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February 1962 Record Breaking Storm

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A rotary snow plow tacking roads in Hughes County in 1962.
SD Historical Society

Sixty years ago this week, southeastern South Dakota was hit with a snowstorm of monster proportions. Beginning on February 16 and lasting through the 18th, the storm dropped a total of 32.2 inches of snow in Sioux Falls, making it the biggest single snow event in Sioux Falls weather history.  In addition, the storm accounted for the single highest 24-hour snow total of 26 inches. All told, the month of February 1962 saw over four FEET of snow (48.4 inches) cover the area.

NWS Snowfall Totals Map from February 15-18, 1962

The February 1962 blizzard came after a fairly mild first half of the month, with just 0.2 inches of snow recorded in Sioux Falls.  The storm that struck on February 16 caught many by surprise as it has originally been predicted to take a more southerly route through Nebraska.  While the winds stayed “mild” for a South Dakota blizzard (25-30mph) and temps above zero, the sheer amount of the snow created havoc on travel throughout the state.

NWS Map showing the vortex of the storm.

The Argus-Leader reported on the travails of the Augustana College (now University) Men’s Basketball team. Attempting to return from a game against Morningside in Sioux City, the team’s bus took over three hours to traverse the 35 miles from Sioux City to Beresford before being forced to turn back when it came across two stalled cars in the roadway. As it was, the bus rescued the driver of one of the cars who had been stranded there for over an hour. 

Doubling back on the highway, the bus found itself in the small town of Beresford.  As it was a Sunday, the only open business in the town was the laundromat, which served as a base of operations to get the students and staff situated into better quarters to ride out the blizzard.

The Argus described on how the town rolled into action to assist the stranded Vikings:

One of the travelers remembered the Rev. Mr. Johnson who offered the church as a refuge. The minister also arranged to split the group into small parties and get them to private homes for Sunday dinners and lodging Sunday night.

The Vogue Theater scheduled its first Sunday matinee in years to provide entertainment for the stranded travelers.

Harold Tollefson, operator of one of the town’s two cafes, opened his café at 2:30 a.m. to feed the travelers.

Snowbound with the Augie team was Jim Iverson, head coach of the South Dakota State College basketball team, and Jim Marking, State freshman coach. They had been in Sioux City to scout both Augie and Morningside.

Iverson and Marking got stuck about two miles south of Beresford, walked into town where they made connections with the Augustana bus and joined them.”

-Argus Leader, February 19, 1962

Those out of town were not the only ones seeing travel difficulties. Faced with full hospital beds, Sioux Valley hospital was described by the Argus as sending out jeeps and police vehicles to ensure doctors and nurses could make it to work. The  VA hospital in Sioux Falls arranged for sleeping quarters for staff so they could avoid traveling in conditions that made even in-city movement nearly impossible as the snow continued to fall.

10 Foot drifts covered parts of Sioux Falls.  Credit: Argus-Leader

One Sioux Falls businessman also found an alternate way to travel during the storm, taking to horseback to reach his store and open it during the storm.  The Argus reported Vaun Boyd telling his wife “the public is my whole life, I’ve got to open the store” and so he did.  Saddling his horse at his outside city limits home, it took he and the horse over half an hour to travel the 1.5 miles to the store.  Upon arriving, Boyd turned the horse loose to find his own way home, “I didn’t want to tie the horse outside in the cold”, Boyd told the Argus. “So I remembered what we used to do out west when we rode our horses to school and turned her loose. She was back home by the time I got inside and called my wife.”

One of many businesses that saw damage from the storm.  Credit: Argus-Leader

Not all stories coming from the blizzard had happy endings.  Three men died as a direct cause of the storm, all during attempt to remove the heavy, wet snow. Car accidents abounded as the deep snow trapped cars directly on roadways. One Algona, IA couple nearly lost their life when their car stalled in deep snow on a railroad crossing, jumping from their car just before the oncoming train demolished it.  A group of Sioux City Boy Scouts on an annual “Polar Expedition” camping trip became trapped in their campsite and had to be rescued by plow trucks after their food ran out.  Like many Upper Midwestern blizzards, everyone came to the other side of the storm with a story to tell.

Buried cars under 32.2 inches of snow.  Credit: Argus-Leader/AP

While the February 1962 storm went down in history as the biggest single snowfall event and the highest monthly snow total, it thankfully occurred in a winter that was otherwise relatively average.  Outside the 48.4 inches received in February, the winter of 1961-1962 saw 31.4 inches throughout the other months (the Sioux Falls average being 37.8 inches per winter season).  The single snowiest winter on record would occur a few years later, during 1968-1969, when 94.7 inches of snow fell on the city as well as other areas throughout South Dakota.