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Illinois' Sudden Change of 1836
In 1836 The State of Illinois was less than two decades old. A young Abraham Lincoln of New Salem had just been reelected to the state legislature and had recently obtained his law license. As the Winter Solstice approached in late December, so did a cold front, which local frontiersmen called a "sudden change" (the term cold front would not be coined for many decades). No ordinary cold front, for when it had passed, December 20, 1836 would go down in the memories of many Illinois residents as The Sudden Change Day, Cold Tuesday and The Cold Day in Illinois.
On that afternoon, an intense cold front swept across much of Illinois bringing a prodigious and rapid temperature drop. At 2 pm, the thermometer of Dr Samuel Mead of Augusta had recorded a drop from 40 oF to zero Fahrenheit in less than 8 hours. Many say that drop was nearly instantaneous.
Although actual weather data in the early nineteenth century is rather scarce across much of middle America, oral and written accounts of the event have been passed down in the reminiscences of those living in the state. We are fortunate that some weather observations were made: two individuals residing in Illinois had thermometers and recorded daily readings, and regular thrice-daily observations were taken at a series of US Army posts scattered across the Midwest.
The Meteorological Setting
In the days prior to the 1836 Winter Solstice, the weather through mid-month had been rather mild across the upper Midwest. At Fort Snelling, Minnesota, the first cold snap in early December had frozen the Mississippi, but an extended mild pattern quickly followed with most days through mid-month in the 30s and 40s. However, snow and precipitation had been absent there for 39 days.
From Illinois, William Sewall's diary of local conditions describes the weather prior to the 20th. On December 16, a severe snowstorm passed leaving about a foot of snow on the 17th. The storm was quickly followed by milder weather on the 18th and 19th bringing "A Great Thaw" on southeast winds.
From the available records, David M. Ludlum in his book Early American Winters II reconstructed the regional weather picture which surrounded this day. (For historical consistency, all temperatures will be given in Fahrenheit degrees and all times are local times.)
From the weather observations at Fort Leavenworth (Kansas); Fort Des Moines (Montrose, Iowa); and Fort Snelling (Minneapolis, Minnesota), we can surmise that a Colorado low was advancing along a frontal boundary lying across the northern Plains on December 19. All three forts were in the southerly flow regime ahead of the low, and the bitter Arctic air still sat north of these locations. Temperatures were above freezing or a few degrees below over much of the region. In Illinois, snow which had been falling the day previous, turned into a slow, drizzling rain that changed the ground snow cover to slush.
With sunrise on the 20th, a change was beginning. Fort Leavenworth reported the AM observation (observations taken daily at or about local sunrise) temperature dropping from 33 oF at the December 19 evening observation (2100 hours local solar time) to -3 oF; Fort Snelling, from 28 oF to -2 oF. At Fort Crawford in southwestern Wisconsin, the AM observation was 34 oF indicating the region was still in the warm air sector. This suggests the low pressure center was moving eastward and likely somewhere in Iowa before sunrise.
Ludlum reconstructs the likely storm path beginning in the central Great Plains and then moving north-northeastward through Iowa to southwestern Wisconsin by dawn. It then likely turned and raced due northward across that state, likely deepening in the process. The trailing cold front was observed to pass through Burlington, Iowa on the western bank of the Mississippi River at 10 am and near Springfield, Illinois by 2 pm, a speed of around 50 mph. It reached the Indiana border by 6 pm and Cincinnati by 9 pm that evening.
As the low tracked northward, the cold front likely pivoted from a southerly advance to a due easterly course as it raced across Iowa and Illinois, forming a great bow. It then turned northeast to move into Wisconsin (not arriving in Green Bay until late in the day), its tail rushing southward through Mississippi and Louisiana. The observations indicate the cold front advanced from the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico in about twelve hours.
Behind the front, the frigid Arctic air plunged the temperatures to bitterly cold conditions across the region, but nowhere was the change as extreme or sudden as that experienced across much of western and central Illinois.
Illinois' Sudden Change
During the daylight hours of December 20, the arctic blast swept across Illinois. Whatever the actual magnitude of the temperature drop, the sudden change in temperature made a lasting impression on those who experienced it. Many accounts of the event have passed to us from Illinois residents through their memoirs and local histories. (Unless indicated, all locations referred to are in Illinois.)
In west-central Illinois at Augusta, Samuel B. Mead was one of two to measure weather conditions that day. His morning ( around dawn local time) temperature reading was 40, but at 2 pm the mercury had dropped to zero. (At the same hour, Ft Dearborn (Chicago) reported 39 oF.) Many remembered conditions suddenly change from quite warm to the severest cold in five minutes. Several recounted that the temperature fell from forty degrees above zero to twenty degrees below in minutes, but they perhaps recalled the temperature change from the 20th to the 21st rather than that instantaneous change with the front's passage.
In an account from Lacon Township, north of Peoria, Spencer Ellsworth describes the situation: "The morning was mild, with a settled rain gradually changing the snow on the ground into a miserable slush. Suddenly a black cloud came sweeping over the sky from the northwest, accompanied by a roaring wind as the cold wave struck the land, the rain and slush were changed in a twinkling to ice." The day was henceforth known here as Butler's Snap after Mr Butler and his daughter who froze to death while attending their livestock.
John Moses recalled watching a heavy black cloud advance from the northwest on hurricane-force winds about two o'clock in the afternoon. "Almost instantly, the strong wind...accompanied by a deep, bellowing sound, with its icy blast, swept over the land, and everything was frozen hard. The water in the little ponds in the roads froze in waves, sharp-edged and pointed, as the gale had blown it. The chickens, pigs and other small animals were frozen in their tracks."
Moses reported ice forming in the stream thicken to between six inches and a foot in a few hours, and wagon wheels ceasing to roll, congealed into the previously slushy ground. In Creve Coeur, the temperatures changed so quickly, man and cattle were frozen in their tracks, and the ice had to be cut away or melted before they could walk.
Martin Rinehart of Champagne County remembers: "It began to rain and continued all day, when suddenly it turned intensely cold, making ice over the ground and freezing very hard. The sudden change caught many persons unprepared, and they were frozen to death. Two men named Hildreth and Frame were crossing Four Mile Prairie on that day. They became bewildered and lost their way when the change came. They killed their horses, and Frame crawled inside the body of his horse for protection against the cold, but it proved his tomb, as he was found therein frozen to death. Hildreth wandered around all night and when found in the morning he was so badly frozen, that he lost his toes and fingers."
In Beardstown and surrounding Cass County, settlers would later recall, the weather suddenly turned very cold about four o'clock in the afternoon. In four hours, slush and water were frozen solid; and after six hours, men were hurriedly crossing the Illinois River on ice. Many cattle, fowl and game were frozen to death.
Thomas Dixon of Kappa remembers that in five minutes, "the weather suddenly changed from quite warm to the severest cold. Ducks and geese were frozen in the mud before they could get out....Another man and his daughter [likely the Butlers of Lacon] who lived north of here went out to feed the cows and before they could get back to the house were frozen to death. Hundreds of animals and many persons were frozen to death during this sudden change."
George Price of McLean County thought the mercury must have fallen from forty degrees above zero to twenty degrees below in less than fifteen minutes. By the time Mr. Price could run two hundred yards to his house the slush was so frozen that it bore his weight. The change was so sudden and severe that some geese, which had been playing in a nearby field, had the points of their wings frozen in the ice, and it was necessary to cut them free.
John Henline of McLean County and his brother were attending a neighbourhood school that day. While they walked home through the slush that afternoon, the sudden change hit and, in a very short time, they found themselves skating on ice. Henline also recalled the same temperature drop as Price.
Washington Crowder started a trip from Sugar Creek near Chatham to Springfield to obtain a marriage license. Riding horseback, he left in a steady rain. Midway through his journey, he noticed a dark cloud coming from the northwest toward him. Suddenly, a freezing cold wind gust struck him. By the time he was able to reach for his reins, the water soaking his clothes had turned to ice, which rattled and shattered from him as he moved. The rainwater running down the slopes quickly turned to ice as well so that within a few minutes, his horse was walking on dangerously frozen ground. By the time he arrived, his coat was frozen solid, and he couldn't get off his horse. Crowder was frozen onto the saddle!
Other stories passed down in the weather folklore of the region tell of chickens congealed into the ice while standing on one leg, and a man found frozen with his back against a tree and his horse's bridle over his arm while his horse stood frozen solid in front of him. His partner Moses reported was frozen in a kneeling position, a tinder box in one hand, a match in the other. Men caught out on horseback froze to their saddles and reportedly had to be lifted off and carried to a fire to be thawed apart.
The Front Rolls On
Illinois appears to have suffered the greatest impact of the advancing cold front, but it was not alone in receiving a sudden change. Just north of the state line in Wisconsin, at Fort Crawford (on the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien) the 2 pm temperature observation reported 1 oF.
Where the Arctic air had already settled, temperatures were bone-chilling. Fort Snelling reported -2 oF, -6 oF and -5 oF for its three regular observations on the 20th. Fort Leavenworth showed temperatures of -3 oF, -3 oF and -4 oF. At Fort Des Moines, the afternoon and evening readings were 0 oF and -2 oF respectively.
The cold front appears to have reached the Illinois/Indiana border by 6 pm on the 20th and by midnight had moved to the Ohio/Pennsylvania border based on an early synoptic analysis of the situation by Professor Elias Loomis. Local observers noted its passage in Detroit and Cincinnati around 9 pm. At the time of the passage, Professor John Locke in Cincinnati recorded a temperature of 51 oF, but by morning, the thermometer stood at 11 oF, a drop of 40 Fo, accompanied by a 1-inch Hg rise in barometric pressure, in 10 hours. In southeastern Ohio, Dr Sam Hildreth at Marietta College reported the temperature dropped from 50 oF to 16 oF overnight.
Further south came reports from long-time weather observer Henry Tooley of a strong cold wave roaring through Natchez, Mississippi at 4 pm. In Monroe, Louisiana, the front's wrath toppled fences and small buildings. And in New Orleans, it brought a heavy rain shower and stiff gales, plunging the temperature from 68 oF on the 20th to 35 oF the next morning.
Gales ahead of the Colorado low pounded Lake Erie, grounding two ships, the Milwaukee and the Texas, off Sandusky, Ohio and toppling chimneys in Buffalo, New York where the 36-hour blow drove lake water over the flats surrounding the harbour.
The morning of the 21st saw below zero temperatures across all of Minnesota and Wisconsin, most of Iowa and portions of western Illinois. Augusta reported -12 oF; Fort Snelling, -22 oF; Fort Crawford -16 oF; Fort Winnebago, -17 oF and Fort Des Moines, -9 oF. Fort Dearborn, at present-day Chicago, remained just a little warmer at +5 oF.
At Fort Snelling, the worst was yet to come. On Christmas eve, an even more intense cold front drove the mercury down nearly 40 Fo in 10 hours to minus -28 oF by Christmas morning, 1 degree shy of the previous (1822) record low for December.
And finally, while I have no proof the following event was connected to the intense Colorado low, crossing the Atlantic to Great Britain, I ran across the following account in my research. A bitter winter storm struck Findon, West Sussex, UK. On Christmas Eve, the skies darken and the clouds became pregnant with snow. A great blizzard descended on the region, the resulting snowfall practically buried the community. Roads leading from London were blocked, and carriages became stuck fast in high drifts extending up to the top of the hedgerows. All roads around Findon remained impassable, cutting off the village for many days until a work team of one hundred men dug out the roads.
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