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1899 blizzard blew misery through area

POSTED: September 11, 2011 1:00 a.m.

As the extremely hot summer wanes, we can wonder what kind of winter it will be. As extremely cold as it was warm?

Long-range weather forecasts, which aren’t reliable, say the drought will extend into the winter, probably meaning milder temperatures.

People remembering hard winters in North Georgia automatically think back to March 1960 when snow and sleet storms in successive weeks pretty much paralyzed the area. Or the blizzard of 1993, which blew in on a March weekend with heavy snow and high winds.

Nobody living today remembers, of course, the blizzard of 1899, though some who lived through it might have passed stories down to the next generation.

That storm was particularly cruel as it struck the South worse than other sections of the country. Besides, people weren’t equipped to cope with the cold as much as we are today. Fireplaces or stand-alone heaters weren’t up to the task of keeping out such bitter cold. Insulation was skimpy or nonexistent in the drafty houses built at that time.

Weather already had been tricky throughout the country. A summer drought had lingered into the fall. The winter arrived with cyclones (what they called tornadoes back then), heavy rains, wind and constant snow up north. Columbus had 3 inches of snow in January.

A week before the blizzard struck, the weekend of Feb. 12, 1899, Georgians, some basking in 70-degree temperatures, taunted their northern cousins who were digging out of snow and braving zero temperatures. “Y’all should move down here,” they teased.

It wasn’t that funny, though, a few days later when that Yankee weather marched south like Gen. Sherman through Georgia. A cold front brought rare freezing temperatures and snow as far south as Florida and blizzard conditions in Georgia and neighboring states. It was the most severe outbreak of cold in the state’s history, and records were broken throughout the South.

Temperatures fell into the 20s as far as Miami and into the teens all over Florida, destroying crops. Tallahassee, Fla., recorded 2 below zero.

The Mississippi River froze over all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, leaving chunks of ice floating in the ocean. The port of New Orleans was iced over. Chicago recorded minus 20, and it was minus 36 in Huron, N.D. Some locations registered zero temperatures for several days.

Snow fell 51 hours straight in Washington, D.C. Trains couldn’t move, and telegraph lines downed by ice and snow disrupted communications. Winds of 60 mph raked the East Coast. Thousands of cattle froze in Western states.

In Gainesville, the thermometer at the railroad depot fell to 7 below, but private residences’ thermometers went as low as minus 15. It was the town’s coldest weather since 1855, when 5 degrees was recorded. Five inches of snow covered the ground.

Atlanta was 3.5 degrees below zero, and the Chattahoochee River at West Point was a sheet of ice. Winds of 35 miles per hour brought in 4 inches of snow that kept street cars from running. Numerous residents were treated at Grady Hospital for frostbitten hands, feet and noses.

A mail carrier froze to death on his route.

“The state is ill prepared for such a blizzard, and there is great suffering especially among the poorer people and the Negroes,” a newspaper wrote. Gainesville leaders scrambled to find enough wood, coal and food to help residents survive. They competed with other communities that also found their residents short of fuel.

In Athens, city leaders adopted a motto: “Feed the hungry first and ask questions afterward.” Volunteers found what wood and coal they could to get to desperate citizens.

In Macon, people raised $130 to relieve the suffering. “Quite a number of Negroes were found in bed, and some whites are in destitute condition,” the Macon Telegraph reported.

For some reason, the storm earned the nickname, “The Blue Sunday Blizzard of 1899.” It had struck parts of the South on a Saturday, but the knockout blow landed the next day. To add insult to injury, an earthquake was felt in Virginia, and another blizzard blew into the nation’s capital in March. 

About the only upside to the Arctic-like weather was that it apparently slowed the spread of yellow fever, which was rampant at the time, especially in the South.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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