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I was raised on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where blizzards often arrived in October and the snow drifts sometimes endured until late in April. Hence I was more than surprised when my first St. Louis snowfall — a mere inch or two, as I recall — brought groans and wails and even a minor car smash to my colleagues at the History Museum. Since that time, decades ago, I continually amuse my fellow workers with winter tales of ten-foot-high Michigan snows, frigid temperatures, and water that freezes deep for weeks on end.
Some of my friends, native St. Louisans, recall that winters used to be colder here in this river city. Of course none of us remembers “the winter of the big freeze,” a spectacular period in 1856 that Walter Stevens wrote about in his Centennial History of Missouri, published in 1921. A few of his oldest readers may have remembered when:
The river closed on New Years and remained frozen over until March. All traffic between Illinois and the Missouri side was on the ice bridge. The winter was so unusual that it was celebrated by the building of an ice monument on the Levee at the foot of Market Street. This monument, Mr. Stevens reveals, was made by sportive volunteers who cut the blocks of ice from the river.
That was all very well, but the sporting ended with the breaking of the ice in March, which led to the greatest steamboat disaster in the city’s history. Great heaps of ice floes, twenty or thirty feet high, began to drift downriver. “Along the Levee,” Stevens writes, “from the sugar refinery to the foot of Almond Street, was a fringe of boats so thick that it was possible to walk of a mile or more by stepping from deck to deck and not once going ashore.” One heap of ice caught a boat called Submarine No. 4, which crashed into another called, oddly enough, the Federal Arch. The two tore into eight more steamboats, and then, according to the Centennial History, with a roar that could be heard far into the city, the ten boats moved down a mass of wreckage, crushing more steamboats, wharf boats, and barges. The rivermen were helpless in the face of Nature’s tremendous powers; they stood on the shore with the crowds that had gathered and watched the sorrowful spectacle.
As this winter of 2012 moves on, we don’t really know what weather awaits us, but we certainly hope for no disasters to write about in future histories.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society