A Winter Tragedy in the Unforgiving North Country

This is a heartbreaking story of a misjudgment made 87 years ago today.  The heart of the sadness is that this is a true event.

In the summer of 2014, I was wandering through St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Chateaugay, New York.  I was searching for certain headstones to photograph for ancestor-seekers that lived too far away to visit the cemetery itself.

I paused in the warm sunlight to check my list of requests.  I looked down for a moment and noticed I was standing next to a ground-level slab of granite with a very unusual word carved below the names.

The inscription read:

DAUGHTERS

INA  AGE 14

LILLIAN  AGE 11

DIED JAN. 25, 1928

BLIZZARD

The word blizzard struck me hard.  I’ve been in blizzards, but only indoors or in a car…my life was never in danger.

I photographed the stone and nearby I located the parents headstone.  I was intrigued but soon put the matter aside.  A few months later I was visiting the Mining Museum at nearby Lyon Mountain.  I picked up a copy of History of Churubusco by Lawrence P. Gooley.

Later, while browsing through the pages of local lore, legends and history, I came across the story of what happened on that Jan. 25, 1928.  The day of the blizzard.

Omitting some details, here is the gist of that tragic night of Jan. 24th:

The family of Gilbert Dunn consisted of five children.  On Wednesday morning, the 24th, four of the children set off to school, as usual.

A winter storm began shortly after they left.  Mrs. Dunn hitched a team of horses to a light sled and set off to bring the girls back home.  She made it as far as a neighbor’s home about a mile away as the intensity of the storm increased.  The neighbor told her to stay in the house while he would ride on to the school, a short distance away, and bring the girls back.

This he did.  He then attempted to get Mrs. Dunn and the four children to stay the night because the blizzard was now raging.  The mother, at this point, make a fatal error in judgement.  She felt that her husband would worry about them so she set out for her farm.

The sled got stuck in the mounting snow.  She covered the kids with the few blankets from the sled.

Soon the drifting snow buried her, the children and the sled.

Gilbert, the father was frantic.  He made a few searches along the farm road and found nothing.  He then assumed that his wife and family were riding out the storm at a neighbors.  Instead, they were nearby, buried in the snow bank.

A major effort to locate them began the next day.  They found the sled and the children under ten inches of snow.  The mother survived as did one of the daughters.  Ina and Lillian did not.  Later, Mrs. Dunn, speaking to the reporters from her hospital bed said that Ina knew how bad things looked.  She begged her mother to keep her warm and when she realized that was impossible, she curled at her mother’s legs and began to drift off to sleep…but not before saying: “Goodbye momma, I’m going to die.”

Such are the ways of the North Country when Nature displays a strength that is stronger than the frailty of humans.

If Lillian had survived that night (and the other challenges of life) she would be 98 years today.  That’s feasible.

If Ina had survived, she would be 101 today.  Possible, but statistically unlikely.

The next time you wander a cemetery for any reason, pick a wildflower and place it on the stone of those who left this life before their life really began.

Then say a little prayer for the innocence of youth.

TombstoneFrozenGirls

[The two illustrations are from History of Churubusco by Lawrence P. Gooley. Bloated Toe Publishing, 2010.]

SledInStorm

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