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WUNDRAM: The ‘perfect storm’ of Nov. 11, 1940

WUNDRAM: The ‘perfect storm’ of Nov. 11, 1940

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It was a mild Nov. 11 day, shirtsleeve weather. Life was good in the Quad-Cities, or so it seemed on Armistice Day of Nov. 11, 1940. A south wind was a spring-like breeze. The downtowns were crowded with happy shoppers. Being a holiday, scores of duck hunters headed for their blinds. With the temperature projected to be 58 degrees, this Nov. 11 was to be a day of recreation.

At 9 a.m., the temperature was in the upper 50s. There was a parade, too. I remember that parade. I was in it, playing my horn. All of a sudden, the valves on my cornet froze solid. Russell Doose’s slide trombone quit sliding. It was frozen. My fancy Davenport High band hat flew off and went sailing down 3rd Street.

The Quad-Cities was about to go through the "perfect storm.” The temperature dropped from 58 degrees to 33 degrees in 30 minutes. Our band instruments froze. With ferocity, an unprecedented winter storm was lashing in. Winds roared to 50 miles-per-hour. Power poles and wires were falling. It was called the Armistice Day blizzard, plummeting temperatures and taking lives.

Terry Swails, a longtime Quad-City TV weather forecaster, wrote this in his book, “Superstorm.”

“This storm was of such incredible magnitude that it not only changed the landscape, it changed lives, It was an event which endures … it is a moment frozen in memory.”

What shocked was its quickness and its tenacity, all across the Midwest. But it picked Iowa for its cruelest target. Bitter cold Canadian air was charging toward us into a low pressure center near Des Moines that would sweep across the state. This was not going to be an ordinary winter storm. In fact, this was what meteorologists call a “bomb” and this one would do incredible things as it exploded in the hours to come. 

Quickly, the Mississippi River became a torrent. The wind was 50 and sometimes 60 miles-per-hour, tossing waves 15 feet in the air. Fred Kahlke lashed himself to his ferryboat, the W.J. Quinlan, and had crews cable its hulk to trees in LeClaire Park. Billboards were flying kite-like over the cities where trees were uprooted and some residents took to their basements for shelter. Many stores closed, with no time to board up windows. Barns were flattened.

The storm claimed five lives in our region, all of them duck hunters who left the balm of morning expecting a spring-like day on the river.

Leon Reynolds, 43, of Muscatine, died when his boat capsized in the windy icy water. Hugh Bailey of Savanna, Illinois, was collecting a boat of driftwood for a fire when his boat sank. He died of hypothermia. Three other hunters were found dead, frozen to death, in their duck blind.

The storm accounted for 162 dead in the storm along the Missississippi River as far north as St. Paul, 40 of them duck hunters.

Contact Bill Wundram at 563-383-2249 or


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