LIMA — The storm descended on Lima with stunning ferocity the evening of Jan. 11, 1918, whipping snow into drifts in front of shop doors and driving cold into the bones of those unlucky enough to be caught outside.
Around 11 p.m. that Friday, as the storm intensified, about a dozen people were heading for the safety of homes in south Lima aboard the Main & Kibby city trolley. As the trolley approached the Main Street bridge, it hit a switch accidentally left open, slid off the tracks, skidded through a billboard, plunged over a concrete abutment and plowed into the frozen ground just short of the Ottawa River. Several people were injured and Lima’s Republican-Gazette declared it “miraculous” no one was killed.
On any other day, the spectacular accident, which left the trolley tilted at a dramatic angle, would have dominated the front pages of Lima’s newspapers. But that Saturday, Jan. 12, 1918, was not any other day. Overnight the storm, already bad, had steadily worsened, turning into a blizzard which would go unrivaled until another January blizzard, this one in 1978, paralyzed the region.
“Breaking all records known to the oldest residents of Lima, the cold wave which struck the city last night increased in proportions until at 6:45 o’clock this morning, the official temperatures registered at the plant of the Solar Refining Company showed just 18 degrees below zero. Accompanying the sudden drop in temperatures was a blinding blizzard and a high wind, which increased the misery,” the Lima Daily News reported in its Saturday afternoon edition.
“Business was at a standstill. Scores suffered from frozen hands, feet, ears or noses,” the Republican-Gazette wrote. “Hundreds suffered in their homes from the cold. Lima, by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, was as completely isolated as any Montana town in a blizzard.”
According to the Ohio Historical Society website, “The Blizzard of 1918 came during a winter of bitter cold and deep snow in the Heartland. It was referred to as an ‘old-fashioned winter’ for the way it resembled the winters of the nineteenth century.” Between Friday night and Saturday morning, temperatures plummeted from 30 degrees to minus 15. Winds that Saturday averaged 30 to 50 mph with gusts topping 60. “New snowfall was reported to be 10 to 15 inches but drifts of 10 to 15 feet covered houses, vehicles and trains.”
The storm came during an uncomfortable winter of food and fuel shortages brought on by the U.S. entry into World War I the previous April. Lima often was down to the bottom of the coal bin.
On Jan. 12, winter went from merely uncomfortable to potentially deadly. That morning the Daily News reported that three Lima boys were discovered huddled around a dying bonfire near Wapakoneta late on Friday “all numb and unconscious from the cold.” The boys, the Daily News explained, “rode a freight train over to Wapakoneta, intending to fill sacks with coal on the next train bound back for Lima …”
Another boy, a carrier for the Republican-Gazette, was found “stiff” and “nearly frozen to death” on North West Street on Saturday morning, prompting the Daily News to plead with its subscribers as well as those of the Republican-Gazette “to watch for the lads and insist that they come in to warm up,” adding that “deliveries will be late, but if the public will aid the boys they will get by for they are all real soldiers.”
Real soldiers, it turned out, weren’t faring so well. The driver of an Army truck transporting ammunition from Pontiac, Michigan, to St. Louis, Missouri, “was badly frozen just before he reached Lima this morning,” the Daily News reported on Saturday. “Both hands, which he was forced to keep on the steering wheel while driving the machine, were frozen.”
The storm brought Lima’s rail and interurban lines to a halt Saturday afternoon. “Drifts were piled high on all lines. Almost every track on every system was a mass of drifts that in places towered to the smokestacks of the engines,” the Republican-Gazette wrote. “Engineers came in with their clothing frozen to them and their engines covered with snow.”
J.W. Thompson, the engineer of a B&O passenger train that arrived in Lima from Cincinnati told the Republican-Gazette that “between here and Sidney, I began to think we would not make it and that we’d suffer the fate of other trains all over the country and be stalled. When we hit a drift it would be almost like hitting a wall. The snow would fly clear over the engine and passengers were knocked from their seats by the impact.”
An interurban car on the Ohio Electric did stall in a snowdrift east of Middle Point on Saturday morning, marooning 18 passengers and crew who were forced to walk to the safety of a farm house. “Several of the party, fighting their way on foot through a half mile of snow drifts, had to be carried on the final lap of their journey by companions,” the Republican-Gazette reported.
With rail traffic at a standstill the city’s coal supply dwindled. “Within the last 48 hours only two carloads of coal have been received in Lima,” the News reported on Sunday. “Unless there is an arrival of coal today, the city will be in desperate condition before another 24 hours will have elapsed.”
Before another 24 hours had elapsed, the fuel committee took steps to alleviate the shortage. “Ten carloads of coal were confiscated by the county fuel committee today, being the last resort of the committee to keep citizens of Lima from freezing. The coal was taken from the B&O yards at noon. Immediately after its seizure distribution to dealers over the city began, and most of it is now available for consumers,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported on Jan. 14.
“Saturday was the worst day Lima has had for many years, the small fuel supply and terrible wind causing more suffering than can be realized,” the Times-Democrat wrote.
The only creatures unfazed by the storm, it seemed, were a pair of bears caged in Faurot Park. “While Lima shook and shivered under the city’s worst blizzard, the bruins, enjoying a winter nap, turned over, sniffed the breeze, and smiled happily as they went back to sleep,” the Republican-Gazette wrote.
By Sunday, Lima’s newspapers were reporting that the worst of the storm was over, although the Republican-Gazette sent shivers through its readers on Jan. 15, reporting that another storm, “equal in intensity,” to the Saturday blizzard was headed toward the region from Texas.
It missed. “Lima breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as she got a good look at a sunny sky for the first time since last Friday,” the Republican-Gazette wrote Jan. 16. “The Texas blizzard, stretched out one hand as it passed to the southward, scattered a heavy fall of damp snow in this vicinity and passed on to do its damage along the Ohio River.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.