Minnesota weather for the year 1849
Long Cold Winter, Heavy Spring and Summer Rains
Significant Minnesota history was made during 1849 as on 3 March legislation was passed in Washington D. C., officially organizing it as a Territory. History of a meteorological sort occurred also this year, as the Territory’s first newspapers commenced publishing in communities near Fort Snelling, commentaries on weather related topics appearing. Professional journalists’ impressions of contemporary weather events were now being created and left for posterity, lending a personal first-hand interpretive flavor that was largely missing from the Fort Snelling registers. Weatherwise, 1849 was cool and wet with frequent torrential falls over April to August. More than 35 inches was measured for the year at Fort Snelling, the most for a full year since the gauge was installed, and the most here locally until 1865. Floods, the first of any significance since 1826, caused six million board-feet of logs to be lost over St. Anthony Falls during the summer [Williams, 1881]. The ’48-’49 winter was very cold, with the lightest snows of a decade noteworthy for its “open” winters.
Cold, Dry Winter – The winter of ’48-’49, as recounted by the James Goodhue, editor of the Minnesota Pioneer in its inaugural edition from St. Paul on 28 April 1849 was “long and tedious…. the severest known in the NW for many years”, with, however, “few storms and very little wind”. Daily weather entries from Fort Snelling corroborate this, just two thawing days noted from November 24th through February 19th, snowfall very light. January, continuing the anomalously cold winter pattern locked in since November, had a couple of especially bitter mornings, the 10th dropping to -25 F and the 18th to -29 F. Monthly mean temperature (4 F) tied 1847 for third coldest January since ’20, the combined November-January mean temperature for the ’48-’49 season (12 F), the lowest ever experienced for this calendar segment down to the present-day. The bitterest spell of the whole winter came over 14-18 February, morning readings on each all colder than minus 10. The evening of the 17th brought perhaps the most dangerous windchills since early February 1835, -16 F read at 9PM, accompanied by force 6 north-northwesterlies (45 miles per hour). Winds diminished overnight, but at sunrise (of the 18th), -30 F was read on the Post thermometer, coldest ever so late in the season except for the equally low reading on 23 February 1832. Mr. Prescott, probably the same individual that raised the first crop of wheat years ago at Lake Calhoun, noted -37 F at his residence near the Fort, and Thomas Williamson, the missionary, who lived “on a level with the Mississippi River” read 40 below on his thermometer [Ludlum, 1968]. The remaining days of the month saw a marked warmup and thaw, with overcast skies and light southeasterly winds. Thawing temperatures were read every day from the 20th to 27th, several days remaining above or nearly above freezing the entire 24 hours. Monthly mean temperature (12 F), however, still finished significantly below normal. Further notes from the 28 April article provided interesting details about life in general in this isolated region during a hard winter, especially with regards to contact with the outside world: “Communication between this part of the country and our brethren in the United States has been difficult and infrequent. A mail now and then from Prairie du Chien, brought up on the [Mississippi] ice by a ‘train’ drawn by horses and sometimes by dogs, containing news so old that the good people in the country below had forgotten all about it; and occasionally a daring passenger with his nose and ears badly frozen — such was our intercourse with the world beyond.” Sometime in January, though, local residents did manage to learn that “General Zachary Taylor was elected President of the United States”. Twenty years earlier (during the cold February of 1829), Taylor had been the commander of Fort Snelling. March (mean temperature: 30 F) was seasonable average-wise and very cloudy, all but a few days reaching thawing levels after the first week. A few mornings during the first seven days dropped to near zero, a couple of afternoons confined to the teens, but thereafter most days reached the 30’s and 40’s, overcast skies and southerly winds predominating. Some .41 inches in rainshowers fell during the month, plus two inches’ snow. As happened every year about this time, the prolonged thawing weather soon rendered the ice highways “unsafe”, and according the 28 April article, the St. Paul vicinity was “completely shut off from all communication for several weeks” [presumably over late March/early April]. On each of March’s last five days, afternoon temperatures climbed to the upper 40’s to high 50’s, nighttime readings staying above freezing almost continuously.
Cool/Wet Spring – Spring ’49 was the perhaps the wettest in the 30-year history of the Post, displaying one of the slowest upward trends in temperature as well. April (mean temperature: 40 F), cold, wet and dismal, had a large preponderance of winds from the northwest according to the Minnesota Pioneer. Exceptionally heavy rains occurred on the 1st at Fort Snelling, 3 1/2 inches falling over the 7-hour period 3AM to 10AM. Two days later, both the St. Peter’s and Mississippi rivers were observed rising, the latter “overflowing the low grounds partially” opposite the Fort. Temperatures reached no higher than 60 F over the entire month, most afternoons confined to the 40’s and 50’s. On the 9th, the first steamboat through Lake Pepin arrived at St. Paul in a rainstorm, bringing news, five weeks after the fact, that Minnesota was now indeed a Territory. An especially blustery three-day period closed the second week, gale-force winds from the north/northwest predominating, with diurnal temperature ranges in the mid-20’s for the mornings to low 30’s for the afternoons. The third week brought another similar three-day windy spell, although afternoon temperatures were somewhat warmer, in the 40’s. Following more heavy rains on the 27th (1.30 inches), the 30th brought a day of gale-force northwesterlies and temperatures hovering around freezing. May (mean temperature: 55 F) was also unseasonably cool, cloudy, and wet (7.58 inches’ rain). The 1st brought a hard freeze, the mercury 24 F at sunrise, just 40 F at 3PM. The 2nd’s range was just 34 F to 42 F. Afternoon temperatures didn’t begin reaching the 60’s regularly until the second week, the first 70 F not recorded until the 17th, about five weeks later than the average. Four heavy rains of 1.14, 1.03, 0.90, and 1.11 inches were received over the 7th and 21st, 3.00 inches noted on the 31st.
Record Summer Rains – June (mean temperature: 68 F) continued cloudy and rainy over the first half. At least some rain fell on 12 of the first thirteen days, totaling 2.43 inches, the 5th especially dismal with rain totaling 1.23 inches, temperatures in the low 50’s, and gale-force easterly winds. Commenting on the frequent and heavy spring rains up to this point, The Minnesota Pioneer noted on the 7th that “the bluff of St. Paul is washed away by the water to a degree indicating that such rains have not been frequent; and this is the testimony of the ‘oldest inhabitant'”. After mid-month, conditions got drier, with just two measurable rains recorded at the Post totaling .84 inch. Accompanied this was a gradually building warm and humid pattern, not unlike two years ago about this time. Twelve of the last 14 days reached the 80’s, with mostly cloudy/hazy skies and southerly winds. July (mean temperature: 71 F) brought a resumption of the wet pattern, 7.76 inches falling on 13 days. Continuing the strong resemblance to 1847, the warm and humid pattern continued to intensify into the second week, culminating over the 10th to 12th with afternoons each day reaching the low 90’s. Heavy rains in the early evening of the 12th (1.31 inches) broke the spell, a cooler pattern then ensuing that would predominate through the close. Nearly every afternoon was confined to the 70’s, rains continuing to be regular and heavy. Some 3.64 inches fell over the 17th to 19th, another 1.30 inches coming on the 31st. August (mean temperature: 68 F) was extraordinarily wet. Over the 7th to 18th, 9 1/4 inches’ rain on six falls was recorded, the heaviest amount in such a short period since the Post rain gauge was put in place. With all the clouds and rain, diurnal temperature ranges over the first three weeks were slight, mostly in the 60’s to the mid-70’s, just three 80-plus afternoons noted. The last ten days, though, were virtually rain-free, just a single .16 inch shower falling, a few afternoons reaching the mid-to-upper 80’s. The 30th-31st reminded, however, that autumn was approaching, the mercury reaching just 62 F on the afternoon of the former, dipping to 48 F by the morning of the latter. Fort Gaines (soon to be Fort Ripley), established just last month near the present-day site of Little Falls, had 40 F this morning.
Mild Autumn – Fall was much milder, in general, than those of recent years, the first frost not coming until October’s second week. November had as much mild and fine weather as any of the last thirty years. Warm and relatively cloudy weather made up September, monthly mean temperature, 61 F, tying for third warmest in 30 years. Only a few mornings dropped below 50 F, the coldest a comparatively mild 45 F. Total rainfall was 2.55 inches on nine days. The first week or so continued relatively cool with a few heavy showers, several mornings dropping into the 40’s. A number of afternoons got no warmer than the 60’s. Four rains dropped about 1 3/4 inches total. Conditions warmed thereafter, with several mid-summer-like days ranging from the 60’s to the low 80’s, seven of the eleven mornings between the 10th and 20th, inclusive, having sunrise temperatures in the 60’s. The Minnesota Pioneer reported on the 13th that “we have not had the appearance of frost. The trees are yet as green as in May, except the Maples, which are beginning to turn yellow.”. The last ten days were almost all sunny, daily temperatures typically in the 50’s to 70’s range. October (mean temperature: 47 F) was cold and wet over the first half, dry and warmer over the second, especially the last ten days. Precipitation was 5.35 inches, the most ever for an October, all of it over the first sixteen days. The 1st and 2nd brought another prolonged rainstorm, 4.06 inches left over a 43-hour period, accompanied by chilly temperatures in the 40’s and strong easterly winds. Temperatures over the first twelve days were cool as well, in the 30’s to 40’s for the mornings, the 40’s to 50’s for the afternoons with many overcast days. A “slight white frost”, the season’s first, finally came on the 12th, 33 F recorded at sunrise. Indian Summer weather prevailed over the last ten days, daily temperatures ranging from the 40’s in the mornings to the 60’s to mid-70’s in the afternoons. “Vivid flashes of lightning” were also seen “in a southerly direction” on Halloween night. November (mean temperature: 42 F) was exceptionally mild, equaling 1830’s high mark. That November, however, had the mild but monotonous and dreary overcast weather, this November having many clear and fine days. Precipitation was 1.40 inches, nearly all of it rain, just five days recording northwesterly winds. No snow was noted until the 17th. Afternoon temperatures over the first sixteen days reached the 50’s and 60’s with just two exceptions. Daily range on the 1st was 54 F to 72 F, the 3rd and 5th each 54 F to 66 F. The 15th showed a 46 F to 62 F spread. A decline in temperatures then commenced, but only to seasonable or slightly colder than normal levels. Daily readings over the last week varied from the high 20’s to 30’s, sunrise temperatures never dropping below 20 F. Some .90 inches of rain, mixed with some slight snow came on the 24th.
Great December Temperature Decline, Heavy Snows – Repeating the climatic script of 1830 but to an even greater degree, December brought a great descent in temperature to go with heavy snows. Monthly mean temperature (8 F) was 34 F colder than November’s, the greatest successive-month temperature decline in the entire climatological record down to the present. Frequent snows also left about 20 inches total. The first four days continued like late November, “very cloudy” and mild with light southeasterly winds and afternoon temperatures around freezing. But by week-end, January-like cold had established itself for the duration of the month, the Mississippi freezing over on the 7th. No thawing temperatures occurred over the rest of the month, the majority of the mornings in single figures or below zero, the afternoons in single figures or the teens. A 3 1/2 inch snowfall on the 8th provided the first substantial ground-covering, another 2-3 inches from a series of light falls following over the 12th-15th. Bitter arctic cold set in on the 17th, daily temperature range only -19 F to -4 F. Following another series of snows over the next ten days that accumulated another foot, the month’s bitterest day’s came on the 29th (daily range: -22 F to -11 F) and the 30th (daily range -21 F to -7 F). Fort Ripley had -32 F on the latter morning.