This is a cold beginning to the New Year, no doubt about that. But, as we??ve pointed out many times in the past, if you look back in the records, you can usually find an event even more extreme. This time, it??s easy. One of the most spectacular cold waves in history descended on the Midwest 150 years ago today.
January 1, 1864 was long remembered as ??The Cold New Year??s Day,?? from the Rockies to the Appalachians, including Upper Michigan. The arctic blast brought ??the greatest combination of cold, snow and blow?? in the Middle West??s recorded history. Two deep low-pressure systems tracked from the Southern Plains to the Great Lakes the last four days of December 1863, dumping heavy snow to the northwest of their centers. After the first storm passed, arctic air bottled up in western Canada made a move southeast into the Northern Plains as far east as Minnesota. The second storm moved on a similar path, developing a raging snowstorm with gale force winds from Iowa and Missouri into the Western Great Lakes and Upper Michigan. This low center passed over Alpena just after midnight New Year??s Eve. As the storm pulled quickly into Canada, the dam burst; frigid air surged east and southward on gale-force northwest to westerly winds.
Temperatures remained below zero all New Year??s Day from Minnesota to Ohio and from the Canadian border to Tennessee. St. Paul, Minnesota never had a colder day. The temperatures at 7 a.m., 2 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively, were: 35 below, 25 below and 28 below. In Milwaukee, at the same times, the observed readings were: 27 below, 23 below and 23 below. The low temperature for the day was a record 30 degrees below zero. Chicago had its all-time low temperature of 25 below. It dropped to 10 degrees below as far south as Memphis, Tennessee.
Up north on the shores of Lake Superior it was judged ??about the coldest?| day?| that had been experienced.?? The daytime high in Marquette was 18 degrees below zero with a low of 31 below. The mines to the west reported readings as cold as 35 degrees below.After the first 10 days of January 1864, the pattern reversed and mild weather set in. After the exceptionally cold start, the month only ended 1.1 degrees below average at Fort Snelling (present day site of St. Paul). February wound up nearly 5 degrees above average. Near Detroit, Bella Hubbard (who spent time exploring the Lake Superior region in the early pioneer days) noted on January 27: ??The most lovely day, with clear warm sun. Thermometer at midday 60.?? During mid-February, Hubbard noted it felt and looked like April. The winter of 1863-64 was notable for its bitter start to January and then its remarkable turnaround during the latter portion of the month.