The Hard Winter of 1915 and Homeless Men along the Northwestern Rail Line
Crawford County, Iowa
For three days in January it snowed, but then the temperature rose and it rained. The following day sleet fell for hours “freezing on everything.” Ice was two inches thick on the wires. Telephone lines fell under the weight, especially in rural areas. Heavy snow then returned with high winds. With the added weight and the wind of the blizzard, loose telephone wires collapsed on the electric wires below creating a situation so dangerous that the electric current was turned off. Businesses, including newspapers, ceased operation. Broken trees fell across the streets and the tops of utility poles broke off.
The block signal system of the Northwestern rail line broke, the engine did not venture out, and the tender was forced off the tracks at the crossing on Dyer Street. Rural mail carriers could not make their rounds. Children were still expected to report to school but few parents sent them.
No deaths or injuries were reported as a result of the weather, but a separate story about the number of homeless men in the area suggests they would have been a vulnerable population. For the homeless men who moved along the Northwestern line from Ames through Carroll and Boone to Denison seeking food such winter weather must have been life- threatening. The mayor of Denison expressed frustration so many such men seemed to move among the region’s jails seeking meals. “’It is getting so we meet beggars on all sides, and housewives seldom pass a day without finding at the door from one to half a dozen hungry anti- workers. The city jail is full every night and the streets are full of them every day. They want something to eat without working for it.” The town’s night watchman reported an average of 8 and ¾ such men in December and 5 and ¼ in January sheltered in the city jail. Whether the men refused to work or were addicted to alcohol, as the mayor believed, their pursuit of food and warmth makes sense.
Source: SHSI: Anna Marie Schneller, Crawford County Iowa Vol. 1 1850-1925, Crawford County Historical Society, 1982.