Minnesota weather for the year 1866
Abnormal Spells, Deadly Storms
Very little in the way of weather was “normal” or ordinary over the settled areas of Minnesota during 1866. Protracted abnormal spells, both in temperature and precipitation, seemed to follow in an almost unbroken succession. Weather-induced tragedies with significant loss of life occurred in both winter and summer, the State’s major crops’ yields also much reduced with the corn crop a near-failure. January brought severe cold and heavy snows, a killer blizzard struck in February, unseasonable cold prevailed during March, and there was a backward April and droughty May. June and July both featured heavy rains and unaccustomed heat and humidity, and August and September were each the coolest months of their names in the historical experience up to this point. Raging floods caused heavy loss of life in the Root River Valley in the southeast during August. Overall mean temperature for the year in St. Paul (40 F) tied ’57, ’59, and ’62 for second lowest in 47 years, total precipitation 27 1/2 inches. All quotes below, unless otherwise noted, are from the St. Paul Daily Pioneer.
“Snowy January” and a Killer February Blizzard – January (mean temperature in St. Paul: 9 F) was little changed from December with more “cold, snow, and cloudy days.” Few afternoons in St. Paul over the first three weeks warmed higher than the teens, most of the mornings below zero. The 16th to 22nd was no higher than 6 F over its entirety, almost every morning in the -10 F to -20 F range. Another 25 inches of snow was accumulated during the month, “falling upon nearly as much remaining from last month”. Outstate areas had similarly heavy accumulations. The heavy falls continued to impede “trade and travel”, and train service during one stretch was discontinued for more than a week owing to the “great drifts.” Late in the month, depths were estimated to be three feet “in the timber” of the Southeast and more than four feet north of the Twin Cities. A commentator declaring about this time: “if much more snow falls we shall move that prayers be put up in churches for a cessation of it, the same as is done for drought or any other calamity.” February (St. Paul mean temperature: 8 F) brought diminished snows but continued cold temperatures. “Comparatively little” snow fell during the month, but with only a handful of thawing days, there was slight melting. In St. Paul, just one thawing afternoon was noted over the first 16 days, nearly every morning in single figures or colder. An appreciable number had below minus 10 F temperatures. The most severe blizzard yet recorded in the climatic history of Minnesota set upon the central and southern areas over the 13th and 14th. Especially hard hit were the more southwesterly settled portions, “painfully large” numbers of people being caught in the open prairies and perishing from exposure. On the 13th at New Ulm, the Smithsonian Observer reported a “strong gale driving the snow in such a manner that it is impossible to see brilliantly illuminated houses more than 50 feet apart”. Temperatures fell steadily throughout the day and into the night, next day, the 14th, being an incredibly bitter and dangerous one. In New Ulm on the 14th, a “heavy gale” prevailed, with 7AM, 2PM, and 9PM temperatures of -16 F, -14 F, and -14 F, respectively. Nearby Fort Ridgely had -25 F, -15 F, and -18 F at the same hours, the resident observer estimating a 7AM wind from the northwest at Force 8 (or hurricane) velocity. In the storm’s wake, -29 F was registered in St. Paul on the 15th, Fort Ridgely recording -31 F. Heavy drifting of the deep snowpack blockaded all railroads leading out of the Twin Cities for several days, business around the State suspended for more than a week in some cases. Another episode of high winds and drifting occurred on the 23rd, the morning of the 25th near -20 F in St. Paul.
Winter Lingering in March – March (mean temperature in St. Paul: 18 F), started with thawing temperatures and showers over the first two days, generating the usual optimism for an early opening of navigation. With a huge snowpack waiting to be melted and ice reportedly thin on Lake Pepin, thanks to the insulating heavy snows this winter, this seemed “not an unlikely event”. Disappointing weather made up the rest of the days, however, with “continued, steady cold” and only a few afternoons above freezing. Morning temperatures around -10 F were felt in St. Paul as late as the 26th, the month’s warmest, a modest 41 F, coming on the 31st. Snow fell often enough to keep the sleighing going in until the 28th, total length of the season a record 107 days in St. Paul. As the month went out, there was “universal feeling of weariness” regarding the current winter’s extended stay. To one 30-year resident of the area, it was the most severe winter he had experienced since ’42-’43, March’s consistently low temperatures, in particular, reminding him of the “stinging cold” namesake of ’43. The latter, however, was nearly 15 degrees colder than this one just passed.
Backward Spring, both from Dampness and Drought.- Spring-like weather made its appearance only very slowly during April (mean temperature in St. Paul: 41 F), most of the month cool, cloudy, and damp. Winter, “which held on so firmly through March, did not fairly give way until after the first week”. In St. Paul, the 5th and 6th were each subfreezing all day, the former just 26 F at 2PM. Even after the 7th, spring’s advance was “very slow”. The first 60 F afternoon was not reached until the 22nd, and as late as the 24th farmers in the St. Peter area had yet to commence plowing. Most of the bluffs and prairies at month-end over the populated areas were “as brown as November.” Melting of the unusually deep snows produced the highest “stage of water” on the Mississippi in nine years, major flooding also occurring on the Minnesota River and smaller streams in southeastern Minnesota such as the Zumbro and Cannon. Navigation at St. Paul did not open until the 19th, and it might have been 10 days later still had it not been for a giant ice gorge at Hastings, which forced Lake Pepin to open after it broke. May (mean temperature in St. Paul: 53 F) opened with a “driving snowstorm” on the 1st that whitened the ground briefly in St. Paul and thereabouts. Mid-afternoon temperature in the city was only 40 F. Curiously, this was virtually the only day with measurable precipitation over the whole month. Other outstate areas had heavier falls, occasionally “copious”, but in general an absence of rainfall was “seriously felt” over most areas. Memories of ’63 and ’64 were revived and concern for the crops began to mount. But recalling the surprising yields of those trying seasons, many farmers were still “trusting fortune for the next harvest”. Only a few afternoons got as warm as the mid-70’s in St. Paul during the month, frost observed “with ice forming” as late as the 16th. Similar to ’64 and ’65, however, vegetation was not forward enough to be injured. Even later and more destructive visitations were reported in the “climatically more favored” Middle and Eastern states.
More Anomalous Weather Spells – June (St. Paul mean temperature: 62 F), a “month of unusual coolness”, saw termination of the mini-drought with frequent and heavy falls after the 6th. Just three 2PM readings got as high as 80 F all month in St. Paul, many confined to the 60’s. Frost was reported in Rochester during the last week, “whitening the sidewalks”. Thanks to the month’s abundant rains (just under 6 inches recorded in St. Paul), the State’s wheat crop, of which “very serious anxiety was felt” early on, seemed to show signs by month-end of an imminent “abundant harvest”. A thunderstorm of “unusual violence” struck the St. Paul and Minneapolis vicinity on the night of the 25th, “unroofing houses, prostrating trees and fences, and endangering life”. Winds in other parts of the cities were reportedly so fierce that the “strongest masonry buildings actually trembled”. St. Peter reported a tornado. A Turn to Warm and Humid in July – July (mean temperature: 72 F), as characterized by Reverend Paterson, was a month of “unusual heat and of discomfort to the human body”. By present-day standards it was nothing remarkable in this regard, but in this early Statehood era of cool summers and considering Paterson’s brief residence time here, it was definitely out of the ordinary. On the 11th, a “heated term of unusual length” set in, lasting virtually uninterruptedly through the close. Just one 2PM reading as high as 90 F was recorded in St. Paul over the period, most others in the mid-to-upper 80’s, but the spell’s “long continuance”, frequent showers, and high humidities generated concerns for the “physical demoralization of the population”. With wheat harvest time drawing near, the frequent “hot, showery” weather also raised fears of a rust outbreak.
Record Cool August/September, Crop Failures – July’s “excessive heat” was “counterbalanced” by the unusual coolness and dampness of August. Monthly mean temperature in St. Paul (64 F) was the lowest yet recorded for an August in the combined 47-year history with Fort Snelling. Only one 2PM temperature was out of the 70’s, that being 80 F on the 10th. Heavy rains over the first half, especially in the south, did great damage to the wheat crop, now in harvest. Much of it was prostrated and “considerably injured” by being “beaten down in the mud”. The untimely falls assured that the seemingly miraculous past performances in the face of weather adversity would not be repeated this year. The ’66 crop would ultimately be light in quality and low in yield, more than 50 percent of it “rejected”. Major flooding was experienced during the first week on the Blue Earth and LeSeuer Rivers with “bridges and fences washed away”. Later, around mid-month, another series of storms struck the southeast, creating the year’s second weather-related mass fatality tragedy. On the 11th, following torrential rains, 46 people living on the narrowly-enclosed banks of the Root River Valley in Fillmore and Houston counties perished as the stream underwent a sudden rise. Entire farms were reportedly swept away, the town of Houston “almost entirely submerged as [was] most of Rushford.” Some places were seven to eight feet underwater, levels of the swollen river reaching “above the top of the growing corn crop”. Accounts of the disaster received anguished comment from newspapers as far away as Chicago, that paper expressing dismay that so many people should have been so “ignorant of the danger to which they are exposed”, living in “a narrow valley surrounded by abrupt hills”. Extraordinarily cool weather prevailed in the latter part. Afternoon temperatures in St. Paul were confined to the 60’s or lower on eight days out of nine over the 19th-27th, the 22nd only 53 F at 2PM. A Rochester commentator remarked on the 23rd as to “the Fall-like appearance of the floating clouds”. Another on the 25th wrote: “the past four days have been remarkably cold for the season … an overcoat could be worn without discomfort”. Light frost (no crop damage) visited the settled areas of the State over the 23rd and 24th. Killing frost, however, had already been experienced on the 16th, 17th, and 18th in Michigan and Ohio. Not unlike August, September was “uncommonly cold, cloudy, wet and gloomy”. Monthly mean temperature in St. Paul (53 F) set another low mark, frequent showers, accompanied by “cold westerly winds” falling on many days. Afternoon temperatures in St. Paul were confined to the 60’s on each of the first thirteen days but one, those of the 14th through 24th each in the 50’s with mornings generally in the 30’s. Light frost visited the St. Paul vicinity on the 15th, several succeeding mornings having non-damaging occurrences as well. But on the 21st, a killing frost “fell upon the country, utterly destroying vines and vegetables”. This effectively also “laid out” the State’s backward corn crop, a virtual failure this year. On the 25th, though, the “cold, wet and disagreeable” suddenly gave way to “splendid and magnificent” Indian Summer conditions, start of a long spell that would prevail past the middle of next month. Each of September’s last four afternoons in St. Paul climbed into the 70’s, the 28th reaching 78 F for warmest reading since 17 August.
Three Weeks of Indian Summer, Then a Taste of Winter – October (mean temperature in St. Paul: 49 F), was the warmest locally in ten years, in spite of a spell of unseasonable cold closing the last eleven days. Over the first nineteen, however, Indian Summer continued to rule with “glorious” sunshine and the familiar “dreamy, smoky haze resting quietly on the landscape”. In St. Paul, twelve of the afternoons reached the 70’s or higher, the 6th hitting 83 F for highest temperature since the last day of July. The long spell was finally terminated by powerful thunderstorms on the 20th, initiating a “radical” changeover for the remaining days to unseasonably low temperatures, almost continuous cloudiness, cold winds, rain, snow, and mud. On the 24th, a gale storm along Lake Pepin did considerable damage to shoreline property with boats finding it impossible to navigate. Afternoon temperatures in St. Paul got no higher than the mid-to-high 30’s on each of the last eight days, the mercury on Halloween morning dropping into the mid-teens.
Relatively Ordinary November and December – In a year noteworthy for its parade of anomalous weather spells, November and December provided two successive months of relative climatic normalcy. The former (mean temperature in St. Paul: 32 F) had generally seasonable temperatures but many days of dull, grey weather, “more than fulfill[ing]” the usual expectation in this regard. Days with snow or rain also seemed to be more frequent than usual, although there were no intense storms. Afternoon temperatures through the 20th in St. Paul typically reached the 40’s, although the 6th through 9th all passed 50 F. The month’s highest observation, 55 F, came on the 7th. Over the last ten, the 30’s were general, the 29th and 30th each in the low 20’s, minus 1 recorded on the morning of the latter. Many of the State’s farmers, still reeling from the bitter experience of the “short” crops this past season were determined not to allow a repeat next year. As a hedge against another wet and backward spring, many were out in their fields plowing during the month. This would prove to be far-sighted, as the coming spring of ’67 would be even more backward than ‘66. Commercial navigation ceased on the Mississippi on the 23rd, ending yet another season of low water. Despite arrival of new dredging equipment, first-class boats could run to St. Paul, only a “small proportion of the time” and on the Minnesota, boats of appreciable draught were able to run above the Belle Plaine rapids but “for a few days” in Spring. December (St. Paul mean temperature: 16 F) opened with “delightful, sunshiny, autumn” weather for the first week. Afternoon temperatures reached the mid-30’s to low 40’s each day, the 7th 43 F at 2PM for the month’s highest observation. The First of December St. Paul steamboat excursion, now an “annual” excursion, could have been held as late as the 8th, and in the agricultural areas of the southeast, farmers continued their plowing as late as the 7th. A three-day cold snap brought the “October-like” weather to a sudden end on the 9th, afternoon readings in St. Paul confined to single figures, morning readings either just above zero or just below zero. Another “long spell of moderate weather” set in over the 13th to 23rd, the majority of the afternoons in the 20’s to low 30’s, the 22nd reaching 42 F. Cold weather set in again after Christmas, mornings around minus 10 F, afternoons in single digits or the teens. Snowfall during December was very light, especially in the south, this being somewhat puzzling to some observers, as places reportedly “everywhere else from Maine to Kansas” were having “good sleighing” with snow depths from one to three feet.