North Dakota remembers a 'perfect' storm

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Fifty one years ago this week, most of North Dakota took shelter to ride out what is sometimes called the worst winter storm the region has seen since settlement.

The deadly blizzard of March 1966 has become legend in North Dakota. The original caption on this National Weather Service photo read, "I believe there is a train under here somewhere!" The photo, taken on March 9, 1966, shows Bill Koch of the North Dakota Department of Transportation somewhere near Jamestown, N.D. The photo was taken by Ernest Feland, also of the DOT.

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Fifty one years ago this week, most of North Dakota took shelter to ride out what is sometimes called the worst winter storm the region has seen since settlement.

The storm occurred March 2-5, 1966, and dumped about 23 inches of snow which was whipped by winds estimated at 70 mph over a four-day period.

The community of Woodworth gathered and worried about the fate of a 12-year-old girl lost in the storm, according to Timothy Kuhn, one of the searchers who went out in the storm searching for the girl.

Kuhn said he and "every able-bodied man in Woodworth" gathered on Friday, March 4, the final day of the storm, to begin a search for Betty Deede, a cousin to Kuhn's wife, Marretta. Betty was lost somewhere near the Deede farm.

"That (Friday search) never materialized," he said. "They thought it was too bad."


The men had gathered at the county shop in Woodworth. The plan was to tie ropes from each of the searchers to the county's snowplow and fan out and search as the plow moved through the pastures near the Deede farm.

Kuhn said the visibility at ground level was zero on Friday. Even moving around in Woodworth was difficult, although he could look up and see power lines overhead that helped guide him along the streets from his home to the county shop.

The storm tapered off on Saturday, and searchers gathered at the Deede farm to search for Betty.

Kuhn said Betty had been out in the family's barn with a cousin tending to some cattle Friday. When she left the barn, she tried to go to another farm outbuilding to check on her pony.

"She never got to the (pony) barn," Kuhn said. "The wind blew her off course."

Strong winds had blown much of the ground clear of snow, forming large snowbanks in sheltered areas by Saturday. On the open ground, Betty's steps had compacted snow that hadn't blown, leaving raised footprints of snow for searchers to follow, Kuhn said.

"She crossed the railroad tracks into a slough," he said. "She made a nest there then left there and crossed the tracks again to another slough."

Searchers continued to follow the tracks, which became further apart as it appeared Betty began to run in panic, Kuhn said.


Her body was found along a fence line Saturday afternoon.

Even 50 years after the fact, Kuhn said he did not like to think about that search.

"It was hard on the family," said Marretta Kuhn. "It was all so sad and the entire community reacted to the death."

An Associated Press article on Saturday, March 5, 1966, said out of about 30 people listed as missing during the storm, 15 were still unaccounted for. It listed Betty Deede as the first confirmed casualty of the storm.

The storm

"Any state records for winter storms were broken with that storm," said Daryl Ritchison, assistant state climatologist for North Dakota. "And Jamestown and the area to its northeast was kind of the epicenter for the storm."

Official weather statistics were gathered at the Jamestown Municipal Airport and at the North Dakota State Hospital at that time. The staff of the State Hospital did not attempt to measure the snowfall on a daily basis but did record the conditions.

"Heavy snow and high winds, V (visibility) is 0," noted the observer on March 2.


This was followed by, "Big snowstorm, V is 0," for March 3, and "Heavy snow, High winds, V is 0," for March 4. The entry also includes a notation of 23 inches of snow accumulation through the four-day period, including 2 inches on March 5.

Ritchison said a storm that causes zero visibility for three days is unusual.

"Storms sometimes bring 6 to 10 hours of zero visibility," he said. "That storm is very unique in the record books. It is the worst storm since Europeans settled the region when you take every aspect into account."

Ritchison said the storm was not a typical winter weather pattern.

"This storm came from the Pacific Northwest," he said. "But there was an upper-level blockage that caused the storm to move very slowly."

The storm brought heavy snow and winds estimated at 70 mph, but it didn't bring cold temperatures.

"It was March," Ritchison said. "It is hard to get too cold."

The first day of the storm, March 2, temperatures ranged from 30 degrees for a high to 23 degrees for a low. As the storm progressed, temperatures cooled with a high of 14 and a low of 3 degrees on March 5. A few days later, during the process of digging out, nighttime lows dipped to below-zero readings.


Ritchison said the conditions in March 1966 were "perfect" for creating a storm of unique magnitude.

"It was a very special storm," he said. "If it happened once it can happen again, but that was just a perfect storm."

Digging out

The higher temperatures during the storm created a wet snow that packed into large snowbanks that were almost impenetrable by the normal snowplows of the day, according to Merle Weatherly of Jamestown.

Weatherly was one of the National Guard soldiers called out for duty to help the area dig out after the storm using Caterpillars and large loaders.

"The drifts west of town were huge," he said. "We used 8- to 10-foot probes to poke down into the snowbanks so we didn't run into any buried vehicles."

For about two weeks, Weatherly said the National Guard crews worked in shifts around the clock to try to reach out to any farm or community that was cut off by snowdrifts.

"The country was pretty much marooned," he said. "We had priorities of who we needed to reach first, but we had to be so careful because there was so many things buried in the snowbanks."


In some cases, the things that were buried included houses. Kuhn saw the trailer home of his next-door neighbor in Woodworth completely buried by snow with the exception of a small section of the roof.

"I went over and pounded on the roof to see if he was all right," Kuhn said. "It took him a bit, but he pounded back."

There were other casualties from the storm. The North Dakota State University Extension Service ultimately estimated about 75,000 cattle, 54,000 sheep and 2,400 hogs were killed by the storm in the state. Many of the animals perished when barns collapsed under the weight of the snow or buildings became so encrusted with snow, animals suffocated.

The storm also occurred during the Class B district boys basketball tournaments, causing delays that forced the rescheduling of some regional tournaments.

The storm stranded a Northern Pacific passenger train in Jamestown. The 140 passengers were housed at various hotels and with private residents. When the storm broke on the weekend, the mainline tracks were still clogged with snow, and the passengers transferred out of Jamestown by bus, immediately after the Rev. N.E. McCoy held a church service for them.

Ritchison said the storm came near the end of a winter that had been relatively free of snow. However, the heavy, wet snow from the storm carried enough moisture to cause flooding in some areas. Temperatures rose rapidly with a high of 70 degrees reached on March 30 bringing flooding in some streams within three weeks of the end of the storm.

In Jamestown, the Jamestown Dam controlled James River levels, but Pipestem Creek was still a free-flowing stream causing flooding in areas of town.

Storm as legend


Larry Skroch, co-author of "One to Remember: The Relentless Blizzard of March 1966," said the storm has become almost legendary in North Dakota history. The blizzard caused five deaths in North Dakota with three men dying of heart attacks digging out after the storm, and Betty Deede and one other person killed when they became lost in the storm.

"It is well remembered by the baby boomers," Skroch said. "It was not as tragic as the 1941 blizzard that killed a lot more people."

Douglas Ramsey, a co-author of the book "One to Remember: The Relentless Blizzard of March 1966," said the storm occurred while North Dakota still had a large rural and small-town population.

"The storm came at a time when the little towns were still important," he said. "Every little town had a newspaper and an implement dealer and all the things that could be affected by a storm."

Kuhn, a lifelong resident of North Dakota and a Woodworth resident since 1955, said he hopes there is never another storm like it.

"There is no way we've had any winter weather to compare," he said. "It storms for a couple hours but this went on for days. You can't be ready for something like that."

Betty Deede, 12 of Woodworth, was the first confirmed North Dakota casualty of the storm of March 1966.

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