GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The cold that stretched across the country on Feb. 13, 1899, set records that still stand.

A snowball fight in Tallahassee, Florida, on Feb. 13, 1899. (Courtesy)
A snowball fight in Tallahassee, Florida, on Feb. 13, 1899. (Courtesy)

The photo above is a snowball fight on the steps of the Florida State Capitol Building in Tallahassee. The lowest temperature ever recorded in the state of Florida occurred at Tallahassee on the morning of Feb. 13, 1899, when it dipped to 2 degrees below zero — the only time a below-zero temperature has ever been recorded in Florida.

State record low temperatures were set at Minden, Louisiana, with an incredible 16 below zero and Mulligan, Ohio, at 39 below zero. All three of those records still stand today. Washington D.C.’s coldest temperature ever was -15 degrees during that cold morning in February 1899.

Weather map Feb. 12, 1899. (NOAA)

A gigantic Arctic high pressure center formed in northern Canada. The central pressure reached 31.42 inch Hg at Swift Current, Manitoba. The high plunged south into the U.S. Practically all areas east of the Rockies felt the extreme cold. Some of the cold air actually spilled over the Rockies. Low temperatures reached 12 degrees in Seattle and 33 degrees in San Diego.

Nationwide, it was the second coldest February ever. The temperature for the contiguous U.S. that month was 8.4 degrees below average. If you combine December, January and February, it was the third coldest winter after 1978-79 and 1935-36. The entire country was 4.5 degrees cooler than average.

Scattered frost was reported across parts of northern Mexico and even down to Cuba.

Snow in New Orleans.

New Orleans woke up to 4 inches of snow on the ground, a stiff north wind and a temperature of 7 degrees above zero. The day of the big Rex Parade at Mardi Gras, the high temperature was 30 degrees and the low temperature was 15 degrees. Ice actually flowed out of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

Frozen oranges in Florida in 1899.

Orchards in Florida were wiped out. In the picture above, you can see the oranges and leaves all on the ground. Light snow fell as far south as Tampa and Orlando and both cities saw temperature drop to 22 degrees. Jacksonville had a low of 10 degrees and the thermometer dipped into the upper 20s in Miami and Palm Beach. A reading of -1 degrees was recorded at Mobile, Alabama. At Jacksonville, Florida, the temperature was 40 degrees colder than it was 24 hours before.

Side note: Only Naples and Key West are the only cities in Florida that have never recorded a single snowflake.

Snow in Feb. 1899 in New York City. (From the Library of Congress)

A blizzard moved from the Gulf of Mexico up the East Coast, dropping 20.5 inches of snow on Washington D.C. and 34 inches on Cape May, New Jersey. Philadelphia recorded 19 inches of new snow, while Boston and New York City each received 16 inches. Trains were stranded by huge snow drifts. After the cold and snow, prices rose sharply for coal, flour, meat, milk, fruit and vegetables (many people canned them in the 1890s). Losses from the Arctic event totaled over $20 million (in 1899 dollars).

In Grand Rapids, the temperature dipped to -23 degrees on Feb. 12 and -24 on both the 13th and 14th. Grand Rapids did not get above zero for four days. The high temperatures from the 9th to the 13th were -3, -6, 0, 0, and +2. The -6 still stands as the coldest high temperature ever in Grand Rapids.

Other low temperatures during that cold snap: Ann Arbor -16 degrees, Baldwin -49 degrees, Battle Creek -24 degrees, Big Rapids -36 degrees, Detroit -13 degrees, Flint -26 degrees, Frankfort -32 degrees, Hart -35 degrees, Hastings -31 degrees, Ionia -25 degrees, Lake City -41 degrees, Lansing -24 degrees, Manistee -38 degrees, Muskegon -30 degrees, Newberry -32 degrees, Owosso -21 degrees, Saginaw -20 degrees, Sault Ste. Marie -37 degrees, South Haven -22degrees and Three Rivers -20 degrees. Later that spring, Grand Rapids reached 90 degrees on April 30, the only time it has reached 90 in April.

Low temperatures at Muskegon were -5 degrees on Jan. 31, -15 degrees on Feb. 6, -10 degrees on Feb. 7, -14 degrees on Feb. 8, -20 degrees on Feb. 10, -30 degrees on Feb. 11, -29 degrees Feb. 12, -22 degrees on Feb. 13 and -5 degrees on Feb. 14.

Many cities set all-time record low temperatures that still stand today, including -8 degrees at Fort Worth, Texas, -22 degrees at Wichita, Kansas, and +2 degrees at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sub-zero readings were recorded in all 50 states.

Remember that the vast majority of households did not have electricity in 1899.

The snow and cold was responsible for over 100 fatalities.

Twenty-four of those deaths were recorded in Colorado due to avalanches and the extremely fast temperature fall that caught some by surprise. The temperature at Trinidad, Colorado, fell 50 degrees in two hours and the temperature at Colorado Spring fell 35 degrees in 30 minutes.

Snow in Breckenridge, Colorado, February 1899.

The town of Breckenridge, Colorado, had snow every day from Nov.27 to Feb. 20. That’s 78 consecutive days. They say the snow was still nearly 10 feet deep on May 1. The train couldn’t get through for months and the town had to ration their food supply (like Joseph in Egypt). People dug tunnels to get to their first floor entrance, or came in and out of the house on the second floor.

Much has been written about this event; see here (link does not always work), and here. A technical, peer-reviewed analysis by Kocin, Weiss, and Wagner (1988) is here.