Harmon’s Histories: Tales of whiskey-freezing cold from Montana weather history
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Blowing and drifting snow. Severe wind chills. What a week in western Montana.
We have to go back in our own previous reporting from 2017, and way back in the record books and newspaper reports (1875, 1888, 1897 and 1899) to find anything comparable.
J.P. Reinhard of Missoula claimed 1875 was the worst cold snap ever. He recorded 88 degrees below zero on “a mercurial thermometer,” adding: “A whole lot of rot-gut whisky (sic) froze and formed a sort of mush.”
1888 was another contender for bad winters. Missoula hit minus 42 on January 16; Boise, minus 28.
Stevensville was far colder, possibly as low as minus 62 (although the exact temperature was an approximation). The Missoula Times newspaper reported, "The mercury went down below minus 48, the last figure on the thermometer, and George Buck, by taking a two-foot rule ... calculated that it was minus 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 minus 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 February 24, 1888, 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 than this. This is a stayer and no josh."
Nearly a decade later, 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.
It caught 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."
Two years later, the Anaconda Standard, reporting on 1899’s 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."
On the positive side, the ice houses were packed for the following summer. Many warehouse operators began seeking additional sites for more storage.
We’ll have to wait to see, once all the data is in, how this arctic outbreak ranks in the annals of weather history. Meantime, the following warm-up is much appreciated.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.