By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
There are some things we don’t always think about when sharing the history of our area, unless you are a farmer or rancher, or possibly a lineman or weatherman. One of those “things” we don’t think about too much as being a part of our history is weather, and in today’s case, thunder and lightning.
Consider how it affected our pioneers and cowboys on the open range. They had no means of predicting the weather, or what it might be, from one day to the next. Often times it meant life or death, depending on the circumstances, in a moment’s time.
A quick online search about weather and I found the article, “Cloud to Ground Lightning in the Summer Months in New Mexico,” published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/National Weather Service in Albuquerque by Earl K. Fosdick and NOAA/National Severe Storms Laboratory out of Norman, Oklahoma, by Andrew I. Watson. The documentation states the following:
“New Mexico has the highest number of mean annual thunderstorm days in the western United States. Moreover, the high plains of the northeastern section of the state average over 70 thunderstorm days each year, which is exceeded only in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. While most of the thunderstorms that occur in New Mexico can be characterized as non-severe, hazards to life and property are not lacking. For example, the state is second in lightning casualties per population density in the United States.”
Following is a story I found in regard to our weather and history, a thought-provoking and interesting read, shared with permission from New Mexico Stockman Magazine’s office manager Margarite Vensel. It gives a very close and personal — sometimes fun, sometimes sobering — account of what it was truly like. Here is that story:
The New Mexico Stockman
“Thunder and Lightning
“By O.M. Linn, Silver City
“I have heard people say that they were not afraid of lightning, but watch them when it goes to popping and hissing around them, and you will see how much truth there is in it. They say, ‘why be afraid, you can do nothing about it.’ Well, that is exactly why I am afraid of it.
“It is a well-known fact that for some reason there are certain areas in which lightning always has been in greater volume than in others. (There is no lightning in the Arctic, but, who wants to live there?) I have been around about as much of it as anyone, and I have always been scared to death of it. The records are that five to six thousand people are killed by lightning each year in the United States and around three thousand injured by it.
“I have seen much damage from it, and do not think it does not strike more than once in the same place. We have four rather large trees in our front yard, a few feet apart and it has struck one of them four times — none of the others. A great many livestock are killed each year on the range by lightning with no evidence of what caused it. Often these deaths are attributed to poison weed or other things. Last summer I had three cows killed — the evidence was there on a cedar tree near where they lay — not on the cows.
“Some years ago Malcom Stewart and his brother Victor Stewart were ranching west of Dalhart, in the panhandle of Texas. They had some twenty odd head of fine registered cows killed by lightning — they had drifted into a fence corner during a thunderstorm.
“I once worked for an outfit that had a horse pasture in the lower Pecos country where they kept about one hundred fifty saddle horses when they were not being used. The river was the only water and trails ran from the river back into the rough canyons and hills where the grass was better. These horses would follow the trails down to the river for water and back up into the hills. One day after a rainstorm, I rode up to eight saddle horses lying in one of these trails — one after the other, close together, all headed from the river. Evidently lightning struck one of them and the deadly current passed along the line to all of them.
“I have had many close calls.
“Once, when I was a lad, I was sent from Fort Stockton, Texas, on horseback with an urgent message to the old T X Ranch, about twenty-five miles north of Horse Head Crossing, on the Pecos. We had no dirt roads. The distance I had to make that day was nearly seventy miles. If you don’t think that is quite a horseback ride, try it sometime. I would hate to try it now. It isn’t every horse that can take that. There was not a human being in this desolate area, nor a drop of water except in the Pecos River, this I had to swim. In those days the Pecos was at swimming stage most of the time. I was riding a good horse, made the trip fine, delivered the message, stayed all night and started back the next morning on a fresh horse. I traveled what had been an old government wagon road that had been used in earlier days, between forts. It ran almost straight from Horse Head Crossing to Fort Stockton.
“That afternoon, about halfway back in a wide alkali flat, a small thunder cloud moved slowly overhead. … There was no wind on the ground and not a drop of rain fell. When it came directly over me the lightning began to flash, coming straight down to the ground. I could see where it struck the ground from the column of white dust that would slowly rise. Before this cloud had passed on, (I had almost passed on,) it struck nine times from forty yards to one hundred fifty yards of where I was. Believe me, I thought I was about to meet Saint Peter. I wondered if the wolves would eat me before anyone found me — there were lots of big ones in that country. It struck once about fifty yards right in front of me. There was a frying sound first, then this loud thunder report following. I reined up my horse and looked back. Down it came about that distance behind me so I decided I had better just ride on — it might have a spot picked out between those shots.
“One summer, a few years later, we were working the open country west of the Pecos — rounding up every day. One day, after we had finished working at the roundup — the wagon had moved on sometime before — an enormous cloud came up, lightning was popping around but hit nothing but the ground. Then the thunder and lightning stopped and it started hailing. The roar was deafening. We had no protection whatever — there were some small mesquite bushes nearby so we jumped off our horses and tied them to these bushes — we pulled off our saddles holding them over our heads and shoulders for protection. When it was over, in about fifteen minutes, the ground was white with over eight inches of large rough hail. A number of our horses had broken loose and were gone. About a mile from there a small rancher had a few cattle and a flock of about 2,000 sheep. This hail storm killed over a thousand of his sheep. They were lying in little patches all over a hillside. The herder had protected himself by putting an older zinc bucket over his head — if he hadn’t he too would have been lying around there somewhere.
To be continued.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at email@example.com.