" PARTY LIKE ITS . . . 1899"

William R. Deedler, Weather Historian, National Weather Service White Lake, Mi 12/99



With all the noise and fuss about the new millennium, curiosity about the weather in Southeast Lower Michigan during the last millennial change (999-1000) and the last turn of the century (1899-1900), lead me to dust off the old weather record books for Detroit. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly), weather records are not available from the start of the current millennium, but what about the last century? What was the winter of 1899-1900, including the holiday period of Christmas into New Years Day, like?

Let's journey back in time and see how the 1900's began . . .

THE DR. JEKYLL / MR. HYDE WINTER OF 1899-1900

The winter of 1899-1900 started off on a pleasant, mild and dry note with little snow. Temperatures averaged only slightly above normal in December but more so in January, despite a cold snap at the beginning and end of the month. January, in fact, averaged about five degrees above normal in Detroit. Furthermore, snowfall was only about half the average through January. By the end of January, fewer than 10 inches /9.4/ of snow fell in Detroit, which normally sees a couple of feet by this time. The majority of the storm tracks held north of Southeast Lower Michigan through midwinter, and thus, cold outbreaks and snowstorms were kept to a minimum. Yet, if the inhabitants of Southeast Lower Michigan thought they were going to get off easily the winter of 1899-1900, they were in for one rude awakening, as the latter half of the winter bore no resemblance to the first half.

Sharply colder weather blasted into the region late in January, pushing low temperatures down into the single digits and even below zero /-2/ by the 31st. All but the first few days of January, the temperatures averaged above or well above normal, that is, until the 26th through the 31st when they averaged better than 12 degrees below normal. Keep in mind, on the average, the second half of January is coldest period during the winter, with average temperatures in the lower 20s (highs around 30 and lows in the lower teens).

The snow-making machine shifted into high gear in February, when right off the bat a snowstorm dumped nearly a foot /10" in Detroit/ of snow across the region on the 4th. However, within a few days, the temperature soared to 62 degrees and was accompanied by nearly three quarters of an inch of rain. What had been 10 inches of snow on the ground the evening of the 4th, was a mere trace just four days later, the evening of the 8th. Colder weather returned the following day, freezing any standing water and creating numerous ice rinks. The colder weather, more or less, held for the balance of the month, along with periods of light snow. That is, until the last day (28th), when another major snowstorm hit the area. A fine, dry snow started early in the morning (2:20 AM) of the 28th and then fell heavily for most of the day. By 8 PM, thirteen inches of snow accumulated with temperatures ranging from the mid teens to mid 20s during the entire episode. At the close of February, twenty-eight inches of snow fell in Detroit for the month alone. This was nearly three times the amount measured in the winter through January and it was by no means over with yet!

The late February storm wound down on the morning of March 1st with a storm total of 14.6 inches. The busy storm track, however, held near Southeast Lower Michigan in March with still another snowstorm just three days later, on the 4th. This time, light snow moved back into the region around dawn and continued all day, again heavy at times, until ending at dusk. About six and a half /6.6/ inches fell during the day along with temperatures falling from 33 degrees at 2 PM, down to 12 degrees at midnight. By this time, a snow depth of nearly 17 inches was observed. And, while winter should have been ending, it was in reality, just beginning.

A little over 24 hours later (during the forenoon hours of the 5th), snow once again began in earnest and continued falling, moderate to heavy, all day. The temperature fell to a low of 7 degrees at 5 AM that morning just before the snow began, but never recovered during the day until the evening, when it rose through the teens. By 8 PM, another nine and a half inches of snow had inundated the area with 26 inches of snow measured on the ground. This 26-inch snow depth is the highest official snow depth ever recorded in Detroit. After the snow depth was measured (8 PM), the snow became mixed with, and then changed to sleet which continued falling until l2:30 AM on the 6th, when it changed to freezing rain. Still, another 3.5 inches of snow and sleet fell from 8 PM until the change over to freezing rain, giving a grand total of 19.6 inches for the three-day period. Also, with the additional 3.5 inches snow that fell, the snow depth probably ranged somewhere in the neighborhood of 28 inches (accounting for some settling and sleet), though no official maximum snow depth was mentioned. In fact, in that week period (Feb. 28th-Mar. 6th), more than 34 /34.2/ inches of snow fell on Downtown Detroit! This snowfall nearly equals the second most snow ever recorded for a MONTH in Detroit, which was during the snowy La Nina December of 1974 when 34.9 inches fell. Also, it is only about eight inches shy of the normal snowfall seen in an ENTIRE winter season /42 inches/.

Needless to say, travel by street car, railroad, horseback, river ferry or just plain walking was a monumental chore. In one note, it was mentioned that it took fours hours for a street car to travel from Downtown Detroit to Trenton (a nearby suburb of Detroit) and back, a trip that usually took an hour and a half with stops along the way. Several street cars burned out their motors trying to plow through incredible amounts of snow.

The temperature continued to rise rapidly from the 18 degrees recorded at midnight on the 6th, to an almost springlike 42 degrees just six hours later at 6 AM. This 24 degree rise in temperature was a result of warmer air surging into the area from the south. With the temperatures holding in the lower to mid 40s into early afternoon, the heavy snow cover soon started to become an extremely slushy mess. By 8 PM on the 6th, the snow pack had melted down to 18 inches, dropping better than10 inches in less than 24 hours. Then, by midnight, the temperature fell below freezing to 23 degrees. This created more headaches for travelers with huge blocks of frozen slush and ice and thus, made navigation even more difficult and hazardous.

Temperatures continued to average well below normal into mid month and on St. Patrick's Day, the mercury plummeted to a record low of -2 ( Irish coffee was probably in high demand this St. Patrick's Day). If this weren't bad enough, the snow machine once again cranked daily from the 15th through the 18th, when nearly seven more inches of snow fell. The intra-month period of February 22nd-March 21st may very well have been Detroit's snowiest month /28-day/ time period. Exactly 44 inches of snow fell during that time, this handily beats out the CALENDAR month record for most snow, 38.4 inches, which occurred just eight years later in February 1908 and is also a few inches higher than the average snowfall /42 inches/ for an ENTIRE winter season.

A slow moderation in temperatures took hold during the latter half of the month. Even so, March of 1900 still ranks as the 3rd coldest March (tied with March 1885 and 1960) in Detroit since 1870. And not surprising, with the 30.2 inches of snow that fell during the month, March of 1900 is the snowiest March ever recorded (February of 1900 is the 4th snowiest February). Snow also made an appearance in April /1.5 inches/ and even in May with a trace on May 4th. So, despite the meager snowfall the first half of the winter, the snow that fell the second half more than made up for the deficiency. The total snowfall for the 1899-1900 season was 69.1 inches, which ranks as the fourth snowiest winter season in Detroit since 1880.


CHRISTMAS WEEK 1899

Christmas Eve 1899 began on a relatively benign weather note across Southeast Lower Michigan. A little light rain changed over to light snow during the evening with just three tenths /.3/ falling by midnight. Not quite enough to make it an official white Christmas (five tenths /.5/ or better of snow is needed on the ground) and only a trace fell on Christmas. By the looks of the temperatures, a cold front must have pushed through the area during the daytime hours of Christmas Eve. The temperature reached 34 degrees during the afternoon on Christmas Eve but then fell to 17 degrees by the midnight hour. In addition, that 17 degree reading at midnight was the HIGH temperature for Christmas Day with temperatures steady to slowly falling until bottoming out at 11 above. In spite of being chilly, Christmas Eve into Christmas Day in 1899 were, for the most part, cloudy non-eventful days, meteorologically speaking, with no big storms in sight.

The most obvious trend the last week of 1899 (see Chart-1) was the turn toward colder conditions, but with negligible precipitation (traces of snow). As the week drew to a close, lows were generally in the single digits with an actual "goose-egg" /0F/, reported on the morning of the 30th. Sky condition ranged from partly cloudy to cloudy, so there were periods of sunshine. 

 

CHRISTMAS WEEK 1899-1900 (DEC. 25TH - JAN. 1ST)
Date High Low Precip. Snowfall Sky Cover
12/25/1899 17 11 T T Cloudy
12/26/1899 18 9 T T Ptcldy
12/27/1899 20 12 T T Ptcldy
12/28/1899 20 10 0.01 0.1 Ptcldy
12/29/1899 14 6 T T Ptcldy
12/30/1899 8 0 0 0 Ptcldy
12/31/1899 12 4 T T Cloudy
01/01/1900 19 5 T T Ptcldy

NEW YEARS EVE - DAY 1899-1900

Snow flurries fell virtually all of New Years Eve until shortly after the stroke of midnight (12:15 AM) but with only a trace accumulation. The sky remained cloudy New Years Eve into very early morning hours of New Years Day, until around 3 AM, when the sky cleared, allowing for a clear sunrise New Years Day. The morning low of 5 above was accompanied by only a trace of snow on the ground.

The first day of 1900 was cold, but relatively nice across Southeast Lower Michigan. Under partly sunny skies with a few flurries, the temperature crept up to only 19 degrees and the mean temperature of 14 degrees, averaged out to 17 degrees below normal. 

I'd like to take this opportunity for the National Weather Service in White Lake, to wish one and all a healthy and prosperous new millennium!


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