Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Stories: 8-Day Icy Ordeal Ends for Families, Linemen

Generations after the 1913 and 1949 blizzards, the first concern for Sandhill families becomes the supply of electricity, as you can see from this newspaper excerpt recounted in the McPherson County History Book. Unfortunately, the book doesn't cite the source or the writer. From the narrative, I believe it is from the Omaha World-Herald.

Excerpted from: McPherson County: Facts, Families, Fiction; Established in 1890

January 1969

For the first time in eight days, power surged into isolated farm and ranch homes Wednesday night in the trackless expanse of snow and ice-covered Sandhills which had been cut off from the outside world by the return of the “Ice Age.”

Throughout the day weary crews from 11 Nebraska and Kansas power and construction companies battled through drifts, zero weather and another snowfall to help linemen of the Custer Public Power District reach 55 ranch and farm homes in northern and western McPherson County.

They were the last of seven thousand customers affected by the pole-shattering and line-snapping 50 to 55 mile-an-hour gale which ripped through the district’s 10 counties and parts of five others the night of January 21.

Between 12 and 13 hundred poles toppled, some almost disintegrating as the wind-whipped lines, covered with ice up to three inches in diameter exerted over two tons of pull on the 235-foot spans between poles.

“It was unbelievable,” said Jim Croghan of Stapleton, manager of the district’s Stapleton outpost, which covers McPherson and Logan counties and parts of Custer, Lincoln, Thomas, Hooker and Keith. “It was the worst we have ever experienced.” This week his 4,320-square mile area was a frigid, wind-whipped scene.

Except for radio communication, this tiny county seat is still cut off from the outside. The Tryon Telephone Company, serving 150 ranch customers and operated by O.E. Black and his family from a kitchen switchboard, was literally wiped out by the storm. Mr. Black said he expected long-distance operation to be resumed today or Friday.

So far in the Stapleton area there have been no reported deaths or major injuries caused by the storm and the loss of power and heat.

McPherson County Sheriff Gordon Bassett, who also publishes the Tryon Graphic, said there have been “no special emergencies, but he quickly added: “Of course, we haven’t been in contact with some back in the hills. Most of the folks have gotten to town some way and out here neighbors always look out for the other guy.”

Little Cool

Inconvenience, hardships and sub-zero cold were taken in stride by Sandhillers with typical stamina and humor.

Mr. and Mrs. Hank Hallsted and their son Kevin, rode out in their pickup to greet Bob Anderson of Broken Bow and this writer when we reached their isolated ranch 19 miles northwest of town Tuesday.
“Sure glad to see you,” said Hank. “The kids ain’t had school for eight days. Aw, we were okay. Hell, we got along before the REA ever got here. I just didn’t hanker the idea of hauling water from the tank to flush the toilet and it did get a little cool when it dropped to 20 below at nights.”

Mrs. Hallsted said the family lived in one room which was heated by a bottled gas stove and the kitchen oven.

Hanks, seeing a camera around the writer’s neck, whooped: “I’ve been waiting for one of you World-Herald fellas to come out and get a picture of our pet coyote, Charlie.” The coyote pup came running at Kevin’s call.

All might not have been as cozy as the Hallsteds. Dick Wilkerson of Broken Bow, the Custer district’s manager, said his crews were concerned about the comfort of Mrs. Helena Miller, 80, and her 60-year-old son who lived on an isolated ranch 18 miles north of Sutherland. “We sent some of our boys down by snowmobile and a truck with a portable generator. We didn’t hear back so we assume they were okay.”

Chet Hawley, McPherson County extension agent, said baby pigs suffered the most in the storm. Cattle losses were believed at a minimum.

“Hardest hit were some of our big hog operators, he said. “One fellow had to carry water to some two thousand head, and that’s a lot of hogs to carry water to.”

Some rural teachers with living quarters in their schools sat out the power outage in solitary confinement. Half the schools in the county have been out eight days because of impassable roads.

Power repair crews worked under nearly impossible conditions to make temporary repairs to get the lights back on. Lines along the roads were comparatively easy. But for a week crews have battled 14 to 16 hours a day miles out in the trackless hills on cross-country lines, using snow cats, skimobiles, bulldozers – and guts – just getting in and out. Tracks cut by bulldozers were often blown shut behind them.

Faces Red

This writer spent a day far out in the hills with a typical crew composed of foreman Bob Anderson of Broken Bow, Dale Dishman and Ken Huggins of the KBR District at Ainsworth and Andy Sydzyik and Chuck Hrebec of the Loup Valley District at Ord.

They were bleary-eyed from fatigue. The constant winds and freezing temperatures had turned their faces raw red. But they never gave up. They didn’t quit until long after dark Tuesday night when Bob and Dale, working feverishly atop the final pole, completed a cut-in of power to several ranches miles west of Tryon. We’d eaten only cold sack lunches at noon.
It was the same for the 117 other men in the 11 crews scattered across the frozen hills and united only by the constant crackle of radios in their trucks. When one got stuck, Big John, the huge snowcat “hot-rodded” by Broken Bow’s Don Slingsby, roared to the rescue.

Croghan and Wilkerson masterminded the operations from a radio in the tiny McPherson County Courthouse. Outside messages were relayed from Stapleton by Croghan’s wife, Shirla.

No Break

Croghan said the crews, headquartered at Stapleton, North Platte and some ranches, have been getting about six hours of sleep a night. “They just haven’t had a break in the weather,” he said. “Monday, the temperature got up around 20 for the first time and then we couldn’t see in near-blizzard conditions. But they still worked on. “I’m telling you, after these boys muck around for 14 to 16 hours a day out in those hills they are pretty well wrung out at night."

He didn’t mention that after the crews came in, he and the rest of his foremen gather in his Stapleton home going over maps and charts until midnight, mapping out the next day’s battle. Operating Supt. Marvin Talbot of Broken Bow said, “We’ve given up keeping track of the hours worked. It is so much easier figuring by the few hours of sleep you get.”

Mentally fatigued by worry over the safety of his crews and the well-being of the rancher-farmers was Wilkerson, the youthful manager who has put his training as a battalion commander in the Nebraska National Guard to work in the repair operation.

Temporary?

He has a new worry. He knows the victory of his crews over incredible conditions might only be temporary. “Our big worry is that this is still not the ice season,” he said. “We usually don’t get icing until late February and March. Of necessity, our repairs had to be temporary. Speed was of prime importance and we had to take a lot of shortcuts. So now our most critical concern is what happens when the regular ice storm period begins? So far we haven’t had temperatures to melt the ice loads still on the lines that withstood the storm. How much more can they take? There is even danger in too-rapid a thaw. When ice drops, it flips the lines, causing a strumming and resulting in further breakages and outages.”

The manager said permanent repairs cannot be made until the weather breaks. Emergency repairs include putting one line on stronger poles just along the edge of the roads.

Tremendous

This has absolutely been the worst we’ve ever had,” he said. “I have nothing but praise for our crews. They have done a tremendous job.” He was seconded by Sheriff Bassett and ranchers here. “The power company did a damn good job. I didn’t expect to see electricity on in some places out here for another two months,” the Sheriff said.

Late Tuesday night, as Wilkerson and his foreman wearily ate a midnight supper prepared by Mrs. Croghan she announced: “Here’s a letter for you fellows.” It was a letter from the citzens of Ringgold offering heartfelt thanks.

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