The Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy - On the plains of 1931 eastern Colorado, a small busload of children survive a heinous winter’s storm
|The bus after it was emptied of children. Notice the back is filled with snow because of the missing windows.|
The children boarding the makeshift school bus were singing and laughing. They had been let out of school early and were planning on being under a gorgeous blue sky, not inside a humdrum schoolhouse learning sums. When the last child settled onto the bench, the engine of the 1929 blue Chevrolet roared to life. Excited kids giggled and waved to the kids boarding the second bus, thinking of the adventures to come. What they could not fathom was the horrors that would follow. It was Thursday, March 26, 1931, and the date is a part of morbid Colorado history called the “Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy.”
Pleasant Hill, located in Kiowa County, eastern Colorado, was a farming community on the plains, made livable by hardworking folks who believed in honesty, hard work, and helping your neighbor. Only one of the farmhouses had a telephone in March 1931, and none of the homes had electricity. Families survived on little and what they did have, they shared: if a farmer butchered a hog, it was separated equally between neighbors. If someone’s chickens lay better than other’s, eggs were divided. The children were raised with the same ethics; no strangers to hard work: milk cows, pump water, gather eggs, and help around the home, all before it was time for school.
1931 had a bitter winter, where attic windows burst open from howling winds and filled with snow. So when March 26 opened under beautiful blue skies, it felt like springtime had come. Some children eschewed coats for school. Others donned light sweaters. Sure, clouds were forming in the distance, but it was a beautiful day.
Farmer Carl Miller picked up the children on his driver’s route. During the summer, he used his blue 1929 Chevrolet for hauling hay. During the winter it served as one of the two school buses for Pleasant Hill School, and he made extra money as a driver. Carl’s bus was one of two routes; one ran east, the other ran west. There were two rough-hewn wooden benches in the back for 20 kids to share, with enough room to store their metal lunch pails under the benches on the floor. The back windows were missing, so Carl had placed cardboard inside the frames. The truck was about the size of today’s minivans.
Carl Miller greeted each child as they boarded the bus. In this small community, everyone knew each other. He most likely asked each child about their families, general questions. While it was polite to discuss generalities, it was not considered proper to share feelings or voice private matters.
School started in the one-room Pleasant Hill schoolhouse, but the two teachers compared notes and watched the dark clouds welling up, appearing just as quickly as their students piled into seats. By the time class started, the snow was coming down heavily. Gone was the promise of an early spring.
There was no food or blankets stored in the school. The students had their lunch, but no other means of sustenance. It was determined everyone should go home. The announcement was met with much happiness from the student body.
As quickly as they had exited, now the students boarded the buses. As the norm, they placed their lunch pails under the benches on the floor of the bus. Carl Miller fired up the blue Chevrolet and they were on their way.
But the snow was falling thicker and faster. Carl called out to his passengers to try to look out the windows to help navigate. Their usual route became a blanket of white, and it was near impossible to find the dirt road. Carl decided it best to take a short cut. It would cost him, and several of his passengers, the highest price.
It took only fifteen minutes for the driver to become lost. Forty-mile an hour winds pushed the heavy snow against the old truck. Ice now coated all of the windows. The snow and wind blew out the rear window’s cardboard covers. And when Carl attempted to turn the bus, the rear wheels slid into a ditch and refused to move. Carl did not know it at the time, but the bus was one mile from the schoolhouse and a half-mile from the closest farmhouse. By now the weather created a total whiteout.
But the children were oblivious. Bad weather and danger were just a part of life. They sang and laughed, still talking about spending the day in a warm house. Their bus driver had to explain to them that the bus was not moving. It was at about 9:30 a.m.
The children’s ages ranged from eight to sixteen. The two oldest, a boy and girl, bundled up to go look for help. As they disappeared out the door, Carl kept the youngsters busy by having them do jumping jacks, shadowboxing, and dancing about. He was hoping it would keep their body temperatures up. It wasn’t long before the boy and girl returned, breathless. The storm had slammed them back. The weather was just too horrific.
The children were becoming exhausted with all the movement; they just couldn’t play or exercise any longer. Their lunch pails had frozen to the floor of the bus, so there was no food. Exhaustion set in on the little bodies. They tried a game where they slept in short shifts, where they took turns calling out to one another. Now snow had piled to the roof in the back of the bus. And the weather had not let up.
The first to die was a little girl whose body had given out. The oldest girl carried her to the back of the bus to cover her gently with snow.
To keep warm, the children decided to sleep in a big pile. But hypothermia set in, and they began shedding clothing. One little girl had worn a yellow sweater to school that day, a recent gift that she had wanted to show her classmates. When she died, she was also carried to the back of the bus.
The night brought bitter cold, total darkness. “My daddy will come get us,” one little boy kept promising. “He always says if I’m in trouble, he’ll come get me.”
On Friday morning, March 27, Carl Miller decided that he would go for help. He had put his coat around a little boy who had not worn a coat to school; now he had to take it back. He put the oldest two kids in charge. “Don’t worry,” he winked at the group of worried little faces. “I’ll be back. And we’ll have pancakes for breakfast!” They never saw him again.
Worried parents kept peering out windows and doors to look for their children. Finally, the men of the house began hitching horses up to wagons to venture out. The storm was still blowing, but the horses were hearty farm creatures and the men were determined. When they reached the schoolhouse, the chills they felt were probably colder than the icy winds.
The schoolhouse windows were blown out and snow had piled up inside. Long icicles hung from the ceiling. But no children were in sight.
As the day wore on, the storm was finally releasing its hold. The blue bus could be spotted in the ditch. One of the men leaped from his wagon to fight fifteen-foot snowdrifts. When he fought the bus door open, he could only say, “Oh, what a sight.”
It was at about 5:00 p.m. The children had been in the bus for 33 hours.
The first two men to enter the bus found their children dead from the cold. Carl Miller’s child was also deceased.
The living children were rushed to a nearby farmhouse. They suffered from frostbite and hypothermia. One boy died before they could all be taken to a local hospital. Because of farmhouse remedies, none of them lost any limbs or toes. The ones who made it to the hospital survived, but their first night was filled with screams. There was so much pain – physical and psychological.
The dead children were buried while their classmates remained in the hospital.
A search party had found Carl Miller lying in the snow, arms raised above his head, staring up at the sky. He had managed to walk three miles before collapsing. His gloves and hands were torn and bloody from feeling along a barbed-wire fence.
Six died as a result of the Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy: five children and Carl Miller.
No one received counseling during this time in history. Life was tough, and people had to be tough. When bad things happened, people dealt with it. One did not share feelings or private matters. Death was a part of it all.
Until the media got hold of the story and it blew up all over the country. The children became national heroes. What the media didn’t know about the tragedy and its people, the media made up until the story grew. One circus asked one of the boys to join them on tour. The kids traveled to Denver courtesy the Denver Post newspaper and were treated to new, free clothing and fancy dinners. Farm kids who had never seen the inside of a restaurant were now seated at tables with fine china and linen tablecloths. Country boys and girls who grew up in hand-me-downs and a single pair of shoes now owned closets full of clothing that would be too nice to wear anywhere they would ever go. In a public relations maneuver, one boy met the President of the United States. They were all awarded medals for heroism.
But once back home, no one talked about the bus tragedy. Much later, the children as adults and their much - older families would share their struggles with PTSD, survivor’s guilt, severe depression, and flashbacks with few people. They could never forget, and they would never recover.
As a result of the Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy, Colorado State Legislators would pass local and national laws to make schools and school transportation safer. This included painting school buses a bright yellow so they could be easily seen in inclement weather, a practice that continues today in most parts of the U.S.
In 1962 a granite stone memorializing the School Bus Tragedy was erected. It sits directly between the towns of Towner and Holly in a desolate part along what is now blacktop highway. This blacktop highway was once a dirt road where a lost bus driver and twenty children met fate.
Note: The incident is also referred to as “The Towner-Holly School Bus Tragedy”
Children of the Storm: The True Story of the Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy. (2001). Harner, A & Seacrest, C. Fulcrum Publishing Co.
Speer, J. Director & Writer. (2016). “Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy.” United States. Colorado Experience.
Unknown. (March 28, 1931) Five Children Freeze in Eastern Slope School Bus. The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colorado. P. 1