Armistice Day blizzard of 1940

Yesterday’s warm temperatures probably brought back memories for some of you oldtimers here in Northfield. From the Wikipedia entry on the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940:

The morning of 11 November 1940 brought with it unseasonably high temperatures. By early afternoon temperatures had warmed in lower to middle 60s oF (18oC) over most of the affected region. However, as the day wore on conditions quickly deteriorated. Temperatures dropped sharply, winds picked up, and rain, followed by sleet, and then snow began to fall…

A total of 154 deaths were blamed on the storm. Along the Mississippi River several hundred duck hunters had taken time off from work and school to take advantage of the ideal hunting conditions. Weather forecasters had not predicted the severity of the oncoming storm, and as a result many of the hunters were not dressed for cold weather. When the storm began many hunters took shelter on small islands in the Mississippi River, and the 50 mph (80 km/h) winds and 5-foot (1.5 m) waves overcame their encampments. Some became stranded on the islands and then froze to death in the single-digit temperatures that moved in over night. Others tried to make it to shore and drowned. Duck hunters constituted about half of the 49 deaths in Minnesota.

Armistice Day blizzardArmistice Day blizzardArmistice Day blizzard 

My grandfather, Roy Johnson of St. Paul, was duck hunting on Lake Pepin near Lake City. He and two buddies made it to shore after their boat flipped in the wind but the whiteout conditions prevented them from seeing that there was a farmhouse about 100 yards away. They crawled into a culvert to get out of the wind and froze to death. My mom was 17 years old.

The photos above are from the Minnesota Historical Society’s digital archives. See all 37 Armistice Day Blizzard photos here. MPR did a story on the storm back in 2000 titled The winds of hell. The Strib’s old news featured it in 2005. The storm is rated #2 by the Minnesota State Climatology Office Top five weather events of the 20th century. And Maggie Lee wrote about the storm in a Northfield News column 2004.

I’ll see if I can get some Northfield area storm photos. If you have a story, attach a comment.


  1. Nick Benson said:

    “All Hell Broke Loose: Experiences of Young People During the Armistice Day 1940 Blizzard,” by William H. Hull, is an excellent book consisting of short accounts of that day’s events. It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember some pretty amazing stories, some involving duck hunters, others involving folks getting stuck in the city, etc. I’d highly recommend it.

    November 12, 2007
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks, Nick. I have the book, too. I’ve added an image of the cover to your comment. I’m sure one of our local used bookstores could get a copy if someone wanted on.

    November 12, 2007
  3. Holly Cairns said:

    Sorry to hear about your grandpa, Griff.

    I think it would be relatively easy to duplicate this same situation. No warning, very mild and pleasant morning, and then eventual whiteout.

    Here’s more detail from the MPR story (just in the event you don’t go there and see if for yourself). Hmm, a human chain. I wonder who organized it:

    A passenger train loaded with duck hunters and a freight train collided in front of the Watkins depot. Unable to see in the white-out, the passenger train’s crew missed a track-side signal. An engineer and fireman were killed. Watkins residents formed a human chain to lead the passengers to safety. (Minneapolis Star Journal, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society).

    November 12, 2007
  4. Jodi Fox said:

    My grandma told me the story of the blizzard. They were living in Seymour, Wisconsin. My grandparents were married in 1939 and were living on a farm with my Grandfather’s parents. My grandpa went duck hunting that morning. As the weather got worse everyone was nervous about whether or not he would make it home. My grandma and her in-laws had to get the animals in from the field and they had a goose and a gander that were wedding presents that froze right on the lake. My grandpa did make it home and actually cut the goose and gander out of the lake and brought them into the barn to thaw out and they lived. It is really an almost unbelievable story. Incredible.

    December 5, 2007
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    Just thought I’d revive this blog post in case anyone new to Locally Grown wants to discuss it.

    November 11, 2009
  6. tom said:

    I grew up in St. Paul on the corner of Watson and Milton, born in 1949 moved there in 1952; there was a grocery store one block north on Milton called Johnson’s, the lady that owned the store was known as Mrs. Johnson, and told me her husband died in this storm while duck hunting. any relation?

    January 29, 2010
  7. Griff Wigley said:

    Hi Tom, yes, that was my grandmother, Marie Johnson. I spent a lot of time at that grocery store and the upstairs apartment as a kid, so it’s likely you and I played together. We’re the same age.

    What’s your last name?

    January 29, 2010
  8. On the 70th anniversary of the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 the Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center in Alma, Wisconsin has put together a small exhibit for the month of November 2010.

    Alma, Wisconsin is located on the Mississippi River just below the Chippewa River. Beef Slough is a very popular duck hunting area and many were rescued over the course of two days. Fortunately only 2 hunters lost their lives in our area.

    In addition we are hosting an “open house discussion” the afternoon of Sunday, November 14th and we invite all who experienced the blizzard or have family stories to tell to join in and share.

    Katherine Goodman
    Executive Director
    Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center

    October 30, 2010
  9. john george said:

    Interestingly, we were just talking about this a work today. With all our sophistocated technology and instant communications today, it is hard to imagine that a storm like this could sneak up on us like that one did 70 years ago. I suppose that if someone weren’t paying attention that they could end up in a bad situation, but I think inattentiveness would be the prime cause, not lack of information.

    October 30, 2010
  10. Sarah Holloway said:

    Glad to learn about ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. Am ordering a copy today.

    My dad grew up around Dodgeville and Lancaster, WI. On the day of the blizard, my dad was quarterbacking a high school football game. He said the wind got so fierce that when the ball was punted into the wind it landed 20 yards behind the punter.

    Meanwhile, my Aunt Louise’s husband Bill was duck hunting on the Mississippi. He and his hunting buddy were among those who did not survive. Once the storm was over, my grandfather and my dad drove over to the river and dredged for Bill’s body. They hooked him through the boot and it was small comfort to have a body to bury. His wife, my aunt, was pregnant with their first child at the time. My dad was 16 at the time and says he became a man the day they brought Bill Steffenson’s body home.

    November 1, 2010
  11. Helen Albers said:

    My sister, Lois Anderson, was expected home on the schoolbus, driven by Ted Elstad. My mother said, “Helen, run downtown to check on why the bus isn’t back to Dennison.”

    The bus headed home during the 1940 blizzard, ran off the road so they stayed overnight at two farm homes! The George Kreugel farm home had the girls, and across the road, they took in the boys. Only a farm home could feed all of those hungry kids before the days of
    deep freezes!

    A memorable storm indeed!

    May 26, 2011

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