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Minnesota Weather for 1861

Minnesota weather for the year 1861

Backward Spring With Floods, Another Cool Summer

Weather and weather related conditions were not quite so agreeable across the settled areas of Minnesota during 1861. The preferred cold and crisp winter weather was largely absent during January and February, and Spring was generally unpleasant. Annual mean temperature in St. Paul was 42 F, total precipitation around 30 inches. Spring weather was notably backward and gloomy, and heavy early April rains coupled with a heavy melting snowpack resulted in severe flooding on both the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Summer temperatures, like a year ago, were generally cool. An “average” wheat harvest was gathered in, not quite up to the fortunes of a year ago. All quotes below, unless otherwise noted, are from the St. Paul Daily Pioneer.

A Winter Not Up to Standards – The 1860-61 winter was a disappointing one for promoters of Minnesota’s mythological cold season climate. Instead of the “clear, dry, and steadily cold”, most conditions from New Year’s Day on were “damp and soft”. Much of January (St. Paul mean temperature: 8 F) was “dull and cloudy”, more than half the afternoons overcast. A three-day thawing spell over the 13th-15th, with afternoon readings in the mid-30’s, largely wasted away the sleighing, but almost daily snows thereafter soon restored it to “prime order”. Most mornings during the month were near or below zero, the coldest reading in St. Paul a relatively moderate -15 F. February (St. Paul mean temperature: 17 F) continued “the absence of sunshine, keenly felt by the large number who have come in search of health”. Late of the first week brought a short-lived but intense arctic blast, minus 27 F registered at 7AM of the 7th, the mercury still –17 F at mid-afternoon, but just three days later, a surge of unseasonably mild and moist air overspread the area. On the 10th at 9PM, the St. Paul temperature had risen to 38 F, and overnight a 1 1/2 inch rainstorm drenched the city, collapsing or otherwise damaging many roofs. Up north at Fort Ripley, it snowed “very thickly” to a depth of at least a foot. The generally heavy falls in that region were beneficial “in getting out logs in the Pineries”. Snow cover in the Central and South was now washed away, though frequent falls before month-end again brought it to a significant depth.

Mostly Miserable Spring Weather with April Floods – March brought promising signs of an early spring, followed, however, by disappointment. Monthly mean temperature in St. Paul finished at 25 F, 12 F lower than a year ago. Thawing temperatures made up the first three days, afternoon temperatures in the mid-30’s or higher noted on each. Fog, drizzle, and occasionally heavy showers were also experienced. Snow cover was known to be deep all over the State, the expectation being that if the large body could melt quickly, the resulting high water would move the ice out “sooner than otherwise” and the steamboats could get an early start on moving last season’s wheat surplus. This, however, did not come to pass, the rest of the month being “chilly, windy, and otherwise disagreeable”. On the morning of the 5th, an arctic surge dropped the mercury below zero, and single-figure morning readings were a regular occurrence until the last week. Few afternoons got warmer than the 30’s, warmest temperature in St. Paul all month a relatively low 48 F. Precipitation was also very light, just .15 inch recorded in the capital city, most river ice at month-end yet to move. The runoff that was lacking in March, however, was more than made up in early April, thanks to “a serious equinoxial storm” that triggered the most damaging floods of the Statehood era to date. Most of the month’s precipitation came from this system, monthly mean temperature at St. Paul (45 F) near average. Heavy, cold rains, amounts approaching two inches in most areas, fell over the 4th-7th while temperatures hovered in the upper 30’s to low 40’s. This got the ice moving out of Lake Pepin, the first boat of the season, the “Ocean Wave”, docking in St. Paul on the 8th. A massive snowmelt having been set up and enhanced, the Minnesota river was soon “as high as ever before in the recollection of the present settlers”. At St. Paul, the Mississippi went over its banks on the 13th, the river just below the city estimated at 3 miles wide on the 15th. Many local residents gazed in awe at the rolling expanse from the adjacent hillslopes. St. Paul newspaper accounts of the flood appeared side-by-side with those describing the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. The high waters created some interesting happenings in connection with boat traffic. On the Minnesota, the steamboat “Favorite” reportedly sailed “across prairies and through forests without the slightest idea on a part of the officers where the channel was, excepting where she sighted towns and noted landmarks”. On the Mississippi opposite Winona, the high water caused the smokestack of the passing steamboat “Itasca” to break the telegraph wire (completed just last Fall), cutting off Minnesota’s communications with the outside world for a brief time. The first really warm day of the season occurred on the 21st, afternoon temperature in St. Paul, having been confined mostly to the mid-50’s or lower all month, soaring to 80 F behind strong southwesterly winds. More strong winds on the 26th forced the taking down of flags in the city. “Very cold and disagreeable weather” was the rule for most of May. Monthly mean temperature at St. Paul (51 F) matched 1842’s low mark, more than 6 inches’ rain falling on 14 days. The frequent falls, as Reverend Paterson described, “interfered seriously with the sowing of the crops” although there was no frost, “…which somewhat compensated for its unpropitious character.” The chilly, damp weather also made it miserable for the newly recruited Civil War volunteers training at just reopened Fort Snelling. Especially cold and wet conditions prevailed over the 17th-19th, St. Paul temperatures confined to the low-to-mid-40’s with more than an inch of rain falling. Fort Ripley also recorded 2.42 inches over this stretch. No fully developed tree leaves were yet to be seen there as of the 19th. On the 23rd, the mercury finally hit 70 F in St. Paul for warmest temperature in more than a month, 76 F readings also recorded on the 24th and 25th. A sharp cold front and accompanying “violent rainstorm”, however, left 2.53 inches’ rain on the 26th, mid-afternoon temperatures only in the low 50’s.

Another Cool Summer – Generally cool temperatures combined with light to average rains featured the summer of ’61. June (mean temperature in St. Paul: 67 F) was the year’s most satisfactory month to date weatherwise, displaying “an equable temperature and absence of high winds”. Rainfall was ample in St. Paul, some 4.86 inches measured, more than 4 inches after mid-month. Greater than half the days were clear and the warmest reading all month was 86 F. Coming on the heels of unfavorable April and May, crops during the month were “set forward with surprising rapidity”, wild strawberries “in great abundance” first brought to market in St. Paul on the 18th, indicating a large crop for the year. On the 30th, a “large and brilliant comet” was first sighted. Over the coming days through early July it attracted nightly “the gaze of wondering thousands”, the tail at one point 90 degrees long. July had “a moderate temperature which was maintained quite steadily until the last two days”. Most afternoons were in the 70’s, the highest St. Paul reading through the 28th just 84 F. In the immediate vicinity at month-end, expectations were for “an average [wheat] harvest”. The Fort Ridgely observer, however, wrote of “vegetation suffering from the drought”. Also about this time in the Upper Minnesota Valley, a cutworm infestation destroyed the Sioux Indian’s corn crop, one of the antecedents of next year’s hostilities [Ford & Johnson, 1962]. A week-long “heated term”, the summer’s only appreciable warm spell, set in on the 29th, with 90 F recorded at St. Paul on the 30th and 99 F observed on the 31st at Ridgely. August, except for the first few days, was also mostly cool and pleasant. Mean temperature in St. Paul for the third month in a row was 67 F, some 3 inches’ rain received. Afternoon readings in St. Paul reached 93 F on the 1st and 3rd each, Rochester and Mankato both reporting temperatures above 100 F “in the shade” on those days. Fort Ridgely also registered 100 F and 102 F, respectively, on the 1st and 3rd. Relief came on the 6th with showers, the rest of the month decidedly cooler. St. Paul temperatures did not reach 80 F again during August, only one additional occurrence to be registered over the entire summer and fall. The ’61 wheat harvest was less than 1860’s, but the greater acreage sown resulted in an approximately equal crop. Large quantities of wild grapes, plums, and blackberries were also brought to market, and the cranberry crop, seriously affected last year by the mid-August frost was a good one. Similar to ’60, river levels got disturbingly low late in the month, especially on the Minnesota in which “the lightest draught boats [could] barely run” on the 29th.

Delayed First Frost, Variable October – September (mean temperature at St. Paul: 58 F) was “pleasant, notwithstanding the amount of cloudy weather”. Seasonably warm temperatures opened the month, with 79 F and 77 F readings recorded in St. Paul on the 1st and 2nd, respectively. But an early taste of autumn set in on the 6th and 7th, the mercury no higher than the mid-50’s in the afternoons. Moderate rains early of the second week also raised river levels. Sunny, warm, and humid weather set in for the last time shortly after mid-month. The 18th was particularly summer-like with 66 F at 7AM, 86 F at 2PM, and 77 F at 9PM. On the 24th there still hadn’t been a killing frost in the local vicinity, though newspaper dispatches reported visitations already having occurred in parts of New England. This, of course, was satisfying news to local boosters and propagandists, the theory that Minnesota was less susceptible to early and late frosts than those areas of similar latitude back East having been “confirmed”. Indeed, over the 21st-24th, the settled areas of the State basked in “glorious Indian Summer”, clear to partly cloudy skies, and afternoon temperatures in the low 70’s. Finally, a slight frost came on the 29th, a “very severe” one setting in next day, forming ice “to considerable thickness” and killing most vegetation. October (St. Paul mean temperature: 46 F) featured “very variable weather and temperature” along with “a considerable amount of high wind.” Cool and wet conditions made up the first week, with afternoon temperatures mostly in the 40’s, and nearly two inches of rain falling. Just .08 inch additional, however, came through the 27th. The 8th was quite warm, 75 F recorded in St. Paul, most other days through the 27th in the 50’s and 60’s. The latter day was extremely windy and dusty, “nearly a hurricane of wind from the South [experienced]” at Fort Ridgely, the woods and prairies beyond Dayton’s Bluff and Kaposia in the outskirts of St. Paul catching fire and “burning fiercely”. So spectacular was the scene (“… the sky reddened by the reflected blaze of the conflagration”) that many stayed awake well into the night to watch. Rain totaling .72 inch fell the next day, the 29th, 30th, and 31st each raw and chilly with 40 F readings at 2PM with overcast skies and northwesterly winds.

Another November Crackdown, A Long December Mild Spell – November, “expected to be superabundant in cloudy days”, exceeded “the usual average” this year, according to Reverend Paterson. Monthly mean temperature in St. Paul was 30 F, more than 2.5 inches’ precipitation recorded. Relatively mild weather comprised the first week, afternoons in the mid-40’s to low 50’s, nights occasionally above freezing. Thereafter the 30’s were general for the afternoons until the last few days. In St. Paul, just .25 inches precipitation fell over the first 18 days, but over the 19th-20th a cold rainstorm deluged the city with 1.89 inches. A four-inch snowstorm then followed on the 26th, and in its wake an arctic “crackdown” reminiscent of last year set upon the area. The 27th was minus 1 at 7AM in St. Paul and just 9 F and 2PM, a brilliant Parhelia “with circles and arcs displaying all the colors of the rainbow” also noted. Another snowstorm (3 inches) accompanied by slightly warmer temperatures blew through on the 28th, and as it moved out an even colder mass of arctic air was drawn down in its wake. The 30th brought -17 F and -25 F readings in St. Paul and Fort Ripley, respectively. December (mean temperature in St. Paul: 20 F) brought a long thawing spell early on that would last almost half the month. The first few days remained in the grip of the arctic, with afternoon readings barely above zero in St. Paul. But readings soared to the 40’s on the 4th, and the next two weeks reached the 30’s and 40’s on every day but one. To the southwest, Fort Ridgely recorded 52 F on the 9th, 50 F on the 13th, and 49 F on the 14th. Prelude of a severe winter now to come, a sharp cold wave terminated the thaw on the 19th, temperatures plummeting nearly 40 F in 24 hours to below zero on the 20th. Another cold wave preceded by snow and high winds dropped the mercury to near -20 F on the morning of the 27th. The snow was very heavy to the west, and the prairies in that direction were blockaded with drifts for several days.