by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
The massive blizzard that struck on Thursday, March 24, and Friday, March 25, 1904, was noted by old-timers as being the worst to hit Manitoba in 22 years. The snow storm, accompanied by 100 km/h winds, was so extensive that it swept across the entire Canadian Prairies as well as the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana in the United States.
For the railways serving Manitoba, it was a natural disaster on a monumental scale, with snowdrifts making many tracks impassable by trains. As a result, passengers, crews and freight were stranded for days on end.
The Brandon Daily Sun reported on March 25 that it would take at least 24 hours before rail tracks could be cleared of snow. As it turned out, it would take another two days to clear the tracks between Winnipeg and Brandon of blockages.
CPR’s Transcontinental No. 1 had only reached Rosser, some 12 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, when it became mired in the snow.
“Advices from all parts are to the effect that Thursday’s storm was the worst for many years, and the (CPR) main line and all branch lines are about as badly blocked as they could possibly be. From some places no word has been received as the (telegraph) wires are down.”
Later on March 25, after 24 hours had elapsed, communication by telegraph line was restored, but the absence of trains able to ply the tracks meant that mail deliveries were curtailed.
The newspaper said all roads east, west, north and south of the city were blocked by snowdrifts from two to five metres high. Some stretches of rail tracks were blown clear of snow, but on other tracks, the snow had accumulated for kilometres to a depth of from half a metre to just under a metre. Although it wasn’t the two to five metres in depth reported in other areas, the snow covering the tracks was just as effective in preventing trains from advancing.
“All efforts are centred to-day on clearing the main line and the work is a big undertaking, which will occupy considerable time.” It was expected that the tracks would not be cleared of snow until the following Saturday.
At Broadview, Father Hougonard said the train was so completely buried that it was necessary for him to burrow through a snow drift to daylight and fresh air. The priest commented that it was the worst storm he had experienced during his long years in Western Canada.
The Manitoba Free Press on March 28 reported that every available accommodation in Brandon was occupied by from 600 to 700 stranded train passengers.
“Towns between Portage la Prairie and Carberry have been besieged at frequent intervals since Friday last (March 25) by hungry train crews, passengers and snow-shovelling outfits ... Farmers living at points where blockades have occurred, have found no difficulty in selling their surplus provisions at a good figure, the railway company standing the expense in many instances.”
Passengers aboard a Manitoba & North West Railway train stranded 10 kilometres out of Portage la Prairie received provisions ferried to them by sleighs.
The newspaper said the CPR by March 27 had served in the neighbourhood of 1,000 meals to passengers delayed in Winnipeg.
In Carberry, one train previously stranded for three days between Winnipeg and the town, disgorged 1,200 passengers after it finally reached the community on March 27. While the passengers awaited rescue by a snowplow, they “subsisted on strained rations for three days, and were in a half-famished condition when they arrived ... There was a rush for the local hotels and restaurants which were taxed almost beyond their capability ... The grocery merchants, however, came to their rescue and opened up their stores for the accommodation of the hungry passengers (Free Press, March 28).”
The newspaper reported a snow plow mounted to a locomotive and a “wrecking” train (a special train designed to clear the tracks after a wreck) were working to clear a “bad blockade,” six kilometres west of Carberry.
The weekly Stonewall Argus on March 31 reported a train attempting to reach Winnipeg on the local branch became mired in the snow near Stony Mountain on Thursday, March 24, and did not arrive in the city until Saturday. The train struck a drift and its engine went off the rails and its coaches were almost completely covered by snow.
Those who lived in Stonewall made it back to town on their own, but the out-of-town passengers were forced to await their rescue in the train. “They report an almost entire absence of eatables on the train — one box of biscuits being all there was at the disposal of the 35 passengers from Thursday morning till Friday afternoon. Messrs. Gunn and French tried to take relief to the penned-up passengers but had some hours of unpleasant experience on the prairie. Where was the familiar ‘grab-box’ of the old-time stormy winters?”
Near McGregor, west-bound No. 1 transcontinental train preceding from Rosser was slowly making its way through the snow on Friday afternoon when it crashed into an east-bound plow train. “The engine attached to the plow rolled over on its side badly damaged, the engine on the passenger (train) was also derailed (Brandon Sun, March 26).”
The passenger train was being pulled by two engines and was going at full speed when it slammed into the snow plow train.
“The caboose (with 12 men inside) at the rear of the snow plow train was lifted clear of the tracks, and was smashed into kindling wood,” reported the Free Press on March 28. “The second engine of No.1 (transcontinental) and three tenders were thrown completely off the track into the ditch. There were also two baggage cars derailed.”
Despite the severity of the impact, only one fireman was injured in the collision and he was hospitalized in Portage la Prairie. Other crew members sustained the odd scrape or bruise, but the passengers, mostly English immigrants, emerged from the accident unhurt and the cars carrying them, which had not derailed, were dragged back to Portage la Prairie, where the colonists were supplied with provisions by the CPR.
In the afternoon of March 28, the east-bound Moose Jaw local derailed a kilometre outside of Brandon, and its engine, two baggage cars and two passenger cars tumbled into a ditch. Fortunately, no one was injured. Unlike the McGregor incident, the Brandon wreck was not a direct result of the storm, but due to the spreading of a track.
In the aftermath of the storm, it was another unwanted blow to the CPR, which had been struggling for days to keep the way clear for rail traffic. It took until midnight for the wreck to be cleared from the tracks. In the meantime, the west-bound local and transcontinental trains were delayed east of the wreck.
A March 24 collision between two trains in the Brandon CPR yard was attributed to the blizzard. Both engines were badly damaged and all the cars they carried went off the tracks. Because of the swirling snow, the engineers could not see the signals and one train moved off the siding just as another came along the main line. Fortunately, the trains were moving so slowly that no one was injured.
The Free Press reported on March 29 that the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) branch line between Hartney and Morris would be blocked for several days, as it was futile to attempt to clear the track while the snow was still blowing.
In the Portage la Prairie District, every family living on the plains was isolated and farmers who were in town and whose residences were only a short distance away would not risk the journey home.
According to the March 25 Sun, anyone travelling on country trails during the storm was in great danger of becoming lost. “To lose one’s way in the blinding storm meant to be frozen to death, for with the wind blowing a hurricane and the driving snow, it was impossible to see any distance ... Only the most reckless would have ventured upon any long trip on the prairie yesterday, so that few if any would go out towards evening when the storm was at its worst.”
But there were still an incautious few who foolishly attempted to defy the worst of the blizzard.
William and John Brass led their two teams of horses from Selkirk on Friday, March 25, in an attempt to travel the 16 kilometres southwest to their home at Oak Hammock. They became trapped by the blizzard a few kilometres west of Lower Fort Garry in the vicinity of a house owned by a man named “Smith.”
With their horses played out, they went to the Smith home for assistance. The horses were left in the care of John Brass and Malcolm Campbell. “Later in the night Campbell left John to go to Norquay’s house (Free Press, March 28). At 2 p.m. (the) following day, March 26, John Brass reached home, and reported one horse dead. He was very stiff from exposure, but joined by friends made (a) search and found William Brass dead, a short distance from Smith’s, about 6 p.m. last night. To-day (it) was learned Malcolm Campbell missed Norquay’s, but kept along a wire fence and succeeded in reaching Mr. Boskill’s residence. William Brass leaves a wife and two children.”
In Winnipeg, Lawrence Rendel was found outside in a snow bank near his home at the corner of Powers and Aberdeen streets by a little girl. Apparently, the man, who worked as a carpenter, was on his way home on March 25 when he became exhausted and fell into a deep drift near Charles Street. Subsequently, the snow gathered over Rendel as he lay helpless in the drift until being discovered by the young girl. No one knew how long he had laid in the snow, but he was suffering from the effects of severe frostbite to his hands, feet and face. Rendel was taken to St. Boniface Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.
Several others were found buried in the snow and hospitalized for severe frostbite, but none of them shared Rendel’s fate.
In Brandon, Mr. Howe, the caretaker of the fairgrounds, had to be dug out of a stable by three Englishmen on March 25. Howe had been milking cows when the storm struck and snow completely buried the stable, preventing his escape.
One crewman walked only a few metres from a stranded train and became lost. He only found his way back to the train by using telephone poles as a guide.
Particularly susceptible to the effects of the blizzard were livestock on the plains. A herd of cattle between Maple Creek and Crane Lake attempted to evade the storm by heading away from its savage winds, but came to a fence which barred their passage. Crowded together for mutual warmth, the animals became buried by snow and either were smothered to death or perished from exposure. Observers in a passing train reported seeing a large mound of snow with the occasional frozen carcass showing through. It was impossible for them to estimate the number of cattle the mound held in its snowy grasp.
By March 28 the CPR main line between Winnipeg and Brandon had been cleared and transcontinental trains that had been stalled by the blizzard further to the west began travelling between the two cities. The Free Press on March 29 reported the first train from Moose Jaw arrived in the city the day before and was followed 20 minutes later by a transcontinental express train. In total, 12 passenger trains arrived and departed from the Winnipeg CPR depot on Monday, March 28.
By March 31, the winds had subsided, allowing communities across the prairies to clear the smothering blanket of snow that had isolated them from the outside world.
Although it would take more time to clear railway branch lines and restore communications to some towns, the worst of the blizzard had been overcome.
It was later determined that the blizzard had been the worst to strike the province since the spring of 1822. What the massive snow storm demonstrated to everyone who had survived its wrath was the unpredictable nature of March weather. The age-old lion and lamb adage had proven to be a false forecaster of events during the blizzard-plagued month of March 1904.