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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Sorting out the 'great ice storms'

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Invariably a new ice storm provokes recollections of those of past years. Just how that of 2007 really rates alongside the truly memorable ones, it's too early yet to tell. But most of those of recent years, with which 2007 has already been compared, aren't even in the running.

The most recent true "great ice storm," and the only one of which most people now living have personal memories, was that of February, 1983.

That year, Nevadans had to hark back 35 years for comparison or contrast, to the ice storm that began on the morning of New Year's Eve, actually the last day of December 1947, but more correctly credited (or debited?) to January 1948, for it worsened as it went.

"Ice Storm Isolates City," was the Nevada Daily Mail's headline on New Year's Day. "Worst Siege in Ten Years Covers Area."

"Nevada was littered with broken branches, fallen trees, and power lines today, as the county was gripped by one of the worst ice storms since Jan. 9, 1937."

One resident dubbed the town "the broken forest." All about, "erstwhile majestic trunks lay splintered and broken in front of the homes of mournful householders." Many ruined trees were "treasured family remembrances."

"Perhaps the most historic tree to fall victim to the ice storm's fury was that in the yard of the Nevada post office (now the county jail). It crashed to the ground about 9:45 A.M. yesterday." The tree was a pine that had stood on the site before the building was carefully built around it, or more correctly behind it.

Most striking about the 1948 storm was the almost total loss of outside communication. Long distance lines went down for the first time in 17 years. Emergency messages had to be sent over the railway telegraph (presumably the lines along railroad rights-of-way were less vulnerable to falling trees). In the temporary absence of wire service links, the Daily Mail played up local news, a development perhaps not altogether to the bad.

The storm was also more general and widespread than that of 1983. Fort Scott was as badly hit as Nevada, although Barton County reportedly was spared the worst damage.

In the Nevada Hospital coal-oil lamps and candles had to be used, except in the operating room. A major surgery, under way when the power went off, continued with auxiliary power.

The present writer has vivid memories of '48. We'd traded in our old "Warm Morning" coal stove for an electrically-controlled gas parlor furnace. After a falling limb knocked out our power, neighbor Frank Bloom jury-rigged us a new incoming wire. Hardly had the furnace started up than a whole tree collapsed, taking out a wire farther up the line, shutting down the whole neighborhood. The front yard and the street were so full of possibly hot wires we had to come and go for days by way of the back alley.

Worse, the ice storm coincided with the death of my grandfather, Jim Brophy. My devout aunt laid on a high mass, which then took a couple of hours. And the church, of course, was as heatless as an Arctic warehouse. Attendance was minimal, and getting the grave dug in the hardfrozen earth posed no easy task.

The demand for natural gas grew so great it could hardly be filled. Missouri Public Service workmen went about urging folks to cut their use to the bone, because "We're about to lose it," referring to the pressure in the line that sustained the flow. Company manager A. G. "Sandy" Smith sought to soothe the mutinous public with a newspaper item assuring fellow sufferers that the heat was off in his house too, and it was getting pretty cold.

It had been 11 years since the preceding "great ice storm." On Jan. 8, 1937, the Nevada Daily Mail carried the report of that particular storm, which had begun during the night.

"Wind, Sleet Storm Sweeps this State and Four Others," ran the headline. "The Worst Storm Here in the Last 25 Years."

Again, Nevada was cut off amid freezing mist, rain, and sleet, and again, "hundreds of the finest trees in the city were ruined."

"Beginning late last night the trees and poles began breaking under the weight of the ice, and by this morning very few trees were left undamaged." No sooner were repairs made on the lines than they broke again. Hardest hit by the loss of electrical power, the paper noted, were the proud owners of "automatic furnaces," then something of a prestigious innovation.

This storm, like those of later years, was widespread. All Missouri was "buried," though Nevada and Joplin were said to have suffered most. In all, 20 Missouri cities were isolated. The Daily Mail published early, fearing a permanent loss of its power source, which had already failed for a time. Joplin reported a booming business in kerosene lamps and candles.

The last "great ice storm" before 1937 was variously reported as 20 or 25 years before, making it either 1912 or 1917. No effort has been made to check. Three are enough, surely.

Comparing the storms for degree of severity is difficult, if not impossible; but a scan of the news reports leads one to believe that the 1937 storm was worse than that of 1948, and that 1983's, and 2007's, were less severe than either of those. We only fancied otherwise because we rely ever more heavily on a steady electricity supply. And then, it was colder in '37, dipping to a low of 7 degrees.

Whether it proves that the more things change the more they stay the same, or that the old-timers were right and everything was bigger and better (or, in this case, worse) in the old days, we might as well close with an account (from The History of Vernon County) of the very first local "great ice storm" on record.

Known as "the big sleet" of 1848, it began with unseasonal sleet in November. "Then came rain, hail, and freezing weather alternately, until the ice covered the ground to a depth of three or four inches. Timber was badly broken down by the weight of the accumulated ice on the limbs, and in some instances the timber roads were blocked by trees which, weighted down with ice, had fallen or bent across the roadway, completely obstructing it.

"At that day only a comparatively few of the horses in the country were shod, and perhaps none had rough ice shoes. Many a horse slipped and fell on the ice glaze and injured itself or its rider severely. Travel, except on foot, was seriously interfered with for some days. In the remote settlements on Clear Creek and the Drywoods the people could not go to mill, and were compelled to resort to mortars and pestles and to graters to procure meal for bread. The big sleet was general throughout southwest Missouri, and is well remembered by old settlers."