Library of Congress

Street in Harlem, New York City, after the blizzard of Feb. 13, 1899

On Feb. 6, 1899, a man walked into the Daily Star office, wanting to know whether the groundhog had seen his shadow. Staff at the newspaper told him the rodent slept in that day and didn’t emerge until noon, when the sun was fully out. Six more weeks of winter.

The man had probably had a bad feeling. Though the month was only a few days old, there had already been more snow than in December and January combined. Four inches had fallen that morning, on top of the previous day’s snowfall.

Reports in the newspaper from other parts of the country were worse. Snow blocked rail lines in Colorado, where as many as 60,000 sheep were starving and freezing to death. The ice in North Dakota was 32 inches deep; the snow in Michigan, 42 inches. It was the beginning of what meteorologists would later dub the “Great Arctic Freeze.”

For two weeks in February, the nation endured unprecedented severe conditions. Arctic blasts sent temperatures plummeting, starting on the West Coast and moving east. The mercury dipped below zero even in parts of Florida.

Snow fell periodically across the East at the beginning of the month, which left a deep blanket of snow on the ground, fuel for the pending blizzard.

Meanwhile, back in the ’Burg, life continued as could be expected. Valentine’s Day was approaching. One disgruntled young woman expressed annoyance with the young men of Fredericksburg: “There have been three good snows,” she said, “and none of us have even heard the jingle of a sleigh bell.”

On the 8th, the Star reported that with the 13 inches of snow that had fallen so far, snowball fights were fast and furious. Even the Main Street merchants joined in, “with the result that the proprietor [of Perry’s and Co.] was now in possession of a broken window.” Sledding was popular, and apparently some young men got the message, because several sleighing parties were seen.

These bits of news, though, were relayed under the headline “The Suffering in Fredericksburg.” The paper reminded readers that now was the time to act, for those who were “disposed to be charitable.” Many locals depended on daily wages, and with no work to be had, some were in a desperate state. The churches in town, as well as several local residents, helped the poor by paying for and bringing them fuel.

But people hadn’t seen anything yet. On Feb. 10, the Star reported the record low of 21 degrees below zero here, and a rain and snowstorm was on course to arrive later that day. Even the old-timers said it was as bad as the storm of 1857.

Between Feb. 10 and 14, rare conditions combined to create a snowstorm that struck the Gulf Coast, as well as the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. Before it ended, enormous numbers of livestock died, crops were damaged and people froze to death in the snow.

On the 13th, the Star reported that it had been snowing steadily for 48 hours. The average depth was 2 feet, but winds caused snow to drift up to as much as 6 feet. Business had come to a standstill. No trains were running, and no mail arrived. Some telephone and telegraph lines were down, but most were still functional, leaving communication open.

Those living in the suburbs (i.e. Washington Avenue) slogged through 5 feet of snow to go downtown, and many were forced to spend the night in town with friends.

The fuel situation for many was dire. Across the country, distribution was the problem. With no trains running and roads blocked, yards were limited to the supply of wood they had on hand, which was quickly depleted. Some of the poor burned fences and furniture.

In Fredericksburg, a heroic effort was led by the Rev. J.P. Stump of the Methodist church to deliver wood to the poor. “Suffering in this city was greatly alleviated by just such work and charity has been bountiful,” reports said.

On Valentine’s Day, the morning dawned clear. The temperature shot up to 30, and those who had been out of work were now employed shoveling streets or railroad tracks at the rate of $1 per day. Students were told to return to school on the 16th.

That day, though, there was rain and sleet, causing roads to freeze and telegraph lines to go down. Snowbanks slid onto tracks that had just been cleared. Finally, on the 18th, the ice in the river broke and “thousands of tons pressed down with the current. A beautiful sight was witnessed by persons on the several bridges” until the ice gorged, where it remained for several more days, the Star reported.

And how were the county roads cleared in the days before VDOT? By the farmers themselves. On the 16th, “a gang of farmers succeeded in getting within three miles of the city with wagons on the Plank Road, from a point near Screamersville. They had several miles of deep drifts to cut through, and hope to reach here by Saturday.”

As the paper said, “Valentine’s Day this year will never be forgotten by our very youngest inhabitants” who “in the years to come, will delight their hearers, yet unborn, with stories of the story of the storm of ’99.”

Wendy Migdal is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg.

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