Dakota Datebook

A Very White Christmas

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Those dreaming of a white Christmas got more than they bargained for on this day in 1916. The Bismarck Tribune reported some snowfall in Los Angeles, but it was the northern states that received the brunt of white Christmas wishes. In what was considered at the time the worst storm in 48 years, western North Dakota was bombarded with 20 inches of snow and 36 mile an hour wind gusts.


The snowfall began early afternoon on Christmas day, and continued through the night, dropping eighteen inches of snow by noon. Trains were snowbound for nearly two days, and taxis and cars in Bismarck were forced to drive on sidewalks in places where snow was too deep on the streets. It wasn’t long before travel in the city was restricted entirely to sleighs and bobsleds. Because streets were totally impassable from downtown to the capitol, even the governor and other state officials bundled up for a sleigh ride to their offices.


Perhaps the sleigh ride was cold, but businessmen could work in their warm offices. Other workers, however, had to battle the elements. As the storm raged, adults found themselves busy with making snow tunnels and ice fortresses—activities that are usually reserved for children and their imaginations. But, these adults had to make their snow creations on a much larger scale. Snow plows were busy across the state carving tunnels through 13 to 15 foot tall snow banks for trains. Meanwhile, Bismarck firefighters faced a larger task: forming a giant ice shield on a building to protect it from a downtown fire.


Late on the night of the 26th, a fire broke out in downtown Bismarck. Firefighters were called down to battle the flames that were fanned by the strong gale. Fighting fire with water was difficult in the subzero temperatures, as water froze instantly to their clothes. “Firemen in jackets of ice, moving about as human icicles, fought the fire under the direction of Chief Thompson in a blizzard considered the worst since 1896,” reported the Tribune. The fire was already burning about a quarter of a block and firemen struggled to keep it from spreading. The only way to stop the flames, according to the Tribune, was for the firemen to turn their water hoses to a building in path of the flames.


“As water lashed the building, it froze almost instantly, preventing the flames from the yards from taking a hold,” said the Tribune. “This morning…the structure looked as though a temporary ice palace had been erected by the firemen to stave their drive…. The coat of ice given this building held the fire in its limits of devastation, and was a remarkable piece of work on the part of the firemen.”


For those who experienced the blizzard of 1916, the lyrics, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know,” just might not have the same meaning for others. This is especially true for those who are disgruntled by the memories of brown Christmases of the last few years!


Dakota Datebook written by Tessa Sandstrom



“Bismarck has $50,000 fire in downtown: quarter block area is wiped out by fire,” Bismarck Tribune. Dec. 27, 1916: 1.

“Snow-plows tunnel paths thru drifts,” Bismarck Tribune. Dec. 27, 1916: 1.

“Record breaking snow storm ties up traffic in state: 36-mile wind propels storm across Dakota,” Bismarck Tribune. Dec. 26, 1916: 1.


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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