One of the worst weeks of winter weather ever to strike Baltimore was in full fury on this date in 1899. Brutal cold and persistent, heavy snow paralyzed the city and turned the harbor and the bay into an icy prison. We weren't alone. Much of the country from Denver east, and deep into Florida and the Gulf Coast, was caught in the same deep freeze.
Some of the weather records set during that week still stand. They include five consecutive days of record-low maximum daily temperatures; three straight days of record low temperatures, and the deepest snowfall ever recorded on a Feb. 13 in Baltimore. Here they are; all are records still on the books:
Feb. 9, 1899: high temperature: 8 degrees
Feb. 10, 1899: high temperature: 3 degrees. Low temperature: minus-7 degrees
Feb. 11, 1899: High temperature: 11 degrees. Low temperature: minus-6 degrees
Feb. 12, 1899: high temperature: 11 degrees. Low temperature: 5 degrees
Feb. 13, 1899: high temperature: 10 degrees. Snow: 15.5 inches
The pages of The Sun during that week were increasingly filled with stories about the terrible weather. They even began to crowd out the dispatches from Manila, where the U.S. was fighting to put down a Filipino insurgency and establish U.S. rule over the Philippines, which it had captured from Spain during the Spanish-American War. On Feb. 9, the paper listed six U.S. soldiers dead and 47 wounded in the latest fighting.
The same editions reported 8 p.m. temperatures from around the country the night before. They reflect the deep cold that was settling in. It was 0 degrees in Pittsburgh, 16 degrees at Philadelphia, 14 in Baltimore, 12 in Washington, 22 in Norfolk, 20 in Atlanta, 34 in Jacksonville and 58 in Key West.
The Friday morning paper (Feb. 10) reported the thermometer at The Sun Iron Building had fallen below zero after midnight, and sank to minus-2 by 3 a.m.
Since Groundhog Day, on Feb. 2, the paper noted, "it has rained, hailed, sleeted and snowed ...and yesterday capped the climax by being, without the shadow of a doubt, the coldest day of this winter, and also of several preceding winters in this locality. Thus has the groundhog sustained his reputation."
Temperatures had fallen all day on the 8th as high pressure moved in from the Canadian northwest. The cold was even deeper outside of the city proper. Catonsville reported 8-below; the Green Spring Valley reported 10 and 12 below zero. It was 11-below in Roland Park and 20 below at Hampton Mansion in Towson.
The wind was sweeping snow off rooftops and "into the faces of pedestrians ... and making progress at times almost impossible," the paper said. "The poor of the city suffered greatly from the cold and applied in numbers to the various station houses for help. Motormen and conductors grew almost blue from exposure and ran their cars with difficulty."
Indeed, the suffering of the streetcar crews reignited a debate in the city over whether the car lines should be required to provide enclosed "vestibules" for them to stand in. There was concern that snow and ice on the glass would obscure their vision, but the motormen argued that a coat of oil on the glass would preserve their view.
Outside the city, drifting snow clogged the roads. Rivers and harbors all around the bay were clogged with ice. Ice breakers, called "ice boats," ventured to the outer harbor to assist steamers and oystermen caught in the thickening ice. They reported the harbor ice was 2.5 inches thick all the way to Fort Carroll, just beyond where the Key Bridge stands today.
Across the East, the line of communities reporting zero degrees Fahrenheit ran from Oklahoma to central Virginia. Oranges and other crops in Florida were being ruined. The Ohio River was freezing up, stranding coal barges and keeping badly needed fuel from many homes and businesses across the country. Frostbite and deaths by freezing were reported from many cities.
On the morning of the 11th, The Sun reported the coldest temperatures ever recorded for Baltimore since the Weather Bureau was established 30 years earlier
It was minus-7 on the 10th, the paper said. That's still the lowest official reading ever in Baltimore, although it has since been matched on several other dates. The high for the day was a palid 3 degrees, the coldest maximum ever recorded at the time.
"The local interest in the temperature yesterday was nowhere better shown than in front of The Sun office, where the reliable thermometer records for the public benefit every change implying heat ot cold," the paper noted. "All day long there was a throng gathered about the instrument, striving to note the variations of the mercury."
While the Sun thermometer reported a low of minus-7, another at the "Rogers" blacksmith shop in what is now Rodgers Forge recorded a low of minus-14 degrees. Allen's Pharmacy in Hampden read 9-below. Catonsville reported minus-13.
Harbor ice averaged 6 to 8 inches, and covered the water from shore to shore, and as far as the eye could see. Livery stables were cleaning up, renting sleighs to all comers. Some 400 to 500 were available to rent in the city. A one-horse sleigh could be had for two hours for $5. One livery owner said he had already cleared $250, and "if sleighing continues good for several days more," he said, "I expect to double that amount."
One sleigh dealer said he sold 18 of them in an hour. They were surprisingly cheap - $20 to $80 each. At the same time, smithies were making money "roughing" horseshoes. "A horse constantly in use on the streets in weather like this must have its shoes 'roughed' at least twice a week, each job costing $1," the paper observed. There were an estimated 17,000 horses in the city.
Shovelers and plumbers were also making money as snow piled up to 18 to 24 inches, and plumbing froze.
Motormen were suffering frostbite and other inconveniences. Some took to running alongside their cars to get warm. "Mustaches proved to be a decided disadvantage to the men. The moisture in their breath quickly froze on their mustaches, and before they could return to their terminus, their mustache would have the appearance of solid blocks of ice. In some cases the cold started tears from the eyes of the men and the water would freeze on their eyelashes, causing great discomfort."
By Monday morning, the 13th, The Sun was reporting widespread suffering among the city's poor. Coal bins were emptying and calls went out for charitable donations to help the police station houses furnish the poor with food and fuel.
"Seventy-three persons designated as tramps enjoyed the the hospitality of Turnkey Godwin at the Canton police station last night," the paper reported. "They were quartered eight in a cell, and those for whom cell accommodations were not sufficient occupied berths in the corridors. The men are mostly oyster dredgers and have been discharged from boats in Canton Hollow, the captains and owners not having any use for crews while the freeze lasts."
There was misery everywhere, not all of it imposed by Nature. "At Wilmington, Del.," the paper reported, "several criminals stood at the pillory with the temperature at zero. They were afterward whipped."
On Tuesday morning, Feb. 14, 1899, The Sun reported what it headlined as "The Worst Blizzard Ever Known Here." More than 15 inches of new snow had fallen the previous day. The nine-day total was now 32 inches. Winds howled at 30 mph with temperatures below 10 degrees. Roads and railroads in and out of town were cut off. Only the phones and telegraphs still worked. Word came in that "Thousands of persons in New York are starving and a bread famine is threatened."
Three thousand Baltimoreans applied to their local station houses for assistance. Mail deliveries - normally four times a day in some parts of the city - fell to just one, if you were lucky.
The paper recounted many tales of hardship and rescue.
"Henry Bowers, aged forty-five years, an ice dealer, died suddenly at 7 o'clock last night after shoveling snow in front of his home, 38 East Cross Street ... His wife saw him stagger and fall, and rushed to the door. Mr. Bowers had risen to his feet and managed to get inside the door, when he fell lifeless to the floor."
"Miss Alberta Starr, aged eighteen years, an employee of Gail and Ax Tobacco factory, was overcome by cold on her way to her home, 1514 Boyd Street, about 5 o'clock in the afternoon and sank in the snow unconscious at Light and Ostend streets. She was almost covered with snow when Patrolman Pfister saw her. He took her in his arms and hurried into Herman's shoe store with her. She recovered in about half an hour."
As the city began to dig out, the paper's editorial writers finally had their say:
"There is reason for thankfulness that Baltimore is at a latitude which is but rarely exposed to such trying visitations. Warmer weather is promised in a day or two, and it is to be hoped that the weather bureau will see that this promise is kept. It may not be too much to indulge the further hope that winter has expended most of its stock of cold and snow during the last two weeks and that the remainder of its reign may be somewhat milder."