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Armistice Day Blizzard

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The weather report in the Rock Island Argus on Friday, November 8th, 1940, called for weekend clouds and rain. Monday, Armistice Day, would be a bit colder as the prevailing winds shifted from south to north west. Few people noticed that those north west winds were already 21 below zero at Lewiston, Montana.

Armistice Day itself turned out crisp and clear—a good day for the planned celebrations. Moline and Davenport both held parades in the morning. At eleven, the exact hour the fighting had ceased at the end of World War I twenty-two years before, all the church bells rang, and train and factory whistles blew.

The temperature reached a pleasant high of fifty-four degrees at noon. Then, as if to swat a mosquito, a giant hand of cold and snow slapped down across the Great Plains, Minnesota, and Iowa. The temperature dropped to eight above zero and a blinding snowstorm stopped all activity.

A thumb of that great white hand extended down the Mississippi Valley, five hundred miles, past Rock Island and Davenport, south to Oquawka. The Rock Island Armistice parade, scheduled for four o'clock, was canceled at 1:15.

Under that thumb were hundreds of duck hunters waiting in their boats for ducks to come down the Mississippi flyway. Duck season had been unusually good that year.

Now, in mid-afternoon, fifty-mile-an-hour winds whipped the river into a frenzy. Waves reached ten feet and capsized a number of boats before they could even reach the safety of islands. The first casualty was a duck hunter near Oquawka, whose boat tipped.

Even the hunters who reached the islands were not safe. Would-be rescuers were not able to see more than a few feet in the snow. Hunters build windbreaks out of brush and snow, but even then, many lost frozen hands and feet to the storm.

Out of 160 deaths caused by the Armistice Day blizzard, nineteen were duck hunters on the Mississippi River, a reminder that with nature, as with human affairs, armistices are, at best, temporary.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.