Minnesota weather for the year 1860
Early Spring Breakup, Favorable Growing Season (graphic)
The first year of the new decade, one of the more agreeable of the 1860’s, brought a dry winter and forward, wet spring, followed by a cool summer with a developing dry pattern. Annual mean temperature at St. Paul was 43 F, total precipitation 29 inches. After a very dry winter and balmy March, abundant well-timed rains over May and June and a sunny but cool summer helped produce a bumper harvest of wheat, its first year as the State’s preeminent crop [Lass, 1976]. Droughty conditions in August, though, reduced river stages, threatening its transport to outside markets by the only means available at this point in history, the steamboat. All quotes below, unless otherwise noted, are from the St. Paul Daily Pioneer.
Contrasting Temperatures, Light Snow — January (mean temperature in St. Paul: 13 F) and February (mean temperature: 17 F) brought a mixture of both intense cold spells and prolonged thaws, accompanied over the interval by scanty snowfall. December’s outgoing bitter cold culminated with the most frigid New Year’s Day yet experienced in 41 years’ history. In St. Paul, under clear skies and light winds, Reverend Paterson observed -40 F at 7AM “with the mercury congealed.” Other readings around the State included -41 F at Mankato, -39 F at Rochester, and -38 F at Fort Ripley. With the mercury still -25 F at 10AM in St. Paul, the outdoor induction ceremony of Governor-elect Ramsey had to be postponed until the following day. Another severe arctic outbreak on the 11th brought -45 F at Fort Ripley and -31 F at both Mankato and Rochester, but after mid-month, a marked warmup ensued. Over the 19th-24th, afternoon temperatures reached the 30’s and 40’s daily throughout the settled areas. The snow cover nearly disappeared, local roads were rendered “unfavorable for business”, and local trade “became quiet”. Ice on the Mississippi became so soft that stagecoaches on the St.Paul-LaCrosse route were forced onto land temporarily. The 31st was bitter again, with -19 F recorded at St. Paul and -26 F at Fort Ripley. February also had contrasting halves of weather. Morning temperatures in the zero to minus 10 range occurred almost every day through mid-month, but conditions moderated significantly at the end of the third week. St. Paul temperatures reached 45 F and 43 F, respectively, on the 20th and 21st, the two days recording 0.75 inches in showers. The 26th also reached 43 F.
Fast Start to Agriculture and Navigation. – March (St. Paul mean temperature: 37 F) tied 1858 for second warmest of the past 14 years. Reverend Paterson noted 25 “perfectly clear days”, all of the month’s 1.04 inches’ precipitation being rain. Temperatures showed a strong upward trend, the 1st hitting 53 F, the 16th 63 F, the 29th 66 F, and the 30th 70 F. Plowing and sowing of wheat began as early as the 7th, an auspicious sign for a good crop, and navigation also got a quick start. Boats were running in the Minnesota River as early as mid-month, and the first arrival through Lake Pepin, the “Milwaukee”, docked at St. Paul on the 28th, just three days later than early-date record of two years previous. Being the first, the “Milwaukee” earned free docking rights for the rest of the season. River levels downstream, however, were reported low, larger class boats beginning to have difficulty navigating and carrying large amounts of freight. April (mean temperature at St. Paul: 44 F), was “disappointing”, dry conditions over much of the month slowing the advance of vegetation and causing continued problems with steamboat traffic. Most afternoons through mid-month reached the mid-50’s to upper 60’s, a number of days with high winds “filling the air with dust”. Steamboats on occasion were unable to dock because of the winds. Light showers on the 11th at St. Paul (.21 inch) left the first measurable rainfall in 23 days. Similar to late April of last year, the final ten days brought a marked pattern change, this one to wetter and colder. Nearly two inches’ rain fell in St. Paul over the 21st and 22nd. The 30th provided the coldest weather in over a month, with high northwesterly winds and temperature readings of just 26 F, 35 F, and 26 F at the prescribed times.
Favorable Growing Season Weather into mid-Summer – May (mean temperature at St. Paul: 59 F) brought heavy rains after the first week, relieving the moisture deficit and spurring development of a highly successful upcoming crop season. Nearly 7 inches’ rain fell in St. Paul, the rivers displaying a marked rise by the close. The month opened with a sharp frost on the 1st, though, St. Paul reporting 31 F at 7AM, the overnight minimum likely much lower assuming winds from the previous day had calmed significantly. Mid-afternoon was only 51 F. Temperatures warmed markedly the next day, 75 F reported at 2PM, the 5th reaching 83 F. Most other afternoons were in the 60’s and 70’s, the highest 85 F, coming on the 11th. On the 31st, steamboats on the Minnesota reportedly had no difficulty “getting as high up as Red Wood” [Redwood Falls]. All the crops, statewide, were in a “flourishing condition”. June (mean temperature at St. Paul: 65 F), a month with an “optimal combination of both rain and sunshine” seemed to promise an “unprecedented harvest of every kind to the agriculturalist”. Temperatures were cool to pleasant virtually all month, just several afternoons in St. Paul reaching as warm as the mid-80’s. Altogether 5 inches’ rain fell in the city. More heavy rains over the first few days (St. Paul receiving 5 1/2 inches over the ten-day period 24 May to 3 June) culminated in another healthy “June-rise”. The Upper Mississippi, in particular, got “very high”. Large quantities of logs from the lumbering operations in that area were freed out of the sloughs to float downstream to the St. Anthony Falls sawmills. In St. Paul, green peas were in market on the 8th with new potatoes on the 18th. The strawberry season reportedly reached its height “as early as in New York” — about the 20th. In the ongoing quest to sell Minnesota’s climate as a hospitable one to impressionable outside newspaper readers, the latter comparison was a very important one. July (mean temperature at St. Paul: 68 F) proved to be “all that could be desired for the country and crops in our State”. The wheat harvest had begun in some areas as early as the 22nd, and by month’s end a large portion of it had already been secured, in “the very best condition”. Corn was also thriving, another year’s evidence to refute the Eastern notion that Minnesota “was too cold for corn”. Drier conditions, however, also began to be felt as a drought pattern that had been affecting the Great Plains’ states to the Southwest began to affect the area. Just four days’ rain totaling 1.76 inches (about half of normal) was recorded St. Paul, the Mississippi on the 24th known to be at a low stage all the way down to St. Louis. Temperatures, like those of June, continued mostly pleasant to cool, highest 2PM reading all month just 85 F in St. Paul.
Good Wheat Harvest But Falling Rivers – Continued droughty weather through August plainly showed the State’s vulnerability of being dependent on one mode of transport for exports. Only .25 inch of rain fell at St. Paul over the first 17 days (just .88 inch for the whole month). Nevertheless, the wheat crop was “… gathered in a condition of excellence and abundance rarely exceeded.” Harvesting was one thing, exporting the surplus another, and before long, to keep their boats’ draughts low in the shallow water, steamboatmen were forced to refuse grain, the price becoming “reduced very materially”. Concern developed that a large portion of the year’s crop would have to be stored through the winter. This was a potentially serious problem for farmers and non-farmers alike, the proceeds being their primary means of paying off debts and purchasing Fall supplies. Average mean temperature for the month at St. Paul (65 F) was quite cool, the reduced evaporative stresses making the lack of rain less of a factor on river levels than it might have been. Highest temperature was 86 F, completing a summer (June-August) free of 90 F weather. On the 13th, frost was experienced on low grounds throughout the State, the only damage of consequence, however, being to the cranberry crop, which was “seriously shortened.”
Wet & Cool September, Sunny October – September was cool and wet, mean temperature at St. Paul (54 F) tying for lowest figure locally in 41 years. Some 4.72 inches’ rain fell in the city. The first week was fairly warm, most afternoons approaching 80 F, but chilly and rainy conditions then set in. The majority of the afternoons through month-end were restricted to the low 60’s or cooler. River levels were gradually restored to acceptable levels, and by month-end the largest boats were “making regular time and all the railroad connections again.” Still, a large quantity of the 1860 wheat harvest would have to remain in storage, shades of things to come over the next several years. Light frost occurred over the State on the 9th with “no injury”, but hard frosts visited on the 20th and 28th. The corn crop, however, was “far out of the way” and not threatened. October presented a marked contrast with September with an “unusual amount of fine weather.” Monthly mean temperature at St. Paul was 47 F. The first week featured “heavy, leaden” weather, with 2.83 inches’ rain falling in St. Paul on the 3rd. But conditions brightened considerably in the days following, “bright Indian Summer weather” the rule for the next three weeks. Skies were completely cloudless at the 7AM, 2PM, and 9PM observation times over the 12th to 23rd in St. Paul, mid-afternoon temperatures consistently reaching the 60’s. Prairie fires, though, were the inevitable consequence, and on many days, the atmosphere was filled with “sky-blue smoke”, the nights with the horizons “aglow in every direction”. Damage from the fires was extensive, with destruction of hay, grain, stacks, fences, and even barns and dwelling houses. A
Late-November ‘Crack-Down’ – November (mean temperature: 29 F) presented the full assortment of major weather patterns common to this month: dreary and chilly, fine and balmy, and bright but bitterly cold. Conditions started dull and cold, no observed temperatures warmer than 43 F over the first nine days in St. Paul. Winter preparations were hurried up, but a last spell of Indian Summer set in over the 11th-14th, with fair skies and afternoon temperatures as high as the mid-50’s. This seemed to afford just enough time to complete the winter readiness: “Nearly all the buildings underway [in St. Paul] have been forwarded rapidly to completion, and people are now willing that winter should ‘crack down’ at any moment. We learn that all the goods to come up have arrived, as well as merchants who have been absent making their purchases”. The winter “crack-down” became reality on the 22nd, with falling temperatures all day across the State accompanied by snow and strong northwesterly winds. This ushered in a five-day arctic spell that lasted through the 27th. Temperatures in the south dropped below -10 F on some mornings. A quick warmup closed the month, the 29th reaching the mid-40’s with showers falling. December (mean temperature: 14 F) was relatively cold with light snow, about 4 inches measured in St. Paul. Afternoon temperatures consistently reached thawing levels through the 9th, the maximum 36 F occurring on the 6th and the 8th. The “first real snow storm” in St. Paul came on the 9th, creating excellent sleighing conditions that would last through the month. Only a few afternoons got as warm as the low 30’s through the close, numerous mornings dropping near or below zero. The 30th was the month’s coldest day in St. Paul with -16 F at 7AM and -1 F at 2PM. Forest City also recorded -20 F this morning.