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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Not This Again

The governor declared a snow emergency and shut state buildings to the public Wednesday due to the blizzard. It certainly looks bad out there, but of course, it could be worse.

The winter of 1880-1881 was recalled for decades as the worst winter ever, for the ferocity with which it descended, the amount of snow it dropped, and the seeming eternity that it lasted. Here's what happened in Sturgeon Bay:

"November 17th, 1880, the steam ferry Ark, that plies between Sturgeon Bay and Bay View, made its last trip for the season. On the morning of the 18th foot passengers could cross the bay. By many, a break-up was looked for, but the weather continued 'snug,' and in a couple of days teams crossed with perfect safety… nine days after the bay was froze over, it wore a crystal covering averaging from 9 to 11 inches… A moderate amount of snow fell from date to date, and though the total was but from 3 to 4 inches, sleighing was excellent."

In February a spring thaw arrived, but it was just a tease -- a massive blizzard descended at the end of the month: "For eleven days (from Saturday February 27th, to Wednesday, March 9th,) no Green Bay mails were received [in Sturgeon Bay], so extensively were the roads blocked. March 20th another blizzard swept the country, and if possible further blocked the roads. The Green Bay mail was again behind time four days."

In late March, "Once more the winter broke out in fresh spots, and the clouds that had scattered and disappeared, came back loaded with the "beautiful" and dumped a coating of snow several inches deep all over the northwest." Drifts from six to fifteen feet were common and on the first of April there was still two feet of snow in the neighboring woods.

Elsewhere in the state conditions were equally bad. This 1922 article from the Milwaukee Journal looks back on the autumn storm that began the winter of 1880-1881 by claiming more than 70 lives on Lake Michigan. It concludes with memories of the awesome blizzard of the following March, when farmers burned their fences to keep warm. That storm's effect is plainly visible in this photo of the streets of Whitewater filled to the second story with snow. Another article describes how the drifts blanketed Waukesha until May.

With any luck, we'll escape that fate. Until spring we can relive our ancestors' winters vicariously, with a mug of coffee and a laptop, here at, or in person at the midwinter programs hosted by the Society's historic sites.

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 31, 2011

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