As I’m writing this article on Thursday, we’re all awaiting the arrival of this season’s first winter storm. That has me thinking – what were our winters like 150 years ago? Luckily, our old friend Editor Tippett included plenty of weather-related snippets in the Weekly Register.
The winter of 1871-’72 was an average 19th century winter for Mason County. Unlike this season, which saw Christmas temperatures hover near 70 degrees, the cold hit in early November and stayed until March. Disease was common, with diphtheria and smallpox both making their rounds. Rivers froze and rose as if stuck on repeat, each time cutting off river trade and communications. And of course, snow was a regular visitor, much to the delight of the town’s youth.
These bits and pieces from Tippett’s editorial columns really tell the story.
November 16th, 1871: “Now that the nights are growing long and cold… We learn that the dread disease, diphtheria, is raging to an alarming extent among the children along the Kanawha River, and in the lower end of this county. Several deaths have occurred… Weather prophets are predicting that the present winter will be one of the coldest ever known.”
November 23rd: “During the past ten days we have had some extremely cold weather. Considerable ice was formed… A sprinkle of snow one day last week.”
December 14th: “Navigation has been suspended on both rivers, on account of the ice. Arrangements have been made for conveying the mail by land… No smallpox in town that we know of, but as it is towns near us, get your family physician to vaccinate every member of your family… Mr. Darst is now supplying our citizens with Cannel coal. No danger of freezing now.”
December 21st: “The Ohio River is still blockaded with ice between this place and Parkersburg. There may be a break-up about next June… Two barges loaded with coal arrived at our wharf Tuesday night. This will be good news to those who are out of fuel.”
January 18th, 1872: “This vicinity was gladdened by a sight of the beautiful snow on Tuesday which fell to a depth of six or seven inches. The young folks enjoyed it by snowballing each other… Owing to the sudden changes in the weather, we have had of late, a good deal of sickness in town… The contractors are now delivering the mail, on both the Ohio and Kanawha river routes, on time.”
January 25th: “The Ohio River is again full of ice, and navigation is about suspended.”
February 8th: “The Kanawha River is still froze over at this point. It has afforded most excellent skating, and many citizens have taken advantage of it. Teams and cattle have been crossing it for several days… Last week, snow fell to a depth of over eight inches at this place… The ice crop is nearly harvested. Ice will be plenty and cheap next year.”
February 15th: “The Kanawha River which has been frozen up for the past three weeks, took a notion to rise on Friday night last, and on Sunday the ice ran out. Several steamboats and a number of barges were harbored in the Kanawha. No damage was done to any of them… The rise in the Kanawha has probably opened the Ohio… With the opening of the rivers, business will assume a brighter aspect… A little boy of this city, whose father had warned him not to go on the ice, fell down while skating, and cut his tongue so badly that, when asked what was the matter, he could not tell a lie.”
February 29th: “Bad colds are the order of the day. Everybody and his wife and children are complaining.”
March 15th: “We had on Monday, March in all its various styles. It rained, blowed, snowed, and frizzed. Tuesday was a beautiful day… We would rather bet on four aces anytime than on March.”
Fortunately, ever since the locks and dam were installed, we haven’t had to worry about the rivers freezing and shutting down commerce. Occasionally, we still get a snow storm or two, but nothing on the scale of what we used to see. But even 150 years later, March is still as unpredictable as ever.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.