Record Low Temperatures 130 Years Ago

Ice jam in the Potomac River, Feb. 1918
Ice jam in the Potomac River, Feb. 1918

You think it’s cold today? Well, it is … but 130 years ago, there were some record freezing temperatures causing problems all over the city. We went through the papers to dig up some old stories about the misery of winter and found some good stuff.

Here’s an article that we dug up in The Evening Star from January 7th, 1884, 130 years ago today.

“Yes, it’s pretty cold yet,” was Lieut. Powell’s answer to the inquiries of a STAR reporter, at the signal office this morning. “The thermometer at 7 o’clock this morning was twenty-four degrees below the average temperature for January. The force of the cold wave is spent, however, and the weather will warm up considerably to-day. The lowest temperature was in Minnesota–43 degrees below zero. If we had received the full force of that wave, the thermometer here would have gone down to 10 degrees below zero. We did get a good deal of it, however. The mean temperature yesterday morning was four degrees above zero, and before 11 o’clock last night the most severe cold was reached, 1.7 degrees above. After midnight the mercury began to rise. This wave seemed to take a south-easterly course rather than easterly, and gave some pretty severe weather down south.

The extent of this cold wave was very accurately predicted by the Signal service, and the warning they gave through THE STAR prevented a great deal of damage to water pipes. Still, the penetrating cold in many instances did its work notwithstanding precautions, and the plumbers’ hearts are gladdened in consequence.

The skating for the past two days has been excellent, and a crowd of merry circlers have taken advantage of the smooth ice on Babcock Lake to indulge in the healthful and exhilarating sport. The canal is frozen tight and the ice is as smooth as glass. A number of more expert skaters took a trip to Alexandria yesterday and report the ice as splendid. Mr. Robert J. W. Brewster, stepson of the Attorney General, was a member of a party of four that started on the trip. One of the party dropped out at the Long bridge and another took the train back from Alexandria. When within a mile of Alexandria Mr. Brewster skated over an air-hole and went in up to his waist. His pants were frozen stiff in a minute, but he continued to Alexandria, and, after drying his clothes, skated back to Washington. The river is entirely frozen up, but the ice is very rough and the skating is not good, and, besides is dangerous.

You couldn’t pay me to skate on the Potomac River. That sounds like an absolutely terrible idea. Also, can anyone remember the last time the river froze over? I certainly can’t.

Ice jam in the Potomac River, Feb. 1918
Ice jam in the Potomac River, Feb. 1918

Below is another excerpt from The Evening Star from that morning.

Navigation on the river is entirely suspended. It is thought that if the weather moderates, as predicted, the river ice will soon begin to move.

The cold snap did not close the channel till yesterday morning, and there was quite a good supply of oysters at the wharf, sufficient for home consumption for a week or two. No boats are running this side of Quantico to-day; but the City of Alexandria and Thompson, both from river landings, reached that point last evening, and the boats from Norfolk were expected to land their passengers there to-day, so that they could come up by the A. and F. train.

There are some who are fearful that should the ice move off suddenly that the Long bridge and much of the work on the Potomac flats will be endangered.

As you can imagine, it was a painfully uncomfortable day 130 years ago, much more so than today, I’d say.

Speaking of the Potomac flats, you should read up on the story of Hains Point.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Angry Parakeet

    The Potomac froze over in 1986, also in 1996 – those stick in my mind but there have been others I just can’t put a year to them.

  • Paul Myers

    The bay froze over in 1976 so I think the Potomac would also have been totally frozen