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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Remembering When it Really Got Cold

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

So far as is known, Hell has not frozen over, but Galveston Bay has. Several times, in fact.

First a little science. As we learned in eighth grade science or earlier, water freezes at 32 degrees. But that's the temperature at which fresh water starts turning to ice. Salt water, because of its salt content, does not start to freeze until the temperature drops to 28.4 degrees. In other words, for Galveston Bay to freeze, it has to be extremely cold over a sustained period of time.

The first known Galveston Bay freeze came during the winter of 1821, when Jane Long, the wife of then-absent filibusterer Dr. James Long, was alone on Bolivar Peninsula with her five-year-old daughter and a slave girl. Oh, and Mrs. Long was just about to have her second baby.

TX Galveston County  1907 Postal Map
1907 Postal Map showing Galveston Bay, Bolivar Peninsula,
Galveston County and Chambers County

Courtesy Texas General Land Office

When a particularly cold norther blew in, it snowed. As the temperature continued to plummet, the snow froze and so did all but the deeper water of Galveston Bay. Not only was this a sight to behold, it was actually good news for the three female residents of the peninsula.

The icy water stunned the marine life in the bay, particularly the tasty red drum, speckled trout and flounder. Mrs. Long and her slave harvested several barrels of fish, enough to feed them for a good while.

So solidly frozen was the bay that at one point, Mrs. Long saw a large bear amble over to the island from the mainland. Likely, as was Mrs. Long, the bear was out "fishing" when she spotted him. Whether the animal made it back to the mainland before the bay thawed is not known. --

Not many people lived in Texas in 1821, and no official weather records were kept. But by the 1870s, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had begun collecting weather data in Texas and relaying weather conditions by telegraph. Twenty years later, weather observations in Texas were state of the art for the times.

That means that what happened during the second and third weeks of February 1899 is well documented. On February 11, a huge mass of Arctic air blustered into Texas. The temperature hit 23 degrees below zero in Tulia, which meant it was probably even a few degrees colder than that in Dalhart.

Like a runaway locomotive pulling only refrigerator cars, the cold air swept over the entire state. Moving from northwest to south, on February 12-14 (the dates varying with the progression of the cold front) Abilene dropped to -23; Denison reached -16; Fort Worth-Dallas saw -10 degrees, Waco -5, Austin -1 and San Antonio -4. (Children enjoyed skating on the frozen San Antonio River.) On the border at Laredo the mercury remained above zero, but only by 5 degrees. Corpus Christi dropped to 11 degrees, Brownsville experienced a 12 degree low and Galveston chilled to 8 degrees.

Much of Galveston Bay froze, (as did part of Corpus Christi Bay to the south).

Four years before the record-breaking Arctic front, a heavy snowfall hit Galveston on Valentine's Day. Though no one's alive to swear to it any more, we have only the musty record books to attest to the fact that on Feb. 14, 1895 it snowed 15.2 inches in coastal city where even a temperature in the 40s is unusual.

The people in the island city, then one of the two biggest in Texas, must have thought another ice age had begun. Then again, only nine years before (1884), it also had snowed. That time Galveston Bay also froze over.

During the snowfall of 1895, Galveston was inaccessible by train for several days as the temperature hovered around 24 degrees. Many ships were frozen in their docks and bales of cotton awaiting loading were covered in snow.

Hack drivers got $20 a ride to take sightseers around town. To make transportation easier, some enterprising locals mounted their buggies and wagons on runners. Needless to say, sightseeing was about the only form of commerce going on with the city in the deep freeze. Most businesses shut down, and all the schools.

To assess how incredible this snowfall was for Galveston, it was nearly another century before it happened again. When snow was officially recorded at the island's weather bureau in 1989 and again in 1990, however, each instance was only a dusting. The next significant snow came on Christmas Eve, 2004.

But the 1895 snowfall was Galveston's heaviest. The weather system that turned Galveston white was so powerful it even covered Brownsville with six inches of snow.

The 1899 cold wave that gave Galveston its record low still stands as the nation's most severe Arctic blast since the federal government began keeping records. All-time low temperature records were set all over the U.S. Even the Mississippi River froze, later sending ice flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

One thing for sure, back then no one was talking about global warming.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January 17, 2018 column

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