Deadly blizzard of March 1904 — to lose one’s way in the blinding storm meant being frozen to death

by Bruce Cherney
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. 
In 1904, 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 prairie. 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. 
Although the bizzard caused numerous train delays and stranded passengers, it was dwarfed in intensity by a second blizzard that followed two weeks later. The fury the second blizzard unleashed was over an extensive area from Medicine Hat to Lake of the Woods, and throughout Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota. Unlike the earlier snow storm, the blizzard that struck on Thursday, March 24, and Friday, March 25, was life-threatening. 
According to the March 25 Brandon Daily Sun, anyone travelling on country trails during the storm was in great danger. “To lose one’s way in the blinding storm meant to be frozen to death ... 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.”
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 (Manitoba 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. The man, who worked as a carpenter, was on his way home on March 25 when he became exhausted and fell into a deep snow 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.
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. 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 perished. 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.
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.” 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.” 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.”
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. The only line that remained open during the storm was the Main Street and Fort Rouge Loop.
“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.”
Trains to communities 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. 
The passengers of “colonist” cars arriving during the storm were housed at Immigration Hall. While on their way to the 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 sent 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).”
“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 badly frostbitten, so the family was taken to the Immigration Hall by a city police constable.
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.
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. 
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 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. 
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.
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. 
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.
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.