The Meteorology of Little House on the Prairie


34 Responses to “The Meteorology of Little House on the Prairie”

  1. Christopher says:

    For some odd reason this information makes Mark Twain’s story “Cannibalism In The Cars” even funnier to me.

    Also I remember riding trains in Britain that would be stopped by leaves on the tracks. American trains look at British trains and laugh. 

    • blueben says:

      “American trains look at British trains and laugh.”

      All 5 of them.

    • Colin Howell says:

      While U.S. freight trains are certainly much bigger than their British counterparts (or those of anywhere else in the world), thanks to heavier U.S. rails being able to bear greater loads, they’re no less vulnerable to stuff like wet leaves on the track. While this would seem to be a ridiculous thing to stop a train for, you might think differently if you were a locomotive. :) Basically, it makes the track totally slippery, and a locomotive can’t get any traction to pull anything. It’s the rail equivalent of spilling oil all over a highway.

      Wikipedia’s article “Slippery rail” has more information on the problem, and how it affects rail service in the U.S. as well.

  2. xzzy says:

    To get a modern glimpse on what it’s like to deal with that much snow, this might be a way to do it:!

    Granted no one is at risk of starving and heavy snowfall in the mountains isn’t exactly a rare thing, but it’s probably the best we’re gonna get in this day and age.

  3. Guav says:

    I would just point out that while the snowfall was obviously spectacularly deep, it was probably not as deep as it appears to be in that photo. The tracks in the photo have been cleared, so although it looks like the depth of the snow is up to the top of the train, what we’re really seeing is high snowbanks on either side of the track made up of the snow that was cleared from the tracks. The actual depth elsewhere was probably about half that.

    • awjt says:

      Or possibly even less, because snow in the northern plains tends to drift and pile up. 

      Where I live, a teensy little 6 inch snowfall can drift up to about 3 feet at a certain place on the road where the winds tunnel through a valley and converge right at the roadway.

      • EvilSpirit says:

        You can see strata in the snow in the lower part of the cut. They look like the cross-section you get in snow banks from variations in the characteristics of the snow fall. Whereas above that, the snow is a homogenous, churned mass. I’d say the guess of about halfway up the bank is pretty consistent with that.

    • Angie Penrose says:

       This, exactly.  Wilder says in her book that the men hiked however many miles up the tracks to dig out the train, which they did, tossing the show up into banks on either side; they got it dug out by sunset.  The railroad shook eveyrone’s hand and planned to bring the train into town in the morning.  But it snowed overnight and buried the train, not only to the height it’d been buried before, but snow filled in up to the top of the man-made banks on either side.  So the men trekked out and did it again.  And again.  Building the banks higher each time, because apparently they were incapable of learning from experience.  And eventually the railroad said, “Sorry, sucks to live in your town,” and stopped trying until spring.

      But yes, it’s not that they got thirty feet of snowfall, but rather that 1) they didn’t completely remove the snow, well clear of the tracks, while they were digging, and 2) they got multiple snowfalls in succession, for which they’d built up a nice support system perfect to capture and hold said snowfall in a ridiculously high mound.


  4. Ramone says:


  5. nixiebunny says:

    By the 20th century, they had amazing railroad snowblowers that could clear that much snow without blinking an eye. But back then, not so much.

  6. RedShirt77 says:

    Wasn’t there one particularly bad winter in the 1800′s that was caused by a huge volcanic eruption that created a sort of mini nuclear winter?

  7. If we could get global warming turned around, we could go back to having good old fashioned winters like this!

  8. Brian Hughes says:

    There is a very good story set in that same winter in Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow

  9. MrWoods says:

    I didn’t realize there was train service on that side of the wall, I suppose in addition to the snow Laura Ingalls had to deal with wildlings too.

  10. Ryan Lenethen says:

    I already know what caused it: Climate Change.

  11. Brad Johnson says:

    I didn’t know about deep snow until I moved to California. Here, in big winters, skiers have used ladders to get up on top of the snow from the cars. I’ve never had to us a ladder but I’ve had to jump. 

    On Route 88 on the Carson Spur there is a section where there’s easily 15 feet of snow in big years. I’m probably being conservative. As I drove past one night I went through an exercise to try and accurately re-create the depth. I was in a Honda Civic (yeah, with chains) and if I put the honda upright, so the rear bumper was on the ground and the front point up, and stood on the to bumper, and raised my hands above my head, I doubt I could have touched the top. I’m over 6 feet tall.

    If you google image sierra snow you’ll see stuff like this. All the more amazing because our snow is dense with a high water-to-volume ratio. In 2010 Kirkwood ski resort had over 700 inches of snow fall. 

  12. Sarah Uthoff says:

    And if you enjoy debating these kind of points, you should come to the national Laura Ingalls Wilder conference, read more about the organization that sponsors it.

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