Relying on street cars and automobiles to get home, many downtown workers from St. Louis Park have stories to tell about that fateful day. Please contact us if you would like to share yours.
November 11, 1940, was the date of what is referred to as the Armistice Day Blizzard. (Armistice Day is now called Veterans’ Day.) This infamous and deadly Blizzard killed 49 people statewide and more than 50 sailors on the Great Lakes. The storm that started west in Washington State dumped 16.2 inches of snow in the Cities; a record 26.6 inches fell in Collegeville, by St. Cloud. The temperature dropped to 30 below, with winds from 32 up to 63 miles per hour. 20 of the fatalities were duck hunters, who had heard a weather forecast of light snow, perfect for tracking. Duck hunters were delayed in leaving by the temptation of the enormous flocks flying furiously to get away from the front.
The storm hit the area by surprise: the day started out in the 60s, and workers went to their downtown jobs on the streetcars wearing light coats or sweaters. The Weather Bureau predicted snow flurries and highs in the 40s, but at 9:30 am the barometer dropped so low it was off the chart. By 10:00 am the radio reported that “unpredictable” weather was ahead, and the temperature started to drop precipitously. The snow started about 10:15, and by 11 it was coming down thick and fast. By noon the streetcars were slowing down or stopping, stranding workers in downtown hotels, their offices, or anywhere they could find shelter. Even a two-block walk from the bus to one’s house was treacherous, especially for women with bare legs and flimsy shoes.
Soon stalled out cars were abandoned by their drivers. Prestone antifreeze was new at that time and cost $10/gallon, so most people used alcohol, which was ineffective at keeping the engine warm. Model As did the best under the conditions, being so high off the ground, and chains were about the only thing that allowed any traction in the days before snow tires.
Newsboys who got the paper through were awarded a numbered Certificate of Merit, which stated: Know all men by these presents that, in the face of actual physical danger, and with great bravery and determination, and that on the day of the worst blizzard the Northwest has ever known, the Armistice Day Blizzard of November 1940, [newsboy’s name] did perform his duty in a courageous, noble manner, in delivering the Tribune Newspapers to his subscribers against great difficulties.
Of all the pictures of the storm, the most famous is the one below of Excelsior Blvd., looking west through the footbridge of the Minikahda Golf Course. Cars were abandoned and stayed in the street for at least five days. Many people in the area walked on the rooftops of the cars to get to Al’s Bar, where they proceeded to make the best of things for three days. In fact, many descriptions of time spent waiting for the storm to pass involved various local drinking establishments.
Others made it to the American Legion hall and made good use of the 200 dinners prepared by members of the Auxiliary for the annual Armistice dinner. One man didn’t make it out, though: his body was found in his car “near the cut at the Minikahda golf course.”
It was estimated that 2,000 people were stranded on Wayzata Blvd. Nearby homeowners took some people in, and some found taverns along the way.
MARK SEELEY ON THE IMPACT ON THE WEATHER BUREAU:
In 1940 the Weather Bureau had just been transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Commerce, as more emphasis was being placed on forecasting for aviation. District forecast centers still had responsibility for large geographic areas. For example, the Chicago office issued four forecasts per day for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North and South Dakota. Early on the morning of November 11th they had issued a moderate cold wave warning for Minnesota. It had been drizzling on the 10th with some fog and moderate temperatures in the 40s F. The low pressure system moving toward Wisconsin from the southwest (Texas panhandle and Oklahoma) intensified and winds strengthened. New barometric low pressure records were later established at La Crosse (28.72 inches) at Duluth (28.66 inches), and at the downtown Minneapolis Weather Bureau Office a near-record low pressure of 28.93 inches was reported. Contrast this with a cold high pressure system to the northwest in Canada where the barometric reading was 30.7 inches and it is easy to see why the Armistice Day Blizzard is famous for having such strong winds, wind which averaged over 25 mph for a 24 hour period, and gusted to over 60 mph.
Rain turned to sleet and snow in the late morning on the 11th and worsened to blizzard conditions very rapidly, as snowfall rates approached 3 to 4 inches per hour. The air temperature fell by as much as 40 degrees F over 24 hours and ice as thick as an inch coated poles and phone lines, breaking many of them. Forty-nine Minnesotans perished, including many duck hunters. Thousands of game birds and a great deal of livestock and poultry were killed as well. Losses to the turkey industry alone exceeded 1/2 million dollars. Snow removal and clean up to clear state highways, as well as county and township roads was estimated to exceed 1/2 million dollars as well. Total snowfall at Collegeville was 26.6 inches and snow drifts over 20 feet were reported in the Willmar area.
This storm and the lethal March 15th blizzard the next spring, prompted Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen and Congressman R. T. Buckler of Crookston to criticize the Weather Bureau for inadequate storm warnings and lack of facilities in the state to provide 24 hour forecasting operations. They wrote letters to Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones asking for support. Soon thereafter Minnesota had a 24 hour forecast office and a larger staff.
For stories of personal experiences with the storm, including one chapter on how workers got home after the streetcar stopped, read All Hell Broke Loose by William H. Hull, 1985.
MPR Report The Winds of Hell by Mark Steil, November 10, 2000