The Coldest Day in American History

Photo courtesy: Sb2s3
Photo courtesy: Sb2s3

As the nation finds itself in the throes of another harsh winter, it’s sometimes reassuring to take a look back at just how much colder things could be — like the time children had a snowball fight on the steps of the a Capitol Building.

February 1899 was remembered for generations as being the coldest month in American history, particularly on the week of Valentines Day when more than 100 individuals froze to death and nearly every single state in the Union recorded sub-zero temperatures.

The unprecedented surge of intensely cold weather owed its existence to a polar vortex that originated in Canada’s extreme north.

The western third of the country was the first to feel the bitter cold with temperatures dropping to the freezing point in Los Angeles, California, on February 4, but as the air mass slowly pushed east, things progressively got colder for the nation – particularly in the American southeast.

“The full force of the outbreak wasn’t felt until February 10… That day, temperatures across the Midwest and Ohio Valley were below −20°F, and even Washington, DC, recorded a low temperature of −8°F. By February 11, temperatures plummeted even further with Fort Logan, Montana, recording an astonishing low of −61°F,” according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

On the morning of Monday, February 13, 1899, residents in Tallahassee, Florida, awoke to a −2°F temperature and several inches of snow outside their window.  Braving the dangerous cold, residents congregated at the Sunshine State’s capitol building to participate in a snow ball fight.

Farther south in Tampa, residents were treated to the once in a lifetime sight of falling snow, though no significant accumulation was ever reported.  In Miami, the city recorded its first ever below-30 temperature reading, registering a reading of 29 °F.

Snowball fight on the steps of the FL capitol
Snowball fight on the steps of the FL capitol

The entire eastern 2/3rds of the nation was brought to a standstill as residents of Lexington, Virginia, attempted dig out of 70-inches of snow.  Adding insult to injury, the people of the mountainous Virginia town were awakened from their sleep early that morning when an earthquake shook the Appalachian mountainside, creating minimal damage to homes near the epicenter of the quake.

The Houston Post reported, that “The Capitol City of the Nation is in the grip of a genuine Dakota blizzard today. It is the worst storm in the history of the city and it is positively indescribable. Thirty inches of snow on the level, still snowing and a wind blowing forty miles an hour, piling it into drifts ten feet deep and the thermometer at zero, everything at standstill, all traffic abandoned and backmen charge $5 ($142.86 today’s dollar value) to haul a passenger five blocks.”

The unimaginable snow drifts piling against doors that opened to the outside were responsible for a great number of deaths, as individuals were trapped inside their homes without any means to bring in wood stacked only a few feet outside their doors.

In New York City, The Post stated, “All charitable societies are taxed beyond their resources. Of the 15,000 destitute families in this city nearly all are either freezing or suffering.”

Across the South, where cities and farmers were inexperienced in surviving such harsh winter weather, things were even more frightening.

With thousands on the brink of starving to death in the face of the worst natural disaster in the state’s history, the city of Atlanta converted its police barracks into a commissary and the Atlanta Constitution began taking up donations to feed the city’s starving residents.

“Goods and groceries were piled up in the drill hall on the first floor… the manner in which the money and goods poured in upon the committee was surprising even for Atlanta.  people sent in subscriptions without being asked, and many were for very handsome sums… This made it unnecessary for the relief committee to do any begging or even asking, and they went to work at once to distribute the food, clothing and fuel,” reported the paper on February 14, 1899.

With less than enough hay in storage, an estimated tens of thousands of livestock perished as a result of the unprecedented cold.

Though the toll of human suffering was great during the storm, the lasting affects the cold would have upon the nation would be catastrophic.

The port of New Orleans was completely iced over by February 13, with ice floes reportedly floating out of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. On February 14 the city experienced its coldest-ever Mardi Gras reading of 7 °F.

In Cuba, which was a U.S. territory at the time, the island experienced hard frost which killed or damaged many crops. This was despite the cold air first having to cross the Florida Strait and its warm Gulf Stream waters.

In Georgia, the peach crop was altogether ruined, one contemporary reported stated, “not a living leaf remains above the ground today.”

A local report from Americus, Georgia, stated, “Chickens and birds were frozen last night. Every water pipe in the city was frozen and much suffering will result… The intense cold this morning signed the death knell to vegetation in this section, the mercury ranging 6 degrees below zero. Not only are the fruit buds killed, but the opinion prevails that hundreds of fruit trees are killed likewise.”

The lasting affect the Blizzard of 1899 would have upon the nation’s economy would be horrific.

With hundreds of fruit trees dead in the southeast, food across the nation would be extremely scarce throughout 1899 and the year that followed.

In days where so many of the nation’s urban inhabitants lived from day to day, the complete shutting down of cities meant that all factory work and service work came to a halt – financially crippling hundreds of thousands of people for months to come.

With the Mississippi River froze over and the Port of New Orleans closed, the nation’s infrastructure broke down in a matter of hours – right at the height of the industrial revolution.

Unfortunately, warmer weather did not offer any significant relief and in many cases compounded the problem, as virtually every city in the East found itself flooded from the melting snow and ice.

In June of that same year, four months later, the nation officially entered into a recession.  Business activity was down 15.5%, as people simply did not have any additional money to spend.  The nation would not officially pull out of the recession until the opening days of 1901.

So as you find yourself cursing the cold outside your window, just take a moment and be grateful that you weren’t around in February 1899.

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