Another freezing grip to remember


January 25, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As the old song says, "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Folks from Dixie to Maine, and as far west as Montana and down into Texas, have shivered this week and continue to do so, as temperatures hover in the teens during the day and plummet to the single digits at night.

Also this week, weather watchers on New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the Northeast, recorded temperatures of minus 28. Wind speeds of 85 mph have been recorded along with a 100 mph gust that blew hard for 15 minutes.

Now, don't you feel better?

Hardy New Englanders, accustomed to bitter cold and lots of snow, describe this kind of unrelenting weather as "cracking cold."

This colorful descriptive takes its name from porch boards tightened by the cold that crack and pop when walked upon, hence, cracking cold.

Marylanders, too, have endured periods of frigid weather of historical proportions and massive inconvenience, such as the cold snap that settled in over the state in December 1917 and refused to really go away for the next two months.

Weather records for that month show that it was the coldest in Baltimore since 1876, with an average temperature of 27 degrees. For 14 days that December, the average temperature did not climb above freezing.

On Dec. 30, the mercury rose only to a high of 9 degrees combined with a low of minus 3. The next day, New Year's Eve, revelers piled on the coats, hats, scarves and gloves, as the temperature soared to a high of only 12 degrees, with a low of minus 2 degrees.

The National Weather Service, official keeper of Baltimore-Washington weather history, reported the "two-month cold spell has not been matched" since it began keeping records.

It also observed that 24.2 degrees was the average temperature for January 1918, and remained a record until 1977, when the average temperature for Washington was recorded as being 21.4 degrees for the same period.

Snowfall for the December-January period was triple the normal amount in many areas with the exception of Southern Maryland. Between 30 and 45 inches of snow fell in Western Maryland, with the Upper Chesapeake Bay region covered by a blanket 2 feet deep.

Even the Eastern Shore failed to escape the ferocity of the unusual winter weather as 18 inches of snow blanketed the countryside.

"The cold, of course, caused much suffering among the poor of the city. Charitable agencies were busy all day answering calls for aid, and the police reported many instances of distress," reported The Sun.

"Lack of coal in many homes added to the suffering. Street car traffic was delayed in many instances in the city because of the snapping of trolley wires contracted by the cold, and in the suburban sections because of snow drifts blown across the tracks."

A man was found frozen to death in a Highlandtown stable while three others, attempting to walk to Baltimore from Harford County, collapsed and later died.

The protracted cold wave resulted in coal and food shortages. Factories were forced to close. A freight embargo was declared by the federal government in order for railroads to move only desperately needed foodstuffs and fuel.

"This action is imperative," reported The Sun, "when the general transportation situation east of the Mississippi threatens to become worse daily, owing to the prolonged strain on railroads of deep snows and intensely cold weather."

Navigation came to a halt as the entire Chesapeake Bay south to the Potomac River was clogged with ice that ranged from 2 to 3 feet thick, causing many vessels to become icebound.

In late December, the battleship USS Ohio, with its 16-inch- thick armor-plated hull, steamed northward from Norfolk, Va., with orders to smash a 160-mile channel all the way to Baltimore.

"We'd ram and stick; then we'd back up and, running at 18 knots, ram again. It sounded like a hundred locomotives smashing into a concrete wall," wrote Edward H. Bell in a 1954 article in the Sun Magazine.

It took the Ohio two-and-a-half days to reach Baltimore. In its wake, the Ohio freed 27 icebound ships, whose crews frolicked on the frozen wasteland challenging nearby mariners to spirited ice hockey games or races.

It wasn't until mid-February that the protracted cold spell finally began to release its grip on Maryland. On Feb. 20, ice in the Upper Bay finally began to break up.

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