Snow weighed down the fronds of palm trees of Fort Myers, Florida, while an icy crust formed on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Nearly three feet of snow buried the nation’s capital, and ice encased steamboats on Lake Michigan. There’s cold—and then there was the Great Arctic Outbreak of February 1899.
The polar vortex delivered an icy slap to every corner of the continental United States, making all other Snowmageddons to follow seem mild by comparison.
The bitter cold first hit the West Coast in the first days of February as temperatures reached lows of 33 degrees Fahrenheit in San Diego and 12 degrees in Seattle. The frigid air then barreled east with freezing temperatures reaching as far south as the Gulf Coast and Florida Panhandle.
On February 11, residents of Fort Logan, Montana, awoke to a temperature of -61 degrees. Wind chills in southern Texas were estimated at -25 to -40 degrees, downright balmy compared to the wind chills approaching -100 degrees on the northern Plains. Between February 11 and February 14, the Great Arctic Outbreak set record low temperatures that still stand in Grand Rapids (-24 degrees), Wichita (-22 degrees), Oklahoma City (-17 degrees), Atlanta (-9 degrees), Fort Worth (-8 degrees) and Baton Rouge (2 degrees).
Even in Florida there was no vacation from the cold. The temperature in Tallahassee fell to an all-time state record of -2 degrees on February 13 as nearly two inches of snow fell from the Panhandle to Jacksonville. Tampa received the first measurable snowfall recorded in the city’s history and trace amounts fell further down the Gulf Coast. Even in tropical Miami, the mercury dipped below freezing as desperate farmers set fires among their orange groves and wrapped their trees for protection from the cold.
After gripping the Atlantic seaboard with chill, the Great Arctic Outbreak lashed it with an epic blizzard that roared up the coastline with hurricane-strength winds. After dumping nearly a foot of snow in the Carolinas, the storm struck Washington, D.C., the day after the mercury hit an all-time low of -15 degrees. Already tucked beneath a thick blanket of snow, the nation’s capital received 21 additional inches. Capitol Hill was buried under 10-foot-high snowdrifts, and “the great marble Capitol looked like a snow palace,” reported the Baltimore Sun.
Nearly three feet of snow fell in Cape May, New Jersey, while 19 inches fell in Philadelphia and 16 in New York City and Boston. In Brooklyn, the bitter temperatures and 36 consecutive hours of snow left mail carriers so frostbitten that the postal service restricted delivery to just one round a day.
No amount of snow, though, could keep the Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans from making their appointed rounds. The day after temperatures hit an all-time low of 7 degrees and as ice flowed down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, the traditional carnival and Rex parade went on as scheduled through the streets of New Orleans.
Valentine’s Day saw the last of the bitter cold, and hearts began to warm along with the temperatures. Days after experiencing record cold, Washington, D.C., saw temperatures hit 61 degrees—a 77-degree swing. By February 22, the three-foot snow pack in the nation’s capital had melted to mere traces.
Even with the warmer temperatures that came in the latter half of the month, February 1899 remains the second-coldest February ever recorded in the United States—behind only 1936. The geographic range of the icy temperatures, however, remains historic.
The Great Arctic Outbreak caused millions of dollars of damage to crops and cooled the economy as barge traffic stalled on the Mississippi River and Great Lakes. Fish and game birds died in large numbers as did livestock that froze to death. There was a human toll as well. The U.S. Weather Bureau reported that between January 29 and February 13, 105 Americans died from avalanches and the freezing temperatures brought on by the Great Arctic Outbreak.