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Students Dig Into Old News To Report On 1911 Storm

October 12, 2011

By Tim O'Neil, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Three members of the digital generation spent weeks whirling through microfilm of old Missouri newspapers to assemble the story of a deadly 60-degree plunge in temperature that swept across the Midwest a century ago.

The storm on Nov. 11, 1911, known as a "blue norther," dropped temperatures from near 80 degrees to 20 or colder in 12 hours. It struck with violent thunderstorms followed by bitter wind, sleet and snow.

In Missouri, the storm killed at least three people. Whole towns lost windows smashed by hail. It froze poultry on farms, ripped down telegraph lines and stranded streetcars filled with people dressed for summer.

Three students of Patrick S. Market, an associate professor of meteorology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, gathered the information from the microfilm copies of 175 Missouri daily and weekly newspapers. They are to present their work Sunday at the National Weather Association convention in Birmingham, Ala.

All three are majoring in atmospheric science. Two are from the St. Louis area.

Market said he wanted the students to gather details of the storm`s havoc across Missouri. Because little was available online, they headed for the Historical Society of Missouri archives in the basement of Ellis Library on campus. It keeps microfilm copies of about 3,500 state publications, most of them long gone, dating to 1808 editions of the Missouri Gazette in St. Louis.

"Not everything important is instantly available information," Market said. "Sometimes you have to plow through old sources."

Evan Kutta of Creve Coeur, Brian Crow of Ballwin and Jennifer Power of Durham, in far northeast Missouri, read microfilm for several hours each weekend for three months.

"We got a sense of the ferocity of this storm, how sudden all the changes were and how unprepared everyone was," said Crow. "All that gives us a much richer story to tell."

Kutta said the quality of the microfilm varied wildly from newspaper to newspaper. "Good thing we have young eyes," Kutta said. A constant temptation was the distraction of other stories in the newspapers. And the research was time-consuming.

"Computers are so much faster," Power said.

Newspapers studied ranged from the big dailies in St. Louis and Kansas City to the Miller County Autogram and the Green Ridge Local News. The St. Louis newspapers told of temperatures dropping from 79 degrees at 1 p.m. to 34 at 8 p.m., 22 at midnight and 12 degrees at 6 a.m. the next day.

"Blizzard sweeps city after summer day, Mercury drops 26 degrees in 10 minutes," says the Post-Dispatch front page of Nov. 12, 1911. Another headline: "500 telephones out of service." (There weren`t many telephones back then.)

The students gathered similar details throughout Missouri. A tornado swept through Springfield. Chickens froze on their perches in Franklin County. Two boxcars were blown off the track in St. Charles. Farmhands "wearing only light wraps" near Chillicothe barely made it to shelter.

Among Missouri`s victims was Michael Sullivan, a farmer near Monroe City, who "was found dead at his gate."

The students used their accumulated information to track the storm across the state. It hit Kansas City about noon, Columbia in mid-afternoon and St. Louis at sunset.

They have produced a large story board for their presentations in Birmingham, and put much of their information on a website map at cafnrnews.com/1911weathermap.

Market said the research "gives the students a greater appreciation for the human impact of major weather events. It explains why we do all this meteorology stuff."


(c)2011 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Distributed by MCT Information Services

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