The East Coast has begun to dig its way out of the massive snow storm that hit on Monday. Unfortunately, more snow is expected in some areas and freezing temperatures and life-threatening wind-chill is making life miserable. It's a really nasty way to end the winter - at least we hope it's the end.
Chicago knows a little something about winter snow storms. No, I'm not referring to the snow storm of 1967 when 23 inches of the white stuff dropped in a day and a half. That's small stuff. I'm talking about the Winter of the Deep Snow, the stuff of legends.
WINTER OF THE DEEP SNOW
The winter of 1830-31 was known as the "Winter of the Deep Snow." In a package of sheets containing memoranda of weather observations, now in possession of the Chicago Historical Society, this winter is thus described, with an added note which says that the snow was four feet deep on the level, and for three weeks the thermometer stood at fifteen degrees below zero. It is stated in Snyder's "Illinois History" that the winter was the severest that had then been experienced by the settlers of Illinois, and that it is memorable in the annals of the state, as the "winter of the deep snow."
During the preceding fall the weather had been unusually mild until Christmas Eve of the year 1830, when snow began falling and continued to fall at intervals for nine weeks, attaining a uniform depth of three feet and four inches. It was drifted in many places to a much greater depth, burying beneath it log cabins and the buildings of the settlers. Deer, wild turkeys, and flocks of prairie chickens invaded the corn fields, and other game like quails and rabbits perished in large numbers from cold and starvation. The deep snow and protracted cold caused much suffering and privation among many of the settlers, who were poorly prepared for such severe weather.
SUFFERINGS IN THE WINTER SEASON
The scantiness of shelter in the early times made very keen the suffering among the inhabitants whenever an unusually cold season occurred. Days and weeks of extreme cold may be experienced in these later days with but passing comment, and with comparatively little inconvenience; but there was scarcely a winter'in the early days, that a great number of settlers arriving during the preceding months had been able to provide themselves with adequate protection against the inclemencies of the weather.
When in 1818, the father of Abraham Lincoln removed from Kentucky to Indiana, he built a "half-faced camp" of unhewn logs, enclosed on three sides, the open front protected only by skins. Such a rude shelter was sometimes called a "pole-shed," described by Dennis Hanks, a cousin of Lincoln, as "just a shack of poles, roofed over, but left open on one side, no floor, no fireplace, not much better than a tree." In his recollections of Lincoln, old Dennis Hanks said, in recalling the events of his boyhood, "We wasn't much better off than Injuns, except that we took an interest in religion and politics." It may well be imagined what hardships were endured in the winter season under such conditions.
Death by freezing was a common occurrence, and a tragedy of this kind is recorded in the Chicago Democrat, in its issue dated January 28, 1834. The news item is as follows: "Mrs. Smith, wife of a Mr. Smith residing at Blue Island, who left this place on the second of January, which was the coldest day we have experienced this winter, for her home, when within a mile and a half of her dwelling, sank benumbed and exhausted, to rise no more. When found, she was dreadfully mangled and torn to pieces by wolves. She has left a husband and five children to mourn her untimely end." A few days later a party in pursuit of wolves encountered a couple of officers from the fort, who were just returning from a mission of charity in visiting the half-starved orphans of this poor woman who had been frozen to death on the prairie. "One by one," writes Hoffman, in his book, "A Winter in the West," "our whole party collected around to make inquiries about the poor children."
One of the chief causes of freezing to death was the prevalence of whisky drinking, which was the reigning vice of the time. Whisky was on sale at the cabins and houses of many of the early settlers, and often very little or nothing else in the way of provisions or supplies could be obtained at these so called "groceries." Thus in the winter season many men of drinking habits would walk long distances to visit such places scattered along the country roads near Chicago. The result was that many persons came to their deaths by exposure to the cold while in an intoxicated condition. It was related by Mr. Benjamin F. Hill, an early settler of Gross Point, a dozen miles north of Chicago, that he recalled twenty-seven deaths from freezing during the early years of his residence there in the "thirties" and "forties." These mostly occurred among the transient residents,—discharged soldiers, lake sailors out of employment between seasons, and hired men. "Freezing to death," said Mr. Hill, "was more common than any other form of fatality."
Chicago: Its History and Its Builders By Josiah Seymour Currey (1918)
The Deep Snow: Winter of 1830-31 has legends that Chicago's records fail to shake
Publication By Illinois State Historical Society, "The Winter of the Deep Snow," page 47. (There is a really great account of the storm. Worth reading.)
Keith Sheridan, Inc., "Work Relief (Chicago Snowstorm)" - 1934, Woodcut by Charles Turzak (1899-1986)