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A blog of Nineteenth Century history, focusing, but not exclusively, on the American Civil War seen through the prism of personal accounts, newspaper stories, administrative records and global history.
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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Cold . . . . 150 Years Ago

The Horrors of the Cold.

The St. Louis and Chicago papers, of the first week in January, are filled with details of the intense cold weather in the West, and the suffering and death incident thereto.
At St. Louis on Friday, the first day of the new year, at 7 o'clock in the morning, the thermometer fell to 19.5 below zero, and a minimum thermometer indicated a temperature, some time before daylight, of 22 degrees below zero! Such a degree of cold had not-been known there before in thirty-one years. The various railroads entering St. Louis were all blocked up with snow, water tanks frozen, and the cars covered up. The Mississippi was frozen over, and was made a great thoroughfare for pedestrians and loaded teams. People were terribly frostbitten, and some of their limbs were obliged to be amputated. Others perished out-right.
At Chicago the effects of the storm were fearful in the extreme. On Friday the thermometer fell as low as 20 degrees, and on Saturday, at 1 o'clock, to 25 degrees below zero! Many people were frozen to death. The terrible snow storm, accompanied with high winds, which piled it in huge drifts, obstructed the regular passage of trains, and much intense suffering, and in some instances death, was the consequence. The Times says:
The fierce tornado sweeping over the prairies filled the air with moving clouds of snow, and piled up huge drifts between the fences along the railroads, until the tracks almost everywhere were impassable by the trains.
The train on the Michigan Central railroad, which was due at Chicago at half-past 10 o'clock on Thursday evening, proceeded with great difficulty until within about four hundred yards of the Michigan Southern crossing, some seven miles out. There, at six o'clock on Friday morning, almost eight hours behind time, the train plunged into an immense drift, which lay directly across its way, and finally stopped.
The scene when the passengers realized the perils of their situation, were so terribly real as to baffle all description. There were over a hundred passengers on board, many of them being women and children, with but a short supply of food.
One by one, out into the blinding storm, went those who were able, and, digging down through the snowdrifts which were piled over them, they tore up the fences near the road and brought them as fuel to the cars. Soon a new peril broke out among the passengers. The roof of the car took fire from the heated pipe, and as the wind caught the flames, they roared and crackled and carried downward towards the passengers as if in mockery of their misery. The snow was banked almost to the bottom of the car, and to separate it from the others by hand was an utter impossibility.
In this moment of peril the women vied with the men in their efforts for the common safety. At first it seemed as if all hope to extinguish the flames were vain, but energies were not slackened or hearts unnerved. The contest was brief but desperate, resulting in the flames being quelled. The wind and the snow came rushing in at the aperture in the roof, and the car was no longer tenable. All the passengers then withdrew to the next one.--Proper precautions were taken against a similar disaster there. But the ashes had, unfortunately, been entirely removed from the stove in this car, and, when anticipating no danger, the floor of the car took fire from the bottom of the stove. It was much easier extinguished than the other, but not without considerable labor, or until a large portion of the floor had been cut away, and that car thus rendered untenable also.
The passengers of the entire train were now huddled together in the only remaining car. It was now nearly two o'clock in the afternoon, and there were no signs of the storm abating or of any deliverance reaching them.
Suddenly, however, they were startled into new hope by the arrival of a train on the Michigan Southern railroad. It stopped at the crossing of two roads, only some four hundred yards distant, and its conductor signified his readiness to take passengers of the Michigan Central train into the city. The work of transferring them was immediately commenced, the engine in the meantime moving the train slowly backwards and forward to prevent the snow from drifting around and under it. The distance between the two trains, nearly four hundred yards, was filled with a drift nearly ten feet in depth, and to make the passage from one to the other was a work of great labor and difficulty. The storm was at its height, and the cold so intense that the faces of the women and children were frozen almost as soon as they came in contact with the wind — turning white as instantly as if they had been plunged in boiling water. Scarcely any one made the passage from one train to the other without being badly frost bitten, many quite seriously.
The women and children had to be carried over to the other train, and not a few men who essayed it had to demand assistance. This was cheerfully rendered by volunteers from among the Michigan Southern passengers.
The rescued passengers, immediately upon their arrival at the Michigan Southern train, were made as comfortable as possible. Those who were frozen were promptly attended to, ladies tearing up their handkerchiefs and scarfs to rub the frozen feet, face and hands of their unfortunate fellow-travellers.
The Michigan Southern train was likewise blockaded by the snow. The conductor was obliged to leave the car in a snowdrift, and go on to Chicago to acquaint the people with the condition of affairs. It was soon known that "two hundred men, women and children were freezing to death within four miles of Chicago." Sleighs, blankets, buffalo robes, provisions, &c., were immediately procured, and a party started for the train. The details of their adventures, although very interesting, would occupy too much of our space. Suffice it to state, that they were all gotten to the city, though much frostbitten.
The following terrible incident is given in the Chicago Tribune, of January 4th:
About thirty miles from the boundary line between Michigan and Indiana, in the latter State, about midway between Centreville and Crown Point, lived a German, with his wife and five children, named Krutzer. The oldest was a boy of seven years of age, the next a boy of five, and three girls, all of less age than the boys, the youngest but an infant.
The country where the family resided is very rolling, and the snow had drifted into the hollows, making the roads almost, if not wholly impassable for pedestrians.
The driver of the stage-coach coming from Crown Point to Lake, via Centerville found that Krutzer's dwelling had been burned to the ground, it is supposed the night previously but none of the family were to be seen. About a mile further on, however, he was horrified to find the father and the boys frozen to death. The boys were in the father's arms, and it is supposed that he had fallen with them after having been so far affected with the frost as not to be able to proceed. The three corpses were placed in the stage; but before they had proceeded more than a quarter of a mile on its destination, the body of the oldest girl was found in a snow-drift, with a shawl clearly wrapped closely around it, where it had doubtless been deposited by its weary mother while yet alive, in the hope that some chance traveller might rescue it from an impending fate. This corpse, too, was placed in the coach, and again started on fits way, only to find, after travelling a short distance, the lifeless remains of the mother, with the two youngest children. The body of the mother was standing erect in a snow drift, with the children in her arms, the youngest one being at the breast.
The seven lifeless bodies were conveyed to Centerville by the driver of the stage, at which place they were decently interred by the inhabitants.
The Times, in speaking of the weather and affairs at Camp Douglas, says:
The effect of the cold was terribly severe. Especially did the guards suffer from it. Those who were off duty could barely manage to keep partially warm when inside the barracks by keeping up good fires, and, although the guards were frequently relieved, not less than eighty of them had their feet, ankles, and hands so badly frozen that they are all incapable of duty for some time — many for all their live. Two of the guard on Thursday night were terribly frozen and when found were stark and stiff, incapable of moving a foot or raising a hand. It required the exertions of a number of their comrades to remove them to their quarters, where they remained at 5 o'clock yesterday evening in a very critical and suffering condition. Their recovery is considered extremely doubtful.--Many others were more or less frozen, the extent of whose injuries are unknown.
During the violence of the storm on Thursday night four of the Confederate prisoners scaled the fence, and, dropping to the ground, escaped. The guards were blinded by the fury of the storm, and were unable to halt the fugitives. After reaching the ground on the outside of the fence, while the storm was beating in all its fury, the escaped prisoners started in a southerly direction, and made very slow progress, as may readily be imagined.--Two of them were retaken early in the morning, nearly frozen, and were retarded to camp. The remains of the other two were found about three miles from the camp, on the road to Calumet, having travelled as long as possible, and seemed to have fallen and died in their tracks.
In Pennsylvania, also, the weather was extremely cold. The Pittsburgh Chronicle narrates the annexed incident:
Two brakemen on the Oil Creek Railroad were frozen to death the other night, one of whom rolled off the car, and the other was found at his post, his hands frozen to the brake wheel.

-The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) January 28, 1864.

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