The winter of 1874-75 is arguably the coldest winter on record in Upper Michigan. It??s arguable because December 1874 was a slightly above average month. Then January came in with a mean temperature of 5.9 degrees in Marquette. Interestingly, that was the exact mean temperature for January this year at the National Weather Service (NWS) near Negaunee. Keep in mind though that the city of Marquette at lake-level is a warmer environment than the inland point of Negaunee Township. In other words 5.9 degrees in Marquette is a more impressive cold number than ??up on the hill.?? In fact, the city had 20 of 31 days below zero in 1875 while the NWS counted only 19 days below zero.
In early February 1875, the cold eased slightly as a great snowstorm pummeled the Upper Great Lakes. Snow fell heavily in Marquette from the evening of February 2 to the forenoon of February 4 accompanied by sustained northerly winds of 25 to 30 miles per hour. The snow piled into huge drifts, rendering streets and sidewalks nearly impassable. Train traffic came to a virtual standstill over all of the Upper Peninsula, as well as over most of the Western Great Lakes.
In Escanaba, the storm was judged the worst in years. Like in Marquette, snow commenced on the 2nd and ??continued all day and night and the following day and night,?? accompanied by a raging wind. The daily stage across the ice at Fayette left early on the morning of the 3rd, on a trip to Escanaba that would normally take between four and five hours. It finally reached its destination at 10 a.m. the following day. The stage was forced to stop at a farm on the Stonington Peninsula after the horses became so fatigued battling the wind and snow of the storm that it became impossible to drive them through.
The storm was a classic system that moved northeastward from the Southern Plains across the Lower Peninsula. Reports received via telegraph indicated a warm, gentle rain at Grand Haven with a strong southerly wind during the day on the 4th. The wind direction and precipitation type indicated that Grand Haven in southwestern Lower Michigan was in the ??warm sector?? of the low-pressure system. The storm passed north of the town later in the afternoon, followed by ??a terrific gale of cold, blustering wind?? from the southwest accompanied by blinding snow. The center of low pressure moved over Lake Michigan, and then headed northeastward for the Straits. As the storm deepened, winds reached 65 miles an hour at Grand Haven.
Northwest of the storm??s track, a raging blizzard paralyzed the region from Iowa to Upper Michigan. Near Dubuque, an Iowa Central train became ??stuck fast in a snowdrift.?? Thirty passengers on the train were stranded ??without food or fire.?? In Ripon, Wisconsin, no trains arrived or left for three days. Ten-foot drifts shut down all business. In the wake of the storm, bitter cold air rushed into the central Wisconsin community on gusty northwesterly winds, dropping the temperature to 20 degrees below zero.
Snow measurements were not taken in any organized fashion in 1875. Strong winds accompanying the snow would have made measurement difficult, but the editor of Marquette??s paper judged the storm ??the worst we have known during our residence on Lake Superior.??
Around Whitefish Point the storm was described as ??fearful.?? Two miles inland from the point, at a settlement called Little Lake, residents had to raise flagpoles at their homes so they could find their way back after a trip to the neighbors. A resident was said to have ??lost?? his house after being gone ??for an hour or so?? during the storm. He passed ??within two rods?? of the house without noticing it. After a careful search in the drifts he located the roof of the structure and dug his way in. He found his wife in the dark, ??badly frightened.?? They decided to evacuate their home and stay with neighbors, ??concluding that if they were to be buried alive?| [at least]?|they would have company.?? At the conclusion of the blizzard, the snow at that location was six feet deep on the level.
The coldest weather of this bitter winter followed the storm. In Marquette, temperatures on the morning of February 9 ranged between 24 and 30 below zero. The cold across the rest of the Peninsula was unprecedented. L??Anse hit 35 below, Menominee 37 below, Houghton minus 38 and Escanaba an incredible 40 below zero. Michigamme was even colder. The mercury in a thermometer there congealed at minus 42. Negaunee reported ??the lowest?| [temperature]?|ever known?? there at 43 below, while Ishpeming checked in with minus 48. The nadir was reached in Champion, where Dr. Trest??s spirit thermometer reached 51 degrees below zero and another ??veracious inhabitant?? close by got to minus 54!
February 1875 may be the most brutal winter month in Upper Michigan history. The mean temperature for the month was 1.8 degrees in Marquette. Only January 1912 (1.3 degrees) was colder. Remember the bitter January of 1994? That month brought record cold and severe hardship for many U.P. residents due to frozen water pipes, etc. However, the mean at the NWS was a mere 2.8 degrees.Back to February 1875, it??s ironic and amazing that just 3 years later, the warmest February on record occurred. In 1878, the mean temperature in Marquette was a balmy, spring-like 32.6 degrees!