Snow Day! The 6 Worst Winter Storms in US History

Feb. 18, 2010

The Great North American Blizzard of 2010 was a big storm, walloping places like Washington, D.C. with more snow than they had seen in decades.  By Friday, February 12, for the first time anyone could remember, there was snow on the ground in at least 49 of the 50 states.  (We say “at least” because there seems to be some debate whether any of Hawaii’s mountain peaks carried a dusting of white stuff that day.)

As perhaps the first great blizzard of the Twitter age, the storm immediately acquired a memorable set of nicknames:  “Snowmageddon,” “the Snowpocalypse,” even the hilariously creative “SnOMG” and “The Snowtorious B.I.G.

But was this storm really worthy of being called the Snowpocalypse?  How does the blizzard of 2010 stack up against the most ferocious winter storms in American history?

The Great White Hurricane (1888)

Most weather historians would tell you that the Great Blizzard of March 1888 (also known as the “Great White Hurricane”) remains the worst of all time, at least for the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

The 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia had sent so much detritus into the atmosphere that global weather patterns turned unusually cold and chaotic for five years.  The Great White Hurricane hit at the end of that cycle, slamming places like New York City with unprecedented snowfalls.

Snow shovelers in New York during Great Blizzard of 1888

Snowdrifts piled up as high as 50 feet in some areas, bringing transport and commerce to a standstill.  (The storm’s crippling of New York’s elevated railway system was the major impetus for the city’s 1894 decision to begin construction of a weatherproof subway system instead.) The East River froze over, allowing people to walk across from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the thick ice.

Farther south, a ship moored in Maryland’s Annapolis Basin was frozen solid in ice, unable to move for more than four weeks.

Altogether more than 400 people died in the storm, more than 100 of them in New York City alone.

The Schoolhouse Blizzard (1888)

The Great Blizzard of 1888 struck the east coast just months after another devastating storm, the so-called Schoolhouse Blizzard, hit the Great Plains in January of the same year.

After a warm morning lulled people into complacency, a ferocious cold front suddenly raced eastward across the heartland at more than 60 miles per hour.  At one spot in Nebraska, the temperature dropped by 18 degrees in just three minutes when the cold front passed.  Witnesses reported the sky suddenly turning black with clouds, then blindingly white with thick blowing snow.

Aftermath of Schoolhouse Blizzard in Nebraska, 1888

At Helena, Montana, the temperature dropped by a staggering 50 degrees over four hours.  The sudden, bitter cold caught many people unprepared, and more than 230 lost their lives from exposure to extreme temperatures.

Tragically, many of the victims were schoolchildren and teachers trapped in their little one-room schoolhouses or lost in whiteout conditions trying to return to their homes.

Other great winter storms had more of a regional impact.

The Great Blizzard of 1899

The Great Blizzard of February 1899 affected almost all of the eastern United States, but it hit the South especially hard.  From D.C. (minus-15 degrees, a record that still stands) to Atlanta (minus-9) to Minden, Louisiana (minus-16), ridiculously cold temperatures fell over much of Dixie.

Even in Florida, blizzard-like snow conditions were reported in Tampa while folks in Miami celebrated Valentines Day with the mercury standing at a balmy 29 degrees.

The Port of New Orleans iced over and Mardi Gras parades had to be postponed due to 22-degree weather.

Subzero temperatures were recorded in every state along the Atlantic Seaboard, and even Cuba reported a hard frost on the ground.

Snowdrifts in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, 1899

The Big Blow (1913)

The Big Blow of November 1913 blasted the Great Lakes with a cyclonic weather system that looked a lot like a freezing hurricane.  Two separate cold fronts converged over the warmer waters of the Great Lakes, creating a furious weather event that would never be forgotten.

For some 16 hours, the entire region endured 60-90 mile per hour winds that whipped up whiteout conditions and towering 35-foot waves on the lakes.

On land, cities from Chicago to Cleveland were buried under many feet of snow.   But things were even worse out on the water, where twelve major ships sank – five of the wrecks were never even found – and more than 250 people lost their lives.

Lake Michigan waves crashing ashore at Lincoln Park, Chicago, 1913

The Knickerbocker Storm (1922)

The January 1922 Knickerbocker Storm remains 2010’s only real rival for the title of worst snowstorm in the nation’s capital.   (Well, 1772 was bad too, but since Washington, D.C. hadn’t even been founded yet, we’re not going to count that one.)

In 1922, more than 28 inches of snow piled up in the district, according to official measurements.  All that accumulation led to tragedy when the roof caved in at the city’s most popular new movie house, the Knickerbocker Theatre, killing 108 people and injuring another 133 who had turned out to watch a screening of the silent comedy Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.

Destroyed remains of Washington D.C.’s Knickerbocker Theatre following roof collapse due to heavy snow, 1922

The Siberian Express (1933)

Out West, old-timers still remember the Siberian Express of February 1933, which inconveniently struck at the very lowest point of the Great Depression, just a month before Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and the nation’s economy began its long crawl back toward prosperity.

The storm, which began on the steppes of Russia with the coldest temperatures ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, set records that still stand for the coldest day ever in states as far-flung as Oregon (minus-54 degrees), Texas (minus-23), and Wyoming (minus-63).  Brrrrr! 

Heavy snow in the Colorado Rockies, 1933

5 thoughts on “Snow Day! The 6 Worst Winter Storms in US History

  1. WarIsOver says:

    It’s strange that all these storms cam about every 11 years. Could there be a weather history correlation? I like the picture from the Colorado storm. It reminds me of a Scotsman Ice Machine.

  2. Laurel Anne says:

    The 11 year cycle matches the sun spot cycle. So amazing! Remember in the 70’s when the fear was about a new ice age. Now the fear is the opposite with the Global Warming muckraking

  3. Donna Kearns says:

    I remember a story my father told me I don’t know if its true, but it was about 40 riders”Horse” who set out on a trail ride on March 10th, They made there destination, but were snowed in the next morning, for 40 days. Does anyone have info on this event?

  4. Shabooboo says:

    Great educational and informational historical website, the pictures really bring you to that time. Brrr!

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