Illinois’ frosty history

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library & Museum. 
Illinois is certainly not a stranger to cold winters, and this year is shaping up to be no different.

Throughout history the state has endured some truly brutal and bone-chilling winters. Just two years ago, on January 31, 2019, a weather station in the northwestern Illinois town of Mt. Carroll reported the coldest temperature ever recorded in Illinois: -38 degrees. It broke the old record of -36 which had been set in Congerville, near Peoria, on January 5, 1999.

But these record-setting cold snaps do not stand alone in Illinois’ frosty history.

Recent history is full of cleverly-named winter storms which have struck the state. Who can forget 2011’s “Snowpocalypse,” with its scores of trapped motorists on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, or 2015’s “Super Bowl Blizzard” which hit almost half of the state just in time to trap many of us at home for the big game?

The 2011 storm was the larger of the two, but it was not the worst snowstorm to hit northern Illinois. In both Chicago and Rockford it is ranked as the third-largest snowstorm to hit since records have been kept – a time period which stretches back to the early days of the 20th century.

Rockford measured its all-time record snowfall on January 6-7, 1918, when the city was hit by 16.3 inches of snow. Another 16-inch snowfall in the final days of March 1926 came in second, just ahead of the 2011 storm’s 15.1 inches.

In Chicago many residents remember the great blizzard of 1979, a storm so powerful that it is widely credited with ending the administration of the city’s mayor. But even this historic storm was not the largest one recorded in the history of a city known for harsh winter weather.

The gold standard for Chicago blizzards was the storm which struck the city on January 26-27, 1967, dropping 23 inches of snow and burying the city over the course of 29 hours. The snowfall blew away the old record of 19 inches from March 25-26, 1930.

Man measures snowfall on his roof after the blizzard
of '79. Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives. 
As bad as the heavy snow was, the 1967 storm was accompanied by wind gusts of as much as 53 miles per hour, combining to make it a uniquely dangerous situation. The blowing and drifting snow reached a point where drifts as high as ten feet blocked runways at Midway Airport. There was so much snow on the ground that it stayed there through March 9, six weeks later.

Streets and expressways alike were jammed with thousands of cars and buses which had to be abandoned. Hospitals received critically-needed supplies by helicopter. Students in Markham were trapped in their school buildings because buses could not reach them. They spent the night in the library and the gym.

“This is a night that will go down in many memory books,” Superintendent J. Lewis Weingarner told the Chicago Tribune.

When it was over, the storm had cost 60 lives according to the National Weather Service.

Four inches of snow had been predicted for that day. Two days earlier Chicago had measured a high temperature of 65 degrees – still a record high in the city for January 24.

But as any Illinoisan knows, it isn’t just the Chicago area that is hit hard by winter storms. “Snowpocalypse” and the Super Bowl blizzard struck large areas of downstate as well. An early-season snow and ice storm in 2006 knocked out power to parts of the Decatur area for days.

Official weather records in central Illinois only go back to 1905. But accounts of an ice storm which struck an area from Griggsville (near Quincy) to Mattoon in 1883 are widespread. The storm hammered the Springfield area on February 3, dropping trees and telegraph lines, and in the process cutting off the area from communication with the rest of the world. The Illinois State Register called it, “the Storm Phenomenal –the storm before which all others pale into insignificance.”

Even Governor Shelby Cullom was not spared. The General Assembly appropriated $113.62 for “trimming and cleaning grounds of Executive Mansion, rendered necessary on account of sleet storm of February 1883.”

Just to the north in Logan County, according to the History of Logan County, Illinois, Volume 1, “Fruit and shade trees were broken down by the mass of ice clinging to them. During the night, the almost continuous crashing of branches was heard everywhere.”

The region was hit by the second half of the double-whammy a few days later when temperatures suddenly warmed and much of the ice and snow melted at once, causing flooding.

Cars in snow outside Stateville. Photo from the
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
That same phenomenon hit southern Illinois after the Christmas blizzard of 2004 which dropped as much as 12-20 inches in southeastern Illinois and paralyzed parts of several states for days just before the holiday. In Illinois, 16 counties were declared federal disaster areas because of this historic snowfall. The region was then locked into record cold following the snow, as Christmas day temperatures plunged below zero, only to rebound in early January leading to rises on local rivers and streams.

On a statewide basis, the state climatologist at the University of Illinois maintains records going back to 1902. For the entire state of Illinois, the official state climatologist records indicate that the snowiest winter occurred in 1979 when 44.5 inches of snow fell, just barely edging out the previous year’s total of 44.4 inches. For the purposes of measuring winter weather, a year is defined as running from July 1 to June 30 and is named for the second calendar year. So, for example, the southern Illinois snowfall of December 2004 would count as part of the 2005 total.

Illinois’ least snowy winter during the time for which records exist came in 2012, when only 9.2 inches of snow were measured in the state. However, snowfall totals fluctuate wildly from one year to the next. The third-snowiest winter in Illinois came just two years later in 2014 when 39.4 inches were measured, but the third-least snowy winter was just three years after that in 2017 with only 9.6 inches. In 1965 the state saw 33.6 inches of snow, but a year later in 1966 it received only 9.9 inches.

Illinois has had its share of white Christmases over the years, with the snowiest of these coming in 1951. Aurora led the way that year with 31 inches of snow on the ground on December 25 – a snowfall record for the date anywhere in Illinois. To the west, Morrison and Dixon each had 25 inches of snow that day, while points to the east, including Midway Airport, had 17 inches.

Man shovels snow in Huntley, 1936.
Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives.
Of course, Illinois is a very large state geographically, stretching more than 400 miles from north to south, so winter weather will vary. From data collected between 1981 and 2010, the northern tier of Illinois counties; roughly everything north of Interstate 88; has a better than 50% chance of a white Christmas in any particular year, while most of downstate has odds of about 1-in-3, though counties in the Ohio valley are less than that.

Most of Illinois’ record-setting snowfalls have come in the latter part of the season, late January and February, though a few have hit in December or March.

But even the arrival of spring is no guarantee that Old Man Winter won’t strike again. In May 1929 portions of central and southern Illinois were hit by a freak storm which dropped 2-5 inches of snow in an area stretching from Decatur to East St. Louis.

Stay warm out there!