The Southern Wisconsin Blizzard
March 2-4, 1881

By Gary Alan Wiese

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Madison was plagued by snowstorms during the winter just as it is today. Some of these storms have been reputed to be more intense than their successors today, and have been passed down to our present generation by older residents when talking of the “good old days.”

In this paper, I have looked, as far as time and resources have permitted, into two storms of this period which have emerged as memorable ones with rather significant snowfall and crippling effects on Madison. These two storms occurred on January 15, 1877 and March 3 through 4, 1881 respectively.

Sources of information for this period which I have found useful were the yearly reports of the Army Signal Corps, Madison weather records located at Traux Field, and newspaper articles found in issues of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Madison Daily Democrat for this time period.  

Cyclogenisis of the January, 1877 storm occurred in the lee of the Rocky Mountains on the afternoon of the 14th. By the early morning hours of the 15th, stormy, snowy weather was reported prevailing from the Northern Plains to the western region of the Great Lakes. Warning signals for shipping were reported raised at the Milwaukee harbor.

In the Wisconsin State Journal of January 15, 1877 came reports from Chicago of violent northeast winds, and heavy snow with all mail and passenger trains, although not completely stopped, running hours behind schedule. Reports from regions to the west in the Plains indicated from one to three feet of snow on the ground.

In the same paper came the following report of conditions in Madison. “A regular ‘old fashioned’ snowstorm set in this morning and has continued during the day.” It also reported the fact that strong winds were making great drifts and it was feared that the railroads would become blocked up.

Information on various weather parameters is limited from this period with reading being taken at North Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus. Snowfall records do not exist and water equivalent precipitation amounts are missing for the time of storm passage though Madison on January 15, 1877. There are records of 0.50 inches on the 13th and 17th of January, 1877, but this fails to coincide with the Signal Corps track report of the low center. Therefore the only snowfall report of the storm is the subjective one of the Wisconsin State Journal of January 16, 1877.

The paper reported that the storm was one of the heaviest known in several years with a large quantity of snow of about two feet on the level with the wind blowing a gale causing huge drifts and blocking railroads in many places. With records showing high temperature around 10 degrees during the storm and a wind report of gusts to 36 mph at Milwaukee, this report is at least in part believable. The State Journal article also reported the Madison streets almost impossible to get through and that the theater and places of amusement were closed. Work crews were gradually clearing walks, however trains were slow. It also reported that twenty members of the State Assembly failed to reach their seats and that one train from Watertown with many assembly members on board was stuck in the snow at Deansville. In conclusion, it added that sleighing was now good though for farmers coming into Madison.

This was the snowstorm of January, 1877. Not the severest, but one to be classified among the important snowstorms in Madison history in considering snowfall amount.

According to records, the storm of March, 1881, developed in the lee of the northern Rocky Mountains in Alberta during the morning of March 1, 1881, and moved rapidly southeast being located over central Missouri on the morning of March 2. From here, the center slowed and curved northeast toward lower Michigan, spilling out a large area of snow and sleet to the north and west of its track.

Reports indicate the first snow from this storm began to fall on an already storm beleaguered Madison around seven o’clock in the evening of March 2, 1881.

Storm beleaguered due to the fact that just four days earlier a major storm had swept the area with rain, thunderstorms, and snow dumping a water equivalent of 1.16 inches on February 26 and 1.27 inches on February 27 for a total of 2.43 inches. According to newspaper reports the lightning from the “violent tropical thunderstorm” accompanying the storm system struck the Capitol building and killed horses and in a barn at Evansville, and the rain before it changed to snow around seven o’clock of the morning of the 27th, turned the old snow on the ground into “slush two feet deep.” Many Madison streets “looked like rivers partially broken up in the springs, filled with ice and snow” with Dayton Street from Henry to Broom “a vast river with water and snow.” When the precipitation turned to snow, before it was over, it was reported in the Wisconsin State Journal, “snow drifting into heaps of from three to ten feet is forcing rural residents to tunnel out.”

This was the situation then as a second storm in less than five days hits the Madison area. The Wisconsin State Journal of March 3, 1881 carried some of the following reports, “snow so thick as to almost blind pedestrians began last night around seven o’clock. All night long air filled with huge flakes which were piled up into drifts as soon as they fell.” Other reports told of the eastbound train stuck in drifts at Middleton and that nothing could be done to open any railroads as tracks were drifting shut as fast as they were plowed.

On the morning of March 3, 1881, Madison was described as having “looked like desolation personified with it being almost impossible to see across the street without going to the second story of buildings as drifts cut off the ground floor views.” Drifts were described as three to fifteen feet deep. Snowplows pulled by horses could not prevail against the drifting snow, however local merchants dealing in shovels and rubber goods were doing a “booming business.”

Snow continued all day and night during the 3rd in Madison, with the storm center itself deepening and actually curving and moving westward in lower Michigan apparently caught in the flow pattern around a large cut-off low aloft. The lowest sea level pressure observed in Madison was 998.3 mb at 12Z on the fourth of March with reports of sea level pressure of 990.5 mb with center passage during the night at Toledo.

By the morning of March 4th, Wisconsin state residents were claiming nothing approaching the intensity of the present storm had even been known with lack of fuel and food becoming an ever increasing danger. From the Wisconsin interior came reports of snow of three to six feet on the level with drifts covering homes, telegraph poles and trains. La Crosse reported all roads blocked. Milwaukee reported all railroads closed, business suspended, roads impassible, and a shortage of coal. Oshkosh reported in the paper that this was the worst storm in its history with snow drifted “almost mountain high.” There were many instances of “drifts formed on north side of buildings reaching over roofs to south side leaving only chimneys discernable from peaks of drifts.”

In Madison the blizzard was called unprecedented with from two to four feet having fallen on the city with all railroad and mail service stopped. Except for the telegraph, Madison was cut off from the outside world with wagon roads filled level to fence tops with snow. Only with six horses could plows break through drifts. The Wisconsin State Journal summed it up on March 4, 1881. “No need to describe the drifts. Everything is buried in snow.”

When the last flake of snow finally stopped late in the night of March 4th, approximately 48 hours after it had begun, drifts were reported from twenty feet on down and all forms of locomotion had stopped with an estimated time of one week needed to clear roads. National Weather Service records indicate a total water equivalent precipitation during this three day period of March 3 to March 4, 1881 of 2.85 inches of which 1.95 inches fell on March 3rd, verifying to a degree the above press accounts.  

Thus due to a combination of slow movement, an apparent large amount of available moisture, and a rather uncommon westward movement of the surface center it appears Madison, according to newspaper accounts and the few existing meteorological records, experienced one of the largest if not the largest snowstorms in its history. Missing snowfall measurements however disallow an objective comparison.
(Re-typed by Elizabeth Konop)

Climatological Extremes For Wisconsin
Snowfall Extremes for Wisconsin
Record Amount Location/County Date
Greatest Daily Total 26.0 in. Neillsville/Clark Dec. 27, 1904
Greatest Monthly Total 103.5 in. Hurley/Iron Jan 1997
Greatest Seasonal Total 301.8 in Hurley/Iron 1996-1997
Greatest Single Storm 31.0 in. Superior/Douglas Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 1991
Deepest Snow On Ground 60.0 in Hurley/Iron Jan 30, 1996
Greatest Annual Average 139.4 in
165.3 in
1971-2000 (30yrs)
1987-2000 (14yrs)
Precipitation Extremes
Record Amount Location/County Date
Greatest Daily Total 11.72 in Mellen/Ashland June 24, 1904
Greatest Monthly Total 18.33 in Port Washington/Ozaukee June, 1996
Greatest Calendar Year 62.07 in Embarrass/Waupaca 1884
Least Calendar Year 12.00 in Plum Island/Door 1937
Greatest Annual Average 37.05 in Lake Geneva/Walworth 30 Year Average 1971-2000 is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.