Stormy Weather

Every region of the country seems to take a perverse pride in its own brand of nasty weather. “If you don’t like the weather in (Texas, Georgia, Maine, Wyoming—you fill in the blank) just come back tomorrow.” People love to boast of their triumph over adversity. “Why, it was so cold, the firemen just turned on the hose and then shinnied down the icicle that was formed.” It also is axiomatic that however bad it is now, it was worse back when. “Hot? Why back in the summer of (insert preferred year here), it was so hot that folks were baking cakes on the screened-in porch.”

Right now, outside my office window, the sun is shining, and it’s beginning look like the long bout with the cold, wet, dark, fall and winter of 2009-10 is finally giving way to spring. It seems as if this was one of bleakest winters in recent years, but then, it could have been worse—much worse.

In 1886, the Texas Panhandle was hit by a drought in the summer and a blizzard in the winter so bad it was known as “The Big Die‑Up.” The name came from the death and destruction caused to the livestock business and ranches on the Great Plains.

1888 was another bad year. Two cataclysmic storms slammed into the United States that winter, one in the Midwest and the other in the Northeast. The first of these assaults by nature became famous as “The School Children’s Blizzard.” It came out of Canada on January 12 and swept across the Dakotas, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Indian Territory and into Texas. Temperatures dropped from 74 degrees to 28 below zero in 24 hours in parts of the Midwest. Minus 28 seemed balmy to locations in the Dakotas where the thermometer fell to 40 below.

“In fine clear weather, with little or no warning, the sky darkened and the air was filled with snow or ice‑dust, as fine as flour,” wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1893. “[The snow] was driven before a wind so furious and roaring that men’s voices were inaudible at a distance of six feet. Men in the fields and children on their way from school died ere they could reach shelter; some of them having been not frozen, but suffocated from the impossibility of breathing in the blizzard.” It was the worst storm since 1864, and it claimed 235 lives. In Texas, the Colorado River was frozen a foot thick with ice for the first time in memory.

Two months later disaster struck an even less prepared Northeast. It went down in history as “The Great White Hurricane,” or the Great Blizzard of ‘88. It was early March, and the Northeastern United States was looking forward to an early spring, with temperatures in the unseasonably high range of mid 50s. On March 11, it started to rain in torrential downpours. The next day the rain turned to snow, the temperature plunged, and ferocious winds rose to batter the region from the Chesapeake Bay north to Maine. These conditions held for thirty-six hours.

Fifty inches of snow fell on Connecticut and Massachusetts, with 40 inches falling on New York and New Jersey. The wind, clocked at 48 mph, pressed the snow into drifts 40 to 50 feet high in New York City. Everything stopped. Passenger trains halted miles from their destinations, unable to ram through the white barricades. Telegraph and telephone lines came crashing down. Communication between Boston and Washington was by way of the Trans-Atlantic Cable, going first to London and then back to America.

In Gotham, people trying to get home simply disappeared in the all-enveloping cloak of white, lost for days until the melting snow revealed their frozen remains. Farmers were lost on a 30 foot trek from house to barn, and more than one hundred seamen died when two hundred ships were sunk at their moorings or were driven aground by the storm. The death toll came to four hundred plus. The storm led to rethinking of New York’s transportation system and played at least some part in the decision to start construction of the subway system, approved in 1894 and started in 1900.

Weather map of February 13, 1899
A Weather Map from February 13, 1899

Texas’ worst bout with winter weather came in 1899. That epic storm hit the state on February 13, and temperatures fell to 31 below zero in the Panhandle. It was 11 below zero in Dallas, 4 below zero in San Antonio and 11 at Corpus Christi. The harbor on the coast at Port Aransas froze solid and people walked on it. They also crossed from shore to shore on the ice of Nueces Bay. The upper waters of the Colorado, the Brazos and the Trinity all froze solid. This blizzard, roaring down from the Dakotas past the single thin strand of wire that stands between Texas and the North Pole, was called the “Goat‑Killing Norther.”

Save this magazine. Pull it out in August when the thermometer hits 100, and read this story again. Perhaps you will appreciate the high summer sun a little more.

Want to know more about these stories? Check the links below.

The School Children’s Blizzard

The Great White Hurricane

The Goat-Killing Norther (The Great Blizzard of 1899)