Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tales of the St. Vincent Signal Station

A typical Signal Corps station setup in the 1880's
There were many brutal winters in the 19th century up around my hometown area.  Some were before official record keeping, others after.  All were documented in one way or another, however.

The winter of 1887-1888 was one of the hard ones.  The quotes below are from an article written from a meteorological point of view, and contains some fascinating details of temperature and snowfall as recorded by the St. Vincent Signal Corps station1.  The quotes I chose are mainly about the temperatures recorded in St. Vincent over that winter, but they also refer to a notorious blizzard that occurred in January 1888.

And we think we have hard winters now!


Many Upper Midwest residents undoubtedly looked forward to the winter of 1887-88 with apprehension, perhaps even fear. And for good reason. Anyone who had lived in the Minnesota and adjoining states since 1883 had survived an unbroken series of brutal winters: bitterly cold temperatures, blizzards and, at least in many prairie communities, weather related deaths and, more commonly, months of isolation and hardship.

At the far northerly St. Vincent, Minnesota Signal Corps station, temperatures fell to -10 F on 25 October; to zero F on 26 October and to 1 F on 29 October...Winds at St. Vincent reached 42 miles per hour from the northwest on 12 October, probably raising a considerable amount of dust. Unlike other stations in Minnesota and elsewhere, St. Vincent observers, however, did not record any snow during October.

...the 30-31 December [1887] snowstorm was followed by an outbreak of intensely cold Arctic air. Notable minima recorded during the early part of the month included -35 F, -29 F, -43 F, -41 F, -45 F and -54 F at St. Vincent on 2, 7,8, 9, 10 and 11 January, respectively.

Minnesota’s then northernmost station, St. Vincent, reported ”a low barometer rising rapidly” [on 12 January 1888] with a “36 mile per hour gale from the south, ending at 5:25 p.m. The blizzard struck at 1 p.m. [and] beginning at 2:40 p.m. the wind blew a terrific gale , attaining a velocity of 36 to 48 miles per hour from 3 p.m. on the 12th to 2 a.m. on the 13th. Lowest temperature 40 below zero”.

The cold wave which accompanied – or, more accurately, was a major cause of – the Great Blizzard remained entrenched for about ten days, reaching its peak in some sections, east central Minnesota in particular, on 21 January 1888. At far northern St. Vincent, Signal Corps observers recorded a minimum of -34 F on 13 January, a reading probably attributable in part to the clear skies and the relative calm which followed the subsiding blizzard. Even colder conditions followed with minima of -41 F on 14 January and again on 15 January. The already frigid air mass was reinforced by more Arctic air with temperatures at the St. Vincent station dropping to -38 F, -45 F, -38 F and -35 F on 19, 20, 21 and 23 January, respectively.

-43 F and -50 F at St. Vincent on 8, 9 February, respectively; and -38 F and -47 at Moorhead on 8, 9 February... and -62 F at Pembina, Dakota. So far as can be determined, however, the Pembina reading was an unofficial value, perhaps an exaggeration attributable to an imaginative correspondent or, more likely, a reading taken from a poorly exposed or poorly calibrated thermometer (a conclusion buttressed by the fact that the official minimum recorded at the nearby St. Vincent Signal Crops station on the same date was, as noted, a more credible -50 F [officially recorded as -49.9 F]). Had the Pembina reading been taken from a reliable, official thermometer it would, interestingly, have been the lowest temperature yet recorded in what is now North Dakota, exceeding that state’s now officially recognized low of -60 F recorded during the winter of 1935-1936.

whatever its ranking when compared to other frigid Little Ice Age Januaries, January 1888 was singularly cold.

At the end of February 1888, there was a thaw, but the warmth was short lived. A cold wave, although more moderate than the earlier February outbreak, settled into the area on 25-27 February, once again bringing below zero readings to east central Minnesota. In northwest Minnesota, St. Vincent recorded minima of -29 F on 27 February.

A 1 March storm was followed by bitterly cold temperatures: on 3-4 March, temperatures fell to -27 F at St. Vincent...and -29 F at St. Vincent preceded by winds of 54 miles per hour on 20 March...

Although numerous episodes of extreme winter cold occurred after 1888 (e.g. January 1893, February 1899, February 1904, January 1912, January-February 1917, January 1918, January-February 1929, January-February 1936, January 1966, January 1977, December 1983), the Upper Midwest has, at no time since, experienced sustained “ice age” conditions like those that prevailed from 1882-1883 through 1887- 1888.

From:  With a Bang, Not a Whimper:  The Winter of 1887-1888

1 - The Signal Service's field stations grew in number from 24 in 1870 to 284 in 1878. Three times a day (usually 7:35 a.m., 4:35 p.m., and 11:35 p.m.), each station telegraphed an observation to Washington, D.C. These observations consisted of:
  1. Barometric pressure and its change since the last report.
  2. Temperature and its 24-hour change.
  3. Relative humidity.
  4. Wind velocity.
  5. Pressure of the wind in pounds per square foot.
  6. Amount of clouds.
  7. State of the weather.