Big snowflakes and bad karma in the winter of 1887

Time Before Now, January 1887 New York lawyer and James Garfield’s vice president, Chester A. Arthur, was occupying the White House, sworn in when Garfield died six months after an assassination attempt. The previous October Garfield, had done the honors of dedicating the nation’s newest landmark, the Statue of Liberty.  The project had been underway for more than 16 years. By that time, the designer of Lady Liberty’s interior framework, was already working on another national landmark.  Gustov Eiffel, began construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on January 28. 

January 28, 1887 

On this day, the world’s biggest snow flake tumbled to earth in Montana’s Big Sky Country.  

It was a whopper.  Measuring 15 inches in diameter and eight inches thick, it fell with a splash at Fort Keogh, near the western edge of Miles City.  While there is no photographic evidence of the highly perishable giant, the Guinness Book of World Records accepted the numerous eye-witness accounts from soldiers stationed at the fort.  

Fort Keogh, circa 1880s

More than five inches larger than a dinner plate in the Lincoln White House china and more than three times as thick, there were apparently many more nearly as large.  Lots were ten to twelve inches in diameter which came down in the same storm, according to the soldiers.  “Snow flakes the size of milk pans”  made news across the country.   A Montana mail carrier out on this route recounted the ground covered “for miles” with “such bunches. . . it was a remarkable sight while falling.”

The title of world’s largest snow flake is a bit of a misnomer, say scientists, since it was, in fact, many ice crystals loosely stuck together.  It took just the right climatic conditions to create the phenomenon but the winter of 1886 and 1887 was rife with phenomena.  A series of blizzards battered the Great Plains leaving ten foot drifts and entire houses buried in Kansas.  In February downtown San Francisco received three and a half inches of snow and as much as seven and a half inches was reported in the outskirts.    Europe didn’t escape, either.  Londoners shivered in record cold and the white stuff piled up on the Emerald Isle.

Kansas blizzard, 1887

Called the “winter from Hell” by weather historians, in the West it became known as the “big die-off.”  Thousands of cattle were casualties of a perfect storm.  They had already been dangerously weakened by a drought of epic proportions over the summer of 1886.  Lack of grass led to overgrazing and range fires had swept across the prairie.  The winter’s  heavy snow and prolonged frigid temperatures, resulted in the loss of thousands of head of stock.   As much as 85 per cent of the herds were lost, basically ending the practice of “open range.”   It changed the West forever, according to cattlemen.

Terms like “biggest” and “only” aren’t limited to Montana’s once-in-a-lifetime snow flake, however.  Literally cut in half by the Continental Divide, its the nation’s largest landlocked state (larger than Japan) and the only U.S. state bordered by three Canadian provinces. The Beartooth Plateau, which includes the Beartooth Mountains is the largest high-elevation land mass in the Lower Forty Eight.  It’s home to the most grizzly bears (about 800) arguably the cleanest water and one of the planet’s most unique ecosystems.

Beartooth Plateau

It’s diverse geology has always represented challenges to settlers.  About 60 per cent of the state is prairie, leaving the other 40 per cent rugged and remote.  And cold!  The lowest temperature ever recorded in the continental U.S. was at western Montana’s Roger’s Pass in 1954 when the mercury fell to a bone-chilling minus 70.  That’s just ten degrees off the all-time winner, or loser depending on your point of view, of minus 80 recorded at Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska, on January 23, 1971.

Save for the big snow flake event, Fort Keogh and nearby Miles City are blessed with marginally less extreme weather than some parts of Montana. Yearly average temperatures range from 9 degrees in January to 91 in July.  It’s not exactly Miami in the winter. Likewise, its not Miami in the summer, either. 

Miles City, 188os

Miles City, first known as Milestown, got its name from General Nelson Miles, first commander and founder of Fort Keogh.  The fort itself, named for  the Irish immigrant war hero, Captain Myles Keogh, (right)  was established in 1876 on the heels of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Keogh died in that battle, perhaps made legendary by his horse, Comanche, the only thing found alive on the battlefield at the Little Big Horn.

Captain Keogh’s horse, Comanche

Nobody would argue that the winter of ‘86-’87 was a good thing but it did create changes that resulted in a positive outcome. With millions of dollars lost, ranchers sensibly migrated to smaller spreads, fewer cattle, winter shelters and raising crops for feed.  The cowboy’s job description changed, as well.  No longer just riding the range, it came to include stacking hay, mending fences and securing water sources.  

Today, Montana’s beef industry ranks third in the nation, behind South Dakota and Nebraska, and a number of the state’s ranches exceed 200,000 acres, not small by any measure.  Much has changed since the big die-off, but one thing hasn’t.  Bad winters still happen. 

The Range Riders Museum, West Main Street, Miles City, Montana, occupies the site of the original 1876 Fort Keogh cantonment.  Founded by a group of ranchers and cowboys, it opened in 1942 and has grown to more than a dozen buildings including the Fort Keogh Officers’ Quarters, Coach House and One-Room School, containing thousands of regional homestead and Native American artifacts. 

The site features large handicap-accessible parking, a gift shop and self-guided tours. It’s open 8 to 5 seasonally April 15 to October 31 and by appointment.   Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for high school and college students, $3 for junior high and elementary. Younger children are admitted free and group rates are available.  For more information got to, call  (406) 232-6146 or (406) 234-2817 or write 435 LP Anderson Road, Miles City, MT 59301

 © Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.