Harmon’s Histories: You should’ve been here back in 1888
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Blowing and drifting snow. Severe wind chills. What a week in western Montana.
It brings back memories of relatively-recent events like the massive Christmas snowstorm of 1996. I remember plowing the driveway late Christmas Eve, then waking on Christmas morning to find there was no sign I'd done anything – we were snowed in.
Then there was the sudden, late season deep freeze that nearly wiped out the Flathead cherry orchards. On January 31, 1989, Missoula recorded a high temperature of 48 degrees. Trees were starting to bud. Within 24 hours the temperature dropped to -20, and stayed in that range for four days before slowly moderating.
Flathead cherry growers lost most or all of their trees. By May, 1989 Governor Stan Stevens and Senator Conrad Burns asked for federal disaster assistance.
But, even those storms don't stack up against the worst Montana's seen, historically.
In late January, 1897, Butte was enjoying "the balmy breezes of summer," when it was hit with a storm moving out of "the wilds of Dakota." The Anaconda Standard reported the temperature fell by 10 degrees every hour, until it was well below zero, catching folks unprepared, "before a man could hunt up his discarded overcoat or get it out of the pawn shop."
The paper characterized the temperature change as "probably the quickest and most unexpected that the city has ever experienced, and it caused the old timers to make some new marks in their memorandum books."
Then, there was the storm of 1899.
On February 24th, the Billings Gazette reported, "Mrs. Robert Lee, wife of a well known ranchman in Wyoming," went out in search of her husband, "when she was overcome by the extreme cold and was frozen to death..."
Earlier that same month, when the temperature hit 28 below in Butte, Fat Jack, a well-known hackman was quoted as saying, "There might have been others just as bad but I don't think that any of them were any more intense that this. This is a stayer and no josh."
The Anaconda Standard, in an article summing the 1899 storm, noted the precautions taken by stage drivers to protect against the cold. "...the driver starts in by clothing himself with two suits of the heaviest underwear he can buy on the market. Over this comes a suit of Mackinaws. He adds a suit of ordinary woolen clothes and the rest is a matter of personal taste.
"A heavy sweater, a flannel shirt, an extra vest, a leather coat do for the chest. Over all comes a long coat of buffalo skin, coon skin or goat, or of heavy canvas well lined with sheepskin and blanket cloth.
"Unlike a woman, the up-to-date stage driver wears his corsets outside. This is merely a broad band of leather with straps...this goes around the body between the hips and the armpits and serves a double purpose – it keeps the clothes gathered in a bunch and shuts out the wind, and it also prevents the top rail of the seat from wearing out the driver's coat."
The paper, noting it was not particularly "pretty," described foot protection as, "light shoes protected by high-topped overshoes (covered with) gunny sacks extending well up toward the knees."
Many folks still point to January, 1888 as the worst winter, ever, in these parts.
Missoula hit -42 on January 16th; Boise, -28.
Stevensville was far colder, possibly as low as -62 (although the exact temperature was an approximation). The Missoula Times newspaper reported, "...the mercury went down below -48, the last figure on the thermometer, and George Buck, by taking a two-foot rule...calculated that it was -62."
Based on an assumption that the instrument in question was a "spirit thermometer," the paper speculated, "Such being the case, a careful measurement below the lowest notch...might not be far away from the correct record."
The Great Falls Tribune carried a report from Belgrade indicating a similar spirit thermometer, there, recorded -60. The paper added, "Cattle on the ranges are suffering terribly from the prolonged cold. Trains experience great difficulty in moving, even with double-headers. No attempt is being made to move freight trains."
In fact, the blizzard stopped all freight trains from the East arriving in Montana for more than two weeks.
The Philipsburg Mail reported, "...a Chinaman, who started to walk from Black Pine to Philipsburg, a distance of 12 miles, was found frozen to death in Henrich Poge's pasture, below town."
Commenting on the demoralizing effects of the cold snap, the Miles City Daily Yellowstone Journal declared, "The difference between nothing below and forty below was apparent last night."
On the positive side, the ice houses were packed for the following summer. Many warehouse operators began seeking additional sites for more storage.
This winter of 2016/2017 may challenge some snowfall records, but we've turned the corner now. We're into February, and it's time organize the storage shed and get ready for spring clean-up. The first day of spring is just over a month away – the happiest time of year for we gardeners.