Minnesota weather for the year 1862
Severe Winter, More Spring Floods, Fall Drought Signs (graphic)
Weather patterns and related happenings during 1862 combined some of the principal features of the both the decade and year just passed. Winter (through early March) was a throwback to the cold and snowy seasons of the late 1850’s, and Spring repeated the script of 1861, with major flooding. Summer was another cool one, and much of the State underwent a 40-day rainless spell during October and November, first portion of a long drought pattern that was now destined to predominate off and on until well into 1865. Annual mean temperature in St. Paul (40 F) tied ’57 and ’59 for second coldest of the combined 43-year record with Fort Snelling, total precipitation about 28 inches. All quotes below, unless otherwise noted, are from the St. Paul Daily Pioneer.
Severely Cold January/February, Deepening Snowpack – January and February ’62 provided more than enough of the crisp, cold winter weather that had been lacking in 1861. In terms of consistent, steady low temperatures, it surpassed even the January-February periods of the just recently passed winters of the mid-and-late 1850’s. More than a century-and-a-quarter since, only the January-February intervals of 1875 and 1936 rank colder than 1862 in low average temperature for the Twin Cities vicinity. January (mean temperature in St. Paul: 4 F) passed without a single thawing temperature registered. Five days failed to reach zero and total snowfall was around 20 inches in St. Paul. On the 13th, the mercury sank to -33 F, Fort Ripley recording minus 37 F. A break of sorts set in over the 19th-24th, readings hovering in the 20’s night and day in the St. Paul vicinity, but arctic weather soon closed in again. The morning of the 30th was -36 F in St. Paul and -40 F at Ripley. Still, while such weather was “a little cold occasionally for long [sleigh] rides”, and it reduced the firewood pile “to the last stick quite too often”, in Rochester at least, according to the Republican newspaper, such cold and snowy conditions were “the finest kind”, with sleighing “the finest imaginable.” Up North, however, the deepening blanket was becoming troublesome to the lumbering interests in the Pineries, operations becoming increasingly restricted. February (St. Paul mean temperature: 2 F) was even colder than January, just 1 F warmer than record cold month February 1843; only two afternoons reached thawing levels in St. Paul all month. The mercury fell to around minus 25 F on the 2nd and 8th, but the lowest temperatures of the winter came on the 14th. On this bitter morning, St. Paul recorded -36 F, Fort Ripley -43 F, Rochester -39 F, and Fort Ridgely minus 31 F. Still, with the “absence of high winds”, the month was deemed “not unpleasant” by Reverend A. B. Paterson.
Backward March & April, More Spring Floods – March (St. Paul mean temperature: 26 F) opened with a giant “drifting” snowstorm, dumping over a foot of snow on the central and southern portions of the State. The accompanying strong northeasterly winds blocked country roads for several days afterwards, and business in towns and cities was “almost suspended”. Amounts from the storms were 15 inches in Minneapolis, 12-14 inches in Rochester, and 13 inches in Hastings. Depths to the west were evidently even heavier, the Fort Ridgely register reporting: “2.50 inches water content of snow ending on 3rd. Began 4PM 2/28, ended 3/3”. Added to the accumulations of January and February, two months which had experienced virtually no thawing days, there “[was] not been so large a body of snow in Minnesota for a number of years”. Ridgely had already received 4.35 inches melted precipitation over these two. Early in March, the snow was said to be 4 feet deep in Mankato, and in the Minneapolis area, the snow was “at least 36 inches deep in the timber.” The deep snows in the Upper Minnesota Valley also seriously hampered the Sioux Indians’ hunting, bringing them to the brink of starvation [Ford & Johnson, 1962]. Thawing afternoon temperatures were not regular until after mid-month, with morning readings frequently around 10 F or lower. Several afternoons finally reached as warm as the mid-40’s over the last week, the month’s highest in St. Paul (48 F) coming on the 28th. April (St. Paul mean temperature: 39 F) was unseasonably cool, with only one afternoon reading above the low 40’s over the first two weeks, just three as high as the low 60’s all month. The first week had some wintry weather, the 6th 10 F at 7AM in both St. Paul and Fort Ridgley, even after an hour’s daylight had elapsed. Triggered by heavy rains on the 13th and 17th, the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers rose rapidly and moved the ice out. The first boat at St. Paul, the “Keokuk” finally arrived on the 18th, the third latest date since 1844. In the Mankato area, the Minnesota river exceeded the record high levels of last year, and to the south of the city, all the bridges on the Watonowan River were swept away. Downstream at St. Paul, the Mississippi rose to within a few inches of the ’61 crest level on the 21st, fell slowly, and then rose again to “an altitude equal to the flood of last year” on the 27th. The St. Croix River was also at flood stage at month-end, with several warehouses in Stillwater inundated.
Rapid Spring Advance in May, But Another Cool Summer – Conditions changed drastically to dry and unseasonably warm over the first half of May (mean temperature for the month in St. Paul: 58 F). Afternoon temperatures reached the 80’s on four straight days from the 9th. In Minneapolis, no rain was recorded over the first two weeks. The effect of this warming and drying on vegetation was “miraculous” – strawberries already in blossom on the 14th and for sale on the 21st in St. Paul. A similarly remarkable effect was noted on river stages, particularly the Minnesota. As reported from Mankato on the 15th: “we have never before known [the Minnesota] to recede with such rapidity”, concerns already expressed that “unless we have copious rains [soon] we may count upon an unusually short boating season”. Agriculture-wise, “the major part of the spring crop” had been planted statewide by mid-month, and with a few well-spaced rains and somewhat cooler temperatures in the days following, wheat “never looked better” near the close. Wild flowers and tree foliage, also, were “fully twenty days in advance of last year” at this time. Things were different, though, in some of the States to the East. On the 20th, as cheerfully reported by the St. Paul Pioneer, severe frost visited Michigan and Illinois, killing a large amount of fruit, particularly peach trees. The last visitation in central and southern Minnesota, by comparison had been on 4 May. June continued the tendency for “clear, dry weather” and mild temperatures. Monthly mean temperature in St. Paul was a cool by present day standards 64 F, highest observed temperature all month just 83 F. Total rainfall was 2.65 inches. Even more unseasonably late frosts, however, were reported on the 19th in the Milwaukee and Chicago vicinities, more satisfying news for local publicists and boosters. “The talk about Minnesota being a hyperborean place is about played out” declared the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer, fortifying the several-year-old theory that had Minnesota less susceptible to late and early frosts. While Minnesota’s settled areas evidently escaped the above mentioned visitations, afternoon temperatures in St. Paul were still only in the high 50’s on the 18th. July (St. Paul mean temperature: 69 F) proved to be “most propitious for health and harvest”. The summer’s only warm “spell”, an abbreviated two-day run of 88 F readings at 2PM in St. Paul, came over the 4th and 5th. A “violent storm of thunder and lightning” with rain falling “…in such torrents as to lead to the idea of a second deluge” visited the city on the night of the 6th and 7th, leaving more than 6 inches of rain in 6 hours. In the cuts of the two-week-old St. Paul and Pacific railroad, linking St. Paul with St. Anthony, mud washed down on the track cut service off for several days. Rains were relatively few over the rest of the month, though, only about an inch additional received in St. Paul. The month’s crop of fruits and early vegetables was very abundant, the wheat harvest commencing around the 25th with an expected yield the highest yet in State history. Similarly large yields were expected from rye, barley, oats, and corn. Temperatures in August were “very even” but cool. In St. Paul, afternoon readings above 80 F were observed only twice, and both of these just 81 F. Monthly mean temperature was 66 F. The high expectations for the wheat harvest, however, were dampened somewhat by frequent heavy showers, significant damaging and spoiling the results. Yields, as a consequence were “very unequally distributed”. The occasional heavy falls this month played a significant role in history. The Sioux uprising was now underway, and on the night on the 20th at Fort Ridgely, a heavy downpour prevented the Sioux from setting fire to the roofs of the fort, their initial attack the previous afternoon having been driven back by cannon fire [Ford and Johnson, 1962]. A weather register entry for the 20th noted the assault: “Ft. Ridgely attacked by Indians at 2:15 PM”.
Dry Autumn – September (mean temperature at St. Paul: 58 F) was “a generally pleasant” month, with many days of fair weather and only a few days of rainfall. No killing frost was experienced in St. Paul, although Fort Ridgely recorded a “light” visitation on the 12th. A heavy rainstorm on the 14th dropped 2.20 inches on the latter. The first ten days were seasonable to warm, with the 3rd reaching 85 F in St. Paul for month’s highest. Most days thereafter were in the 60’s, although the 19th-22nd were each in the mid-70’s, and the 21st was 83 F. October (St. Paul mean temperature: 45 F) brought some heavy rains over the first week with St. Paul measuring an inch on the 6th. No other measurable amounts, however, were recorded over the balance. The first killing frost of the season finally came on the 10th, setting the stage for significant downward trend in temperature in the days following. Afternoon readings on the 24th and 25th in St. Paul were no higher than the upper 20’s, Fort Ridgely recorded 9 F on the latter morning. As reported in the Pioneer, this early chill constituted “squaw winter” according to the “Indian Calendar”. Long-term experience now dictated, according to one of the “oldest [white] inhabitants” that a long term of Indian Summer was now to follow. This indeed happened, at least in the short term, as afternoon temperatures recovered to balmy 66 F and 68 F levels in St. Paul on the 29th and 30th, respectively. November (mean temperature for the month in St. Paul: 28 F) was cold and relatively dry. Only one afternoon got as warm as the 50’s, that being 56 F on the 9th. Most of the others were in the 30’s and 40’s, and just two got as warm as the 40’s after the 10th. No measurable precipitation having fallen for more than five weeks, the Mississippi opposite St. Paul on the 13th was as low as it had been for “several years past”. The steamboat “Milwaukee”, on its way downstream out of St. Paul on this day, was forced to return and divest itself of “everything – even cabin furniture”, in order to cross a sandbar successfully.” The last boat of the season left St. Paul the following day, and a five-inch snowstorm on the 15th finally broke the long dry spell, the first measurable precipitation in 40 days there. Fort Ridgely also broke a 40-day precipitation free spell this day. Daily temperature range in St. Paul on the 14th was just 7 F to 16 F. The scarce precipitation and attendant low river stages this autumn aggravated a developing economic problem facing the State, namely the inadequate numbers of steamboats to handle the state’s increasing exports and imports. Not many years ago, the state’s entire wheat surplus could be put simply “on steamboat decks in sacks”, but no longer. The ’62 wheat crop was nearly double that of ’60, and the population was growing rapidly. With still no railroad connections to the outside, drought during the navigation season would become an increasingly serious matter over the next several years.
Mild, Damp Start to Winter – December (mean temperature in St. Paul: 21 F) started cold with a number of near and below mornings over the first week. The 6th was quite bitter, the mercury minus 16 at 7AM and just 1 F at 2PM. Light dustings of snow came on the 2nd and 4th, but they were not enough the get the sleighing started. Much warmer temperatures then set in, the remainder of the month mild and damp. Several afternoons reached the 40’s, and two “copious” rainstorms in the central and south left more than an inch of rain total. As 1862 neared its end, winter still seemed quite far off, as described by an observer in Rochester: “The weather for this past week has been very remarkable for this climate. Instead of sleighing and the merry bells which usually attend the Christmas holidays, we have had very mild weather with southerly winds, heavy showers of rain, bare ground, and mud for our lot.” Upcoming January and February would also experience unseasonable rains.