packed by continuing accumulation and driving winds that some likened their density to that of concrete. Sometimes dynamite had to be used to clear the way.
Astonishing sites like homes and businesses heaped to their roofs with snow and drifts reaching to the lower blades of windmills were common.
House in Rawlins buried by snow. American Heritage Center Collections.
Automobiles were buried, sometimes with people in them.
Man stands next to car buried in snow (Casper or Cheyenne). W.D. Johnston Papers, Accession #11314 , Box 3, Folder 1
Cattle frozen to death while still standing formed grotesque sculptures. Wildlife ambled through towns, dazed and starving and looking for food, only to be chased down by dogs.
Like the Dust Bowl storms with their ominous walls of black clouds, the 1949 blizzards raged white for nearly two months. The winds seldom stopped their incessant howl. When it was over, the last of the monumental drifts left in its wake eventually melted…in July.
Text courtesy of Wyoming PBS. To see their interesting history of the storm and its aftermath, go to the story on the Wyoming PBS website.