Now That’s Cold: 7 of the Worst Winters in American History

Family History
1 February 2015
by Ancestry
Snow-covered street in Brattleboro.
A storm in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1941.

This year started off with a frigid weather bang. New York experienced its coldest New Year’s Eve in more than 50 years and monster storms have wreaked havoc on the rest of the coast. Schools up and down the Eastern seaboard are closing for snow.

Think the “Bomb Cyclone” is bad? Imagine what winter would be like if buildings were rickety, communication was limited, and a mini Ice Age dominated. That was the way of the world for much of the 19th century. Here are seven American winters that became the stuff of legend.

1816: The Year Without a Summer

In North America and Europe, the winter of 1816 never ended. There were reports of a foot of snow in Vermont in June. Persistently dark skies and cold rain. Barren orchards, dead cornfields, and the threat of famine. A warm spell would arrive only to be followed by sudden cold fronts, northwesterly winds, and snow. Salem, Massachusetts, for example, recorded 74-degree weather on April 16; about 36 hours later, the thermometer read 21. On Lake Geneva, the gloom inspired Mary Shelley to write “Frankenstein.”

The crazy weather patterns kept people holed up inside and speculating about the cause. They wondered if the culprit was sunspots or a lunar eclipse, or if it was related to cutting down so many trees. Maybe it was God’s wrath or even Ben Franklin’s lightning rods.

In fact, it was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before. Tiny particles from the massive volcanic explosion drifted into the stratosphere and affected Earth’s climate, causing the average global temperature to drop by three degrees Celsius.

1857: The Cold Storms

January 1857 brought some of the coldest weather ever to the East Coast. From Virginia to Massachusetts, temperatures hovered around zero, and over a foot of snow blanketed Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Petersburg, Virginia, recorded -20 degrees. In New York City, the East River froze hard enough to create an ice bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, one of several reported in the mid-19th century.

Rancher riding horse with dog alongside him.
Rancher in a blizzard, 1940.

1886: The Great Blizzard

The Kansas blizzard of January 1886 is legendary. A series of storms battered the state for a week, causing 10-foot snowdrifts and temperatures of 30 below zero. About 100 Kansans were reported to have died. Homes on the prairie were cheaply built, leaving settlers with little shelter in the freezing weather. Those who stepped outside were easily lost or got frostbite.

The storm also caused the largest loss of livestock ever on the Plains. With guard rails and barns destroyed, cattle drifted with the storm, some reportedly piling up at a Union Pacific railway fence and freezing to death in a snow drift. Afterward, it was said that you could walk 400 miles from Ellsworth to Denver on carcasses. Large cattle companies in western Kansas went bankrupt after losing over 75 percent of their stock. One firm, for instance, had bought 2,500 cows that December; after the storm, none remained and the company was $45,000 in debt. Paired with the suspension of train travel and commerce for weeks, the blizzard dealt a devastating economic blow to the state.

Workers clearing snow along train tracks.
New York’s Grand Central Depot after the blizzard of 1888. (Courtesy of Beth Poss)

1888: The March Snowstorm

This historic late-winter blast paralyzed the East Coast from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Connecticut and Massachusetts saw 50 inches of snow; New Jersey and New York got 40. Drifts buried houses. Two hundred ships were wrecked offshore in 85-mph winds. The storm paralyzed railways and stranded commuters. Commerce came to a halt and there were concerns about famine. Overall, there were 400 casualties, half of them in New York City. The rapidly modernizing country learned some important lessons from the storm’s destruction, however, such as the need to bury electric wires and the advantages of a subway.

Snow-covered streetscape in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., during the Knickerbocker Storm. (Courtesy of NOAA Photo Library)

1922: The Knickerbocker Storm

On January 27 and 28, 1922, Washington, D.C., was hit with 28 inches of snow, the most the capital has ever received in one blizzard. Bringing moist air from the south, the storm was blocked by a northern system and stalled over D.C. before heading out to sea. On the evening of the 28th, the storm slowed down and people could finally leave their homes. Some went to the Knickerbocker Theater in Adams Morgan to catch a silent film. During the show, the roof collapsed under the weight of the snow, and beams, concrete, bricks, and plaster rained down on the audience. The collapse killed 98 people and injured 133.

Newspaper clipping of winter storm in Wisconsin.
Front page of the Post Crescent in Appleton, WI, November 13, 1940.

1940: Armistice Day Storm

In the Midwest, November 11 dawned with balmy temperatures up to 60 degrees. The next morning, there was a brutal blizzard. Parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan got over two feet of heavy snow. Winds gusted up to 80 mph, forming tall snow drifts and bringing down hundreds of trees. About 150 deaths were blamed on the storm.

The nice weather had drawn duck hunters in summer shirts to the Mississippi River, and when the storm hit, 12 were trapped on small islands near St. Paul, where they froze to death. Historical newspapers on Ancestry are filled with stories of stranded sailors, trapped cars, heroic citizens, and thousands of dollars of property damage.

1978: The Two Historic Blizzards

From the Mississippi River to Cape Cod, two major storms doled out an even dose of winter misery. The first came on January 25, bringing three feet of snow to much of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Kentucky. Sometimes called the “Cleveland Superbomb,” it swept into Ohio with 100 mph winds and 25-foot snow banks. A week later, a nor’easter off the mid-Atlantic pummeled the northeast. Due to a high pressure system off eastern Canada, the heavy snow and hurricane-force winds stalled in New England. Much of the area got at least a foot of snow, with record accumulations of over 27 inches in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

Newspaper clipping of winter storm in Pennsylvania.
The Valley Independent in Monessen, PA, February 7, 1978.

Did your ancestors get snowed in? Are are you looking for something to do until the plows come? Ancestry is offering a 14-day free trial that’s perfect for a winter evening…or two.

—Rebecca Dalzell