by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
According to the age-old adage, if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb, and vice versa.
After years of weather observation, old-timers might swear by the validity of this adage, but even they will agree there will always be exceptions to the rule. In fact, anything weather-related is hard to pin down as following a specific pattern other than the coming and going of the four seasons on the prairies. And Environment Canada meteorologists claim the adage is completely unreliable due to the vagaries of March weather.
March is more or less a transitional month — not quite signalling the end of winter and not quite the arrival of spring. It can be a relatively warm month or it can be plagued by a spate of cold weather or a rampaging blizzard.
The year 1904 defied the age-old adage, as March came in and went out like a lion, with a blizzard near the beginning of the month and another toward the end of the month roaring across the prairies. When the page for March was torn from the calendar, a total of 76.2 centimetres of snow had fallen, which remains the snow accumulation record for the month in southern Manitoba.
The first of the two March storms began on the ninth with a light snowfall. What shaped it into a blizzard were the high winds, which seemed to be coming from all points of the compass, according to newspaper accounts.
The Manitoba Free Press on March 10 reported the variable winds indicated “an unusual disturbance of the elements ...”
A telegram received in Winnipeg from Neepawa called the storm the worst the town had experienced throughout the winter.
The swirling wind caused the snow to form massive drifts that impeded railway traffic. Snow drifts along the Glenboro line delayed the passage of the eastbound train, forcing it to be sidetracked at Holland. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Atlantic Express was cancelled due to the blizzard.
In Brandon, the raging storm caused tracks to be covered by mounds of snow. Train No. 2, a transcontinental, was reported to be 20 hours late. A train to Brandon was stranded in Morris, with passengers forced to overcrowd the Kastnor House (Hotel).
The town of Arcola, Saskatchewan, was reported to have been completely buried in snow.
In Douglas, some 16 kilometres east of Brandon on the CPR line, all business was shut down, “while many large drifts impede all traffic in all roadways.” William Thomas, the local undertaker, “spent several hours travelling a quarter of a mile to lay out a corpse, although he was equipped with a large lantern and was familiar with every landmark along the route.”
Despite the severity of the blizzard, no one was reported to have suffered any serious consequences, and even Thomson eventually found his way home.
The Brandon Daily Sun proclaimed on March 11: “The assumption that March is a spring month may be expected to call forth the usual satirical comment.”
As well, the comment was made in the newspaper, “Better a cold blustering March now than towards the end of the month.” Obviously, the commentator was a firm believer in the adage which claimed what happened at the start of March would influence the weather at the end of it.
Unfortunately for the Sun scribe, Old Man Winter was not about to relent and release his chilly grip on the landscape. Two weeks after the first blizzard, a second struck, and the fury it unleased over an extensive area from Medicine Hat to Lake of the Woods, and throughout Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota, was significantly greater than that experienced on March 9. Unlike the earlier snow storm, the blizzard that struck on Thursday, March 24, and Friday, March 25, was life-threatening in its intensity. Indeed, a number of Manitobans died from exposure during the March natural disaster, while several had to be hospitalized with severe cases of frostbite.
The rail infrastructure of the province, the major means of transportation between communities and the outside world, was brought to a standstill as trains were either delayed or outright stranded, sometimes for days on end with passengers and crews despairing about the prospects of soon being rescued from their snowy entrapment.
The storm seemed to have appeared virtually out of nowhere, as March 24 dawned bright and clear with fair weather. But the weather took a sudden change for the worse by six o’clock in the evening.
“Accompanied by a high wind the white ghost of the north descended on the city last,” reported the Free Press on March 25, “and in places raised soft mountain ranges, blocking traffic and wringing from the casual wayfarer imprecations because of his difficulty in making progress.”
Once it began, the storm worsened every five minutes, according to the newspaper, eventually the winds gusted at speeds of up to 100 km/h, while the temperature dropped to -18°C.
“At nine o’clock the street railway lines were buried under huge snow mounds, and the conductors got off and shovelled snow, but it was all to no purpose.”
Streetcar lines throughout the city were blocked by snow. Suburban lines were heavily drifted over, preventing streetcars from returning to the downtown.
On Nena Street, “a lone car stood shedding the rays of its headlight into a seven-foot drift.”
Along Main Street, “Huge white clouds followed each other in a dismal procession with a sound of rushing wind ... The car line was blocked and on the crest of the white expanse the lights of stalled cars gleaned (sic) out showing where the derelicts lay.”
The newspaper said a number of residents living in the outskirts of the city were unable to get home and were forced to stay in downtown hotels. “One cabby upset twice on Portage Avenue in trying to reach Armstrong Point and was forced to turn back and take his fares to an hotel.”
Alderman Daniel David Wood, while driving a horse-drawn cutter to the CPR shops, had his conveyance tip over three times due to the high winds and drifts. Loads were abandoned along the road from Stony Mountain to Winnipeg with the men in charge returning with their horses.
City workers using plows dragged behind horses struggled to keep main thoroughfares open.
It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, when the blizzard subsided, that crews using snow plows in front of streetcars were able to clear tracks of snow and restore streetcar service on the Portage Avenue line to Armstrong’s Point and the Logan Avenue and Notre Dame lines. The North Main, Selkirk Street, William Avenue, Higgins Avenue, St. James and St. Boniface lines, as well as portions of Broadway-Fort Rouge Belt, remained closed until the next day.
“This is the worst tie-up the street railway has ever experienced,” reported the Free Press on March 26, “the difficulty of maintaining the service being greater than during previous severe storms on account of the increased mileage.”
The only line that remained open during the storm was the Main Street and Fort Rouge Loop.
Trains to points outside the city left Winnipeg at their peril. One train was sent east to take the place of another train snow-bound at Morse, and itself became ensnared in the snow. Five transcontinental trains were stranded between Calgary and Winnipeg.
Trains from the east began to pile up in Winnipeg as the storm prevented them from proceeding westward.
Trains carrying immigrants were cancelled until the weather improved. In the meantime, the passengers of “colonist” cars arriving during the storm were housed at Immigration Hall.
While on their way to Immigration Hall, a family of immigrants took a wrong turn down Main Street after becoming disoriented by the storm (Free Press, March 26). For whatever reason, immigrants were merely given directions on how to reach the hall rather than being escorted to the safe haven in an unfamiliar city.
Frederick Burrows, manager of Edison’s Unique Theatre at 529 Main Street, while working in the front of “his house of amusement,” heard a child screaming on the street. When he went to investigate, he found a party of six, one of whom was the child,”huddled together in a helpless state.”
Since the party was originally from Paris, the group only spoke French, a language that Burrows didn’t speak. Despite the language barrier, he soon realized that the child’s hands were frozen. He snatched up the child and carried the little girl into the theatre while the others followed.
“Physicians, police and interpreters were at once set for and despite the storm some 40 or 50 spectators also quickly assembled. It was found that the party consisted of the family of Monsieur and Madame Vivian, had just come from Paris in an emigrant train, which arrived in the city about 10 o’clock (on March 25).”
The family had received instructions on how to find the Immigration Hall, but turned the wrong way on Main Street. “Not being dressed to stand the rigors of the climate and unable to speak English they wandered about searching for shelter.”
Dr. Alexander Joseph Douglas, head of the city’s department of health, found the child’s hands were not too frostbitten, so the family was taken to the Immigration Hall by a city police constable.
Part 2 next week