Note: In our second installment of the Space City Rewind, we tackle the biggest snow on record in Southeast Texas. Our first installment about the November 1992 tornado outbreak can be found here.
“All of Wednesday night polar spirits swept the earth until boundless snow had deformed the withered heath and the people of this section for the first time within the memory of the oldest inhabitant, looked out upon nature fringed with a beard made white with other snows than those of age.” – Brenham Daily Banner, February 15, 1895
Back on Christmas Eve in 2004, much of South Texas was blanketed in white, as a perfect setup to create a miraculous White Christmas occurred. Galveston received four inches of snow, Angleton six inches, Friendswood three inches, and Bay City 8-10 inches. While the 2004 Christmas Eve miracle stands almost on its own for modern Southeast Texas snowstorms, the great Valentine’s Day snow of 1895 stands alone as Southeast Texas’s and the Gulf Coast’s greatest snowstorm of all-time. The following interactive map shows snow totals from this remarkable event, which affected a swath from Texas to Maryland.
Above: An interactive map with snow reports and some details from the 1895 storm
So why did this event occur? How disruptive was it for coastal residents? Will we ever see its like again? Put your feet up, because the latest installment of the Space City Rewind takes you back to the 19th Century: The Great Snowstorm of Valentine’s Day 1895.
How does a massive snowstorm develop in the Gulf of Mexico? We have scant data to look at from 1895. Thus, we have to rely primarily on newspaper accounts of the storm and our knowledge from modern storms, such as Christmas Eve 2004.
Let’s start with how we got here first.
The winter of 1894-95 was, in a word, cold. In my research of this event, I came across news stories and even letters from the Plains pleading for help due to that winter’s extreme cold. This particular dispatch in the February 17, 1895 Galveston Daily News described the suffering experienced in Oklahoma:
“Many settlers are killing prairie dogs and eating them, having nothing to feed their families. They are in a piteous state of destitution without parallel in the settlement of new countries. It may be painful to drag before the public the distressing picture of a single individual starving to death, but when multiplied many hundred times one can then form a picture of this accumulated suffering.”
The citrus crop in Florida was absolutely decimated in the winter of 1894-95, in some cases permanently. Two serious freezes did back to back damage on most of that state’s crops.
Meanwhile, for Houston the winter of 1894-95 ranks as the eighth coldest on record (weather records in 1895 came from the downtown weather bureau office). Six of Houston’s 35 coldest days on record occurred in the 1894-95 winter, and by nearly two full degrees, February 1895 remains the coldest February in Houston’s weather records. It also just trails January 1978 for coldest of any month on record.
Despite being the second coldest month on record, February 1895 was a bit of a roller coaster to start. Temperatures peaked on February 6th around 60° before a mega-cold front blasted in on February 7th, when the day’s high temperatures didn’t get out of the low 20s. You read that correctly. The only other day as cold as February 7, 1895 occurred on February 13, 1899 (known as the Great Arctic Outbreak), when Houston hit just 20 degrees. After a low of 10° on February 8th (the fifth coldest morning on record in Houston), we warmed back up into the 40s through the 11th. Another reinforcing cold front seems to have swept across Texas on Tuesday the 12th and Wednesday the 13th. It likely arrived in Houston on Wednesday evening, as the Houston Post recounted in their Thursday morning edition:
“The unusual sight of falling snow was witnessed last night in this city. The wind was blowing steadily from the north and a cold, misty rain which began to fall between 7 and 8 o’clock, soon changed to sleet and then to snow. At midnight, the streets were covered with an exceedingly thin mantle of snow, but the indications were that the fall of snow would probably be changed to rain. It has been five or six years since any snow fell in this city, and it will be quite a novelty to many should it remain on the ground until this morning.”
Daily weather maps, published in 1895 by the US Department of Agriculture are really the only raw observed data we can study. Based on the maps, the simplest explanation of the evolution of the 1895 storm was this: A front moved through East Texas on February 13th and reinforced the cold air overhead. Cold air continued to filter in from the north (as seen by north winds cutting straight down the Plains deep into Texas on the morning of February 14th).
Meanwhile, you can see on the daily weather maps above that precipitation in California on the morning of February 13th moved into the interior Southwest and Texas by February 14th. My hunch is that an upper level disturbance was passing through, which set up a pretty significant overrunning event in Texas and Louisiana. Overrunning is where warm, moist air aloft flows over dense, cold air at the ground. As this happens, it can lead to precipitation, which, during a typical East Texas winter, usually falls as rain. But, obviously if temperatures are cold enough and the atmospheric conditions are just right, precipitation can fall as sleet, freezing rain, or snow. This is what occurred in the 2004 storm.
Based on the surface maps above, what may have set February 1895 apart was probably an additional surface low pressure that developed in the Gulf Wednesday night and Thursday and swept west to east offshore from Texas to Florida. Many of the accounts I read in Louisiana noted that snow stopped or tapered off before really ramping up on Valentine’s Day afternoon and evening. This is consistent with a storm passing by offshore (and strengthening, as wind was mentioned a bit more prominently in Galveston and Louisiana newspapers than in Houston or interior Texas ones). The storm cut across Florida, dropping snow as far south and east as Tallahassee and Lake City. It’s tough to presume what happened after this point. My hunch is that a secondary low developed a bit further north than the first one, traveled northeast, and dumped a healthy snow in the mountains of the Southeast, into Virginia and as far north as Delaware before exiting. Either way, what occurred in mid-February 1895 was truly a meteorological anomaly, possibly one of the greatest weather anomalies in U.S. history, and one of the most interesting storms I’ve ever researched.
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“A Genuine Snowstorm in Houston, Texas”
As laid out above, rain began on Wednesday, February 13th during the evening. It changed to sleet and then snow around 8 or 9 PM. By as late as 1 AM on Thursday, February 14th, something along the lines of what we’d call a “coating” (less than one inch, roughly) covered the city. Based on the accounts published in the Houston Post, between 1 and 3 AM, the storm likely began to develop and deepen in the Gulf. It turned colder in Houston, temperatures dropped below freezing, and the snow began to accumulate fairly rapidly.
On the morning of Valentine’s Day, Houston was a winter wonderland. The snow had accumulated to about one foot deep by 9 AM. The city was quiet and likely beautiful. “At the usual hour when stores and shops were being opened and men were hurrying to their work,” the Houston Post reported, “the streets were silent and deserted, and the almost trackless snow told the tale of a city’s quiet slumbers.” While it may seem difficult to imagine, Houston could have held its own with Boston or New York or Old City Philadelphia in terms of scenic winter beauty that day.
The snow continued most of the day and by the time things began to taper off on the morning of the 15th, Houston had recorded 20 inches of snow. It remains the single greatest snowstorm in our city’s history.
As you would expect with one to two feet of snow in Houston in 1895, the city was full of stories and mischief. Accounts from the morning include that of John K. Patrick, who was the manager of the Houston Transfer Company. He got outside at 8 AM and toured the city, “seated in a sleigh that would have done credit to a city where sleighing is a common winter amusement,” wrote the Post. Sleighs became a common sight, practical but also amusing. Patrick helped citizens struggling with the snow get about the city, including Harris County Commissioner Baldwin Rice. The ride ended when a gang of snowball hurlers attacked.
“Snowballs took the place of Valentines”
Virtually every account of this storm from every town I looked at had one thing in common: Mischievous snowballers. Naturally, in a place where snow is a rarity, you would expect young residents to build snowmen and hurl snowballs. From Austin through New Orleans, the snowball became a source of amusement and, at times, weaponry.
The Houston Post sternly admonished the police of Houston for not doing enough to control the increasingly unruly gangs of snowball hurlers. On Valentine’s Day afternoon, one particularly intense group assembled at Preston and Travis, where Market Square Park sits today. Roughly 50 or 60 men and boys hurled snowballs at passers-by, which was common, but they opted to include chunks of coal and small stones within the snowballs. An unfortunate German resident named Egbert Muller was hit by two snowballs, one in the mouth and one below the eye. The first one knocked out two of Muller’s teeth. The second wounded him below the eye.
Despite that, most indulged in snowballing for good-natured fun. Crowds gathered at Main Street and Congress Street, others at Main and Preston. If you were out and about on the streets of Houston on February 14, 1895, you were pelted by snowballs. Every so often, as you’d expect, someone didn’t take kindly to being assaulted by snowballs. As the Post reported, in one or two instances “the parties aggrieved pulled their guns, the crowd scattered and probably thought better of their act.”
In Brenham, northwest of Houston, the story was much the same. The Brenham Daily Banner had one of the best descriptions of a snowstorm that I’ve ever read. They described the scene in Brenham on Valentine’s Day:
“Even that August body, the commissioners’ court, who have faced the music of mud throwing, kicking, etc. until they imagined they were impervious to the assault of snowballs, came down from the court house en route to dinner looking as stern as a Russian Czar and as sour as the disappointed end of Washington precinct over their decision about the capital, but it was not a sufficient coat of mail to protect them and they were snowballed until they reached a restaurant with bruised faces.”
Even better was their description of a group of young women that visited the top of the courthouse in Brenham:
“Quite a number of young ladies were out and entered with zest into the sport of snowballing. They visited the court house and went up in the cupola to get a good view of the snow covered city and pronounced it a scene unsurpassed in sublime grandeur. The sable pall of sky – the billowy hills swathed in the snow robes that had so kindly been thrown over Nature, the skeleton trees fringed with rich silver drapery and distant streams dumb in frost chains made a picture never witnessed before from the Brenham court house.”
In Opelousas, Louisiana, just north of Lafayette, “a majority of the people deserted their business cares to go forth on the streets and do battle with his or her neighbor.” In New Orleans, “the whole city was either throwing snowballs or being hit by them.” Even when policemen tried to intervene and slow down the snowball assaults, they were aggressively pelted by snowballs and forced to run away. Captain Robert E. Kerkam, who was the Weather Bureau chief in New Orleans was recognized, pelted with snowballs, and told “You are responsible for it all.” Always blaming the meteorologist, even in 1895.
One of the more humorous snowball stories came from Austin, where a crowd of young men and boys gathered at the state capitol. After the legislature adjourned, they launched snowballs at the doors of the capitol or any lawmaker who poked his head out. Police eventually broke that situation up, but amusingly the outgoing governor, Jim Hogg, was not immune. The Austin Weekly Statesman described the incident.
“Governor Hogg and Representatives Kennedy and Owsley were the first to leave the capitol, and they got well out of the door before the snow ball party observed them. Then the balls flew thick and fast and the portly form of Governor Hogg soon looked as if he had been rolled in a snow bank. Balls struck him and the two representatives everywhere, but notwithstanding they appeared to enjoy the fun as much as the boys, especially Governor Hogg. Mr. Owsley had an umbrella with him which he hoisted as a means to ward off balls and it was totally demolished.”
The story was no different in Galveston, which received 15.4 inches of snow. A group of about fifty boys hurled snowballs at the corner of Avenue H and Tremont Street (23rd Street). A bakery delivery driver was the victim of some of these snowballs. He “jumped from his seat and started after one of the boys with his whip. The boy ran and all the rest followed the man, howling with delight. He was thrown down and rolled in the snow until he looked like a pillar of salt. He walked back to his wagon very meekly.”
In a more serious Galveston incident, a gentleman was shot at 27th and Market. Jake O’Donnell received a slight gunshot wound in his side courtesy of someone displeased by being snowballed. Police were unable to track down the shooter.
Despite these occasional stories and poor behavior, many a resident of Texas and Louisiana had one heck of a time that Valentine’s Day.
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Fine Specimens of Snow Building
What snowstorm of this caliber wouldn’t necessitate building a snowman? Indeed, Houston and the Gulf Coast put on their best displays. Houston’s snowmen received rather detailed news coverage:
“In the Fourth Ward (north) may yet be seen fine specimens of snow building, the work of artistically inclined citizens. A man in an attitude of prayer kneels on a mammoth ball of snow at Mechanic 6’s engine house. Mr. George Rooney architect: grandpa with his overcoat on and broom in hand looks from the yard of Mr. J. Krohn; a bride with trailing trousseau and poke bonnet is admired by passers-by in the yard of Professor Charles Felton; George Washington with a cob pipe in his mouth watches the pedestrians on Washington Street from the yard of Mr. Albert Gregor, and others in out of the way places.” – Houston Post, February 17, 1895
Galveston held their own too. As the Daily News reported on Saturday the 16th:
“There were many snow men created yesterday. Some of them were unlike anything in the heavens above or in the earth beneath. They were fearfully and wonderfully made. The biggest and most attractive of these being strange to Galveston is that at No. 2210 avenue M. The creators and sculptors are Messrs. Kennedy, Barry and Elbert, who took three hours to finish their work. They trusted to the approaching norther to put breath into an otherwise life-like snow man. This statue will measure 9 feet in height. On his head is a hat of the obsolete fashion worn by Uncle Sam, whiskers of holly twigs adorn his face and give play for the wind. His mustache is of cedar leaves and his hair of oleander leaves. His eyes are of pecans and row of buttons down his front is of pecans also. The arms extend outward and slightly upward. The nose, cheeks, neck, and body were carved with a butcher knife and are like other people’s noses, cheeks, and necks.”
Clearly, despite not being familiar with snow on the Gulf Coast, people got the hang of it quickly. There were other amusing and interesting stories too. A farmer from just outside Houston shared a letter with the Houston Post from his farm manager. The letter read:
“Dear Sir: The snow is twelve inches on the level and still snowing. You need not be uneasy about the outdoor stock. I have got all of them up around the barn and am feeding them. We have one young colt, two young calves and six little pigs. The pigs I have in the house by the fire. Everything is O.K.”
In Galveston, a group of investors from Des Moines, Iowa were visiting during the snow. According to the Daily News, they “came to Galveston to bask in sunshine and pluck flowers from open gardens, spent yesterday hugging a cheerless radiator at the Tremont and left in the evening for San Antonio.” From San Antonio, they were slated to go to Monterey, and if they didn’t “find warm weather there, they vow they will continue to the equator.”
Many people know Dr. Isaac Cline from the 1900 hurricane, and the book “Isaac’s Storm,” but he was in charge of the weather bureau office in Galveston during the 1895 storm as well. Cline “didn’t do a thing (on Valentine’s Day) but stand at the telephone and answer inquiries.”
The Daily News in Galveston summed up the plight of stranded train travelers rather eloquently.
“There was no merriment to be had from the storm in that portion of Galveston. Of all places in the world to wait, the waiting room of an average Texas depot is the worst, and Galveston’s station is not one to laud in picture books of buildings to which people point with pride. It is a cold and dreary place, and belated passengers peppered the genial Perrett (railway official) with enough interrogations to have bankrupted a type foundry of question marks had each been printed.”
Alvin’s oldest inhabitant was “snowbound and cannot be seen. As soon as he thaws out he will be interviewed.” The Galveston Daily News published a rather self-aware poem on February 17th.
The Texas Coast Land
Beautiful for situation,
Dates and palms at every station,
In the Texas coast land.
Leave your frozen, icy north,
Take your baggage and go forth
To the Texas coast land.
If you want delightful breezes
And would ‘scape continual freezes,
Seek the Texas coast land.
If you’re tired of furs and wraps
And all the similar kind of traps,
Find the Texas coast land.
If you like the sun each day,
Hear what I have got to say:
It’s in the Texas coast land.
If you’ve enough of sleigh-bells ringing,
And would hear the sweet birds singing,
Hie you to the Texas coast land.
The beautiful Texas coast land,
Where there surely is lots of sand,
Where the flowers bloom throughout the year,
And the people all are full of cheer.
If you think it doesn’t freeze here,
Ne’er grows cold, and never snows here,
Then surely you should have been here
On the day you see below here,
For it surely was a hummer,
And proved it is not always summer
In the Texas coast land.
Galveston, Feb. 14, 1895.
Perhaps the Galveston Daily News summed it up as best as any Texas or Gulf Coast resident could. “As improbable as it may seem to you, we are going to be longing for some of this snow next summer.”
“Cattle Loss of Fully 10 Percent”
While the snow was certainly beautiful and a source of great amusement, there were other unfortunate and serious stories to share. Near Beaumont, a gentleman named Berry Billus was found dead in the snow on Friday the 15th. It was presumed he fell down, was unable to get up, and simply froze to death. Someone named Jack Gibson was found frozen to death near Round Rock, outside Austin, after injuring his hand.
In Clear Creek, near present day League City, large herds of loose cattle made it dangerous for people to get about town, and a woman, presumably fleeing a longhorn, fell down. “The beef fell in the ditch and was soon covered with snow. Many cattle have fallen and many more will die tonight,” reported the Daily News. Though no accurate final tally exists, thousands upon thousands of cattle perished in the extreme weather. Abe Head Pierce (also known as Shanghai Pierce) was a leading expert on cattle at the time. He was quoted as believing approximately ten percent of all Texas cattle would be killed because of the extreme cold and snow.
Management of cattle may have inadvertently contributed to their demise. Wire fencing was still relatively new at that time. It worked to cut off stock from food and shelter. As it was described by members of the Southern Texas Livestock Association, “The loss is greater today than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago, other things being equal, because of the wire fencing that has cut the stock off from the bottoms. Cattle will never move against the wind, rain, sleet, or snow, but drift with it as soon as it starts. They used to turn their backs to the northers and gradually drift into the bottoms, where they would get protection by the trees and find some kind of green food that would keep life in them ‘till the severity of the cold passed. Now it is different. They are driven by the cold against some wire fence and there they stop and freeze and starve to death.” The Livestock Association estimated stock losses to be greater than 25 percent.
Losses weren’t limited to cattle. In Genoa, near present day Hobby Airport, numerous birds, robins in particular, could not handle the cold and snow and were found lying dead about the area. For southwest Louisiana, Cameron Parish saw thousands of cattle reportedly killed, in addition to many orange trees.There were several reports of shipwrecks off the Texas coast, though none serious as far as my research found.
Brownsville, in far South Texas, received a record of around five inches of snow. The Brownsville Daily Herald issued an appeal to its readers to help the less fortunate because of suffering:
“There is undoubtedly much suffering among the very poor of this place, due to the cold. Many of the jacals which serve as dwellings for from one to a dozen or more persons consist of a single room built of rude brush and grass, through the cracks of which the snow enters almost as freely as it falls outside. Those of our citizens who are in comfortable circumstances should do all in their power to alleviate the distress of these poor creatures. Give what you can spare to the needy ones today and give it with a willing hand.”
Back in Houston, there were serious concerns over structural integrity, as many roofs (especially flat ones) were never constructed with snow in mind. There were some incidents noted. The Perry Building, located at Congress and Fannin lost its awning, as the weight of the snow was too heavy. A drug store on Main Street suffered the same problem, while the Macatee Warehouse on Washington Avenue lost part of its rear wall. It’s likely that many people suffered leaky roofs after this storm.
By Saturday, Houston’s 20 inches of snow had reduced to about six to eight inches, and “sleighing was little better than pulling through the mud.” And also by Saturday, streetcar service was back up and running in places like Houston, Galveston, and New Orleans, but not after suffering tremendously during the storm.
In Houston, the Post reported that the street car company was “perhaps the worst sufferer by the present state of the weather.” Streetcars were abandoned at Main and Preston, as the snow “kept falling with almost blinding rapidity.” By 10 AM on Valentine’s Day, street car service had essentially shut down, which forced streetcar company workers to get creative. In Houston, that meant constructing an iron snow plow in about a day. By midday Friday, the plow was attached to a street car and pushed by two motors. It did good work until it hit a drift on McKinney Street and broke. Wooden plows were also constructed, continuing the work all afternoon, and the street car system was fully operational by Saturday.
“Paralyzed” was the word used to describe Galveston’s streetcar service, according to the Daily News. The Railway Company made an effort by sending out a dust sweeper, but as you might expect in two to five foot drifts, this didn’t work. “Southern street railways are equipped with all the modern improvements for keeping passengers cool,” the paper reported, “but when it comes to Arctic blizzards they quietly refrain from idle boasting.” Like their counterparts in Houston, the Galveston’s streetcar company developed a plow of their own. It took some effort, but within a couple days, all was back to normal there also. The head of the Railway Company said he would “donate the snow plow to the Texas historical society of Galveston when he gets through with it. He never anticipates having to use it again.”
New Orleans had many of the same problems. The general mood was cheerful, but as street cars ran slower and slower, with more delays, problems began to pile up. Like in Galveston, dust brushes were the primary means of trying to clear snow. Obviously this failed, and eventually, the majority of New Orleans street cars came to a halt. Mule cars tried to pick up some of the slack, but they failed also. As the Picayune reported, “There was a mournful-looking line of cars, each with a forlorn looking mule attached to it, standing on Canal Street, with a few people who still vainly hoped that they would get home by the cars, sitting or standing impatiently in them.” The situation returned to normal after a couple days, once melting began and a plow was constructed.
On a slightly more positive note, shoe retailers cashed in from the snow and muddy mess. Sales of boots and overshoes in Houston on Valentine’s Day exceeded the combined sales of the previous seven years.
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So Was the 1895 Snow a Blizzard?
To meet the stringent requirements of being classified as a blizzard, a storm must have sustained winds of 35 mph and visibility of ¼ mile or less for 3 consecutive hours. Did the snow of 1895 qualify? We’ll never know for sure, but in places east of Houston and on the coast it sounds like it may have been close.
Not many specific enough accounts exist from the 1895 storm itself, but we can gain some insight from a Valentine’s Day 1911 retrospective published in the Beaumont Enterprise. They mentioned that initially there was no wind as snow began Wednesday night. By morning, that quickly changed. “With the coming of daylight the wind sprang up,” the Enterprise reported, “and the snow by that time had changed to a dry and fine sort which blew hither and thither and filled corners and banked two, three, four feet high in the drifts. The front doors were barred and the snow was banked so high against the gates that people had to carve a pathway through it before they could get out.” It’s not too revealing that many places saw large snow drifts, because dry snow drifts easily. Using visibility criteria, I have no doubt that blizzard requirements were met in the Golden Triangle and on the coast above Galveston. Beaumont received approximately 28 inches of snow from this storm. Descriptions of the snow were that it came in a “blinding, heavy form which is so common in the north.”
We can’t truly say the great snow of 1895 was a blizzard, but that should not matter. The great snowstorm of 1895 was a weather event that we may never see again in Houston and the Gulf Coast. It will endure one of the most special storms in our city’s history.
A sincere thank you to Timothy Ronk and the staff at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center for helping track down some photos of this storm from Houston and accessing the Houston Post. The staff at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center was also extremely helpful in searching for any information they had on the storm and its impacts near Beaumont and Port Arthur. Thanks also to Peggy Dillard and Sean McConnell at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston for pulling photos from the storm at the coast. Also, a thank you to Brian Brettschneider, Scott Doering, Larry Harris, Tim Humphrey, and Tom Malmay for providing links, pictures, and information to help direct my research. Thanks to Pati Threatt at the Frazar Memorial Library of McNeese State University for allowing us to share an image of Lake Charles.
Beaumont Enterprise, 14 Feb. 1911, courtesy of the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center.
Chapman, Betty Trapp. Historic Photos of Houston. Nashville: Turner Publishing Company, 2007. Print.
Cooperative observer weather data retrieved for various locations at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.
Galveston Photographs, [#2-11] (Sealy Residence) [#3-13] (The Strand). Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.
Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Items MSS 169.020, MSS 169.021, MSS 248-155, MSS 248-1052, RG D 006N. 1969.4557, 20th century deep water editon by Wentworth, p. 63 & 81.
Houston Post, 14-17 Feb. 1895, accessed on microfilm at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library.
“Illustrated 20th Century deep water edition of Houston, Texas: the progressive city of the empire state,” by Wentworth via Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library.
Larry Harris shared his grandfather’s photos of the storm from Kountze. You can see more on his Flickr page.
“Louisiana Weather Journal and Agriculturist,” published by Louisiana Weather Service, March 10, 1895
New Orleans Picayune, 10 Feb. 1895 and 14-18 Feb. 1895, accessed via Gale through Houston Public Library.
Opelousas Courier, 16 Feb. 1895, accessed via Library of Congress.
Portal to Texas History (used for newspapers and photographs as credited above).