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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Iceman Cometh

Last weekend's snowstorm may be the first of many blizzards this winter, but it's only the latest in a long line of memorable storms. One that was recalled for a lifetime started on Wednesday, March 2, 1881.

The previous Saturday had been warm enough for a thunderstorm; lightning even struck the Capitol. Every low-lying field was still flooded when the rain changed to snow on Sunday. It continued all day and left the world encased in ice. But that was only the beginning.

The following Wednesday, March 2nd, was pleasant enough until the wind picked up and the snow started coming down around 7:00p.m. After snowing and blowing steadily for 24 hours straight, the storm took a brief rest in order to regain its strength, and then recommenced with increased violence that lasted all through Friday. Trains were stopped on their tracks, drifts blew 20 feet high, and streams, valleys, roads, and even small buildings simply disappeared from view.

In Madison, only doctors were seen on the streets. Fortunately coal had been delivered across the city recently and authorities thought no one would freeze to death. Food, however, was problematic. All roads in and out of the city were blocked, and produce such as eggs and milk quickly doubled in price because milkmen could not get into the city to make their rounds. Families who kept cows did a brisk business.

"One peculiar fact to be noted," observed the Wisconsin State Journal on March 8th, "is that the first persons to break a road are the drivers of brewery teams, who rush in where milkmen fear to tread and butchers stand back in mute admiration."

A snow plow drawn by six horses tried to free the Capitol Square, but the horses had to rest every ten minutes. This did not disrupt state government very much, since 30 legislators and the lieutenant governor were stranded on the railroad tracks somewhere west of Waukesha.

They say that more snow is due in a few days. Let's hope this coming week doesn't mirror the one-two punch of early March 1881, and we find ourselves buried again.

You can read other descriptions of the storm, as it was recalled long after, in our Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles collection. Pictures of great snows, including some from this famous March 1881 storm, are at Wisconsin Historical Images.

:: Posted in Curiosities on December 12, 2010

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