Cold last week? The winter of '99 was much worse

January 25, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The people who think last week's weather was one for the books need to review the winter of '99.

Baltimore got 51.1 inches of snow during January and February 1899. That season carried a one-two punch. It was also the occasion of Baltimore's coldest temperature reading, 7 below zero on Feb. 10, 1899. That record has been tied but, so far, that amount of snow hasn't been equaled.

"The Alleghanies, Baltimore's guardian angels, have failed to save us from east-moving frigidity and long before yesterday the air was filled with driving snow, the herald of coming discomfort," the Baltimore American reported Feb. 1.

Most every other day seemed to bring some snow.

There was a U.S. Agriculture Department Weather Bureau observer's office at the Johns Hopkins University -- then located downtown along Howard and Eutaw streets near today's Druid Hill Avenue. On Feb. 10, the mercury hit 7 below at Hopkins. Govanstown on York Road marked 13 below; Ellicott City 9 below; Walbrook, 11 below; and at the Rodgers blacksmith shop near York Road and Stevenson Lane, the lowest recorded temperature in the area, 14 below. The name of the blacksmith shop has survived to this day -- the Rodgers Forge neighborhood.

The cold brought inevitable misery to public transit. Baltimore moved mainly by foot and streetcar then. The streetcars came in two versions: The new (then) overhead electric wire trolley cars and cable cars pulled along by thick underground cables. Transit employees had to soak sawdust in coal oil and ignite the mixture to prevent the cable cars' underground hitches from contracting and freezing.

On Feb. 10, Lee Brown, a motorman on Car 812 bound for Catonsville, nearly froze to death as he stood on the open-air front platform of his vehicle. The conductor rang the gong at Lombard and Gilmor streets as a signal for Brown to crank the controller bar. The Sun's account said, "It was noticed he was standing in a rather rigid, unnatural position."

In fact, Brown was almost dead of exposure to the elements. He was carried into a corner drug store, revived and sent off to his home on Jefferson Street in Waverly.

A cook went into the basement kitchen of the Home of the Friendless at Druid Hill and Lafayette avenues. She built a fire in a large cast-iron cooking stove that had a hot water tank attached. The stove exploded and killed two nine-year-old children, Florence Reifsneider and Martha Berliske.

Exposure to the cold brought an unusual reaction from a young millinery clerk at the fancy firm of Schoen & Co. on Lexington Street. Miss Belle Barranger got off a streetcar at Gay and Lexington streets and suffered an immediate reaction to the weather. Her mind went blank and she lost her eyesight. She was blinded for three hours but recovered and returned to work selling hats.

At the Jesuit seminary at Woodstock, a scholastic named Jackley slipped on the ice, fracturing a leg which had to be amputated.

There were sledding accidents everywhere. Eight-year-old Thomas Ruley broke his leg after being struck by a sleigh at Baltimore Street and Broadway. Broadway was popular with sledders. Youths who lived on Broadway south of North Avenue held a sledding carnival. Louis Krichton, 19, received a deep gash on his forehead when his sled smashed into an exposed granite curb.

Downtown merchants reported an astonishing sales statistic after it had snowed continuously from Feb. 11 to 14. More than 1,000 sleighs were sold in a week, more than were usually sold in 10 years. Sleigh bells jingled throughout Baltimore neighborhoods.

Owning a big sleigh was a status symbol. The American stated, "The snow was promptly taken advantage of by hundreds of fortunates in pretty sleighs, behind horseflesh of any sort and pedigree . . . with well muffled occupants enjoying the exhilaration of defying the storm king."

The tug boats Little Nell and Sampson battled the ice in the harbor. The Chesapeake Bay was frozen solid. Shipping came to a standstill.

At nightfall, the city fell into darkness. Some 600 gas street lights could not be used because of the weather.

A crew of painters attempted to coat the inside walls of Broadway Methodist Church, Broadway and Monument Street. The church's furnace was working hard, but the fresh paint froze on the walls.

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