One of the greatest weather stories ever told is the Children's Blizzard, the true account of the terrible blizzard that swept through Dakota Territory in January 1888. Here is a description of the event from the Wikipedia article on the storm...
The blizzard was preceded by a snowstorm on January 5 and 6, which dropped powdery snow on the northern and central plains, and brought an outbreak of brutally cold temperatures from January 7 to 11. On January 11, a strengthening surface low dropped south-southeastward out of Alberta, Canada into central Montana and then into northeastern Colorado by the morning of January 12. The temperatures in advance of the low increased some 20–40 degrees in the central plains (for example, Omaha, Nebraska recorded a temperature of −6 °F (−21 °C) at 7 a.m. on January 11, while the temperature had increased to 28 °F (−2 °C) by 7 a.m. on January 12). The strong surface low rapidly moved into southeastern Nebraska by 3 p.m. on January 12 and finally into southwestern Wisconsin by 11 p.m. that same day.
The blizzard was precipitated by the collision of an immense Arctic cold front with warm, moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Within a few hours, the advancing cold front caused a temperature drop from a few degrees above freezing to −20 degrees Fahrenheit (−40 °F in some places). This wave of cold was accompanied by high winds and heavy snow. The fast-moving storm first struck Montana in the early hours of January 12, swept through Dakota Territory from midmorning to early afternoon, and reached Lincoln, Nebraska at 3 p.m.
What made the storm so deadly was the timing (during work and school hours), the suddenness, and the brief spell of warmer weather that preceded it. In addition, the very strong wind fields behind the cold front and the powdery nature of the snow reduced visibilities on the open plains to zero. People ventured from the safety of their homes to do chores, go to town, attend school, or simply enjoy the relative warmth of the day. As a result, thousands of people—including a significant number of schoolchildren—got caught in the blizzard. Approximately 500 people died of hypothermia. Travel was severely impeded in the days following.
It is easy to mock the news media hysteria that precedes a major snow event but it is also reassuring to know that today we aren't at risk of being caught completely unaware of life threatening storm systems. The blizzard of 1888 occurred just prior to the development of a national weather alert system, and the tragedy resulted in the completion of a unified system.