In January of 1949, the harshest blizzard in Rapid City history took place. For those not living in the area at the time (or not yet living) imagine Winter Storm Atlas, but lasting on and off for over a month. Digging out, just to have another storm hit. Being cut off from transportation and resources, not for days, but weeks.
Snowfall over the month of January was an all-time high and below-zero temperatures combined with the ongoing, strong, frigid winds created the perfect storm – the Blizzard of 1949.
The Rapid City Public Library digital archives contain over 3,500 items covering the history of the region, from the 1972 Flood to the carving of Mount Rushmore. The most recent addition to our online exhibits is a new collection centered on the Blizzard of 1949. Materials available include articles, photographs, and a full text book. We have black and white photos of the community plowing out downtown Rapid City businesses, clearing the railroads with plows and dynamite, and working to clear the massive amounts of snow just to get a small path.
The early winter of 1949 offered almost continual snowstorms, not just in the Black Hills but on the entire northern plains. The initial storm warnings began in Rapid City on January 2. The snow and bitter cold wind blew at speeds ranging from 50 – 90 mph causing zero visibility. Temperatures quickly dropped below zero.
Many roads were closed for weeks and railroads were inaccessible. New snow kept falling, blocking highways. Roads would be plowed clear only to be rendered inaccessible by wind and snow from a new storm. Cars were stranded and sat unused for weeks. Railroads were at a halt for several weeks with many trains completely snowed in. Dynamite was used in some cases to clear railroad lines packed in by snow. Transportation was at a virtual standstill.
During breaks in the storm residents would venture out to clear paths and gather supplies. Some buildings were buried under roof-high snow forcing with occupants to climb out of windows to leave their homes. They then faced daunting 10 – 35 foot snowdrifts. In the Black Hills 12 – 50 inches of snow was reported for the month of January.
The historic snow and wind partnered with frigid temperatures would continue on and off throughout the month of January with at least three separate major storms striking the region. There was only one fatality recorded in western South Dakota but thousands of cattle were lost in the storm. It wasn’t necessarily the severity of the storms but their persistence and duration that made them unforgettable.
The new digital archives collection on the Blizzard of ’49 is available through the Rapid City Public Library’s website on the Research page. The items were loaned to the library for digitization through a partnership with the Black Hills Knowledge Network who received them from a private donor. The physical materials reside in the Minnilusa Historical Association’s archives who also provided materials for the online collection.