FREAKS OF NATURE IN THE U.S.
History now and then repeats itself in respect to long cold winters, as that through which we have recently passed. Several such winters are remembered in the annals of our State, and some far more rigorous than it was. In the winter of 1842-3, snow fell to the depth of two feet or more, and remained on the ground for many weeks, with the temperature ranging from 10 to 38 degrees below zero. For duration and continued cold it exceeded the famous “winter of the deep snow,” that of 1830-31. On the other hand, many strangely mild winters have been experienced in this latitude—that of 1889-90, as an instance, when, in January, snakes emerged from their hibernation, insects flitted about in the sunshine and farmers plowed up their old meadows.
But the most notable natural phenomena are the sporadic freaks very seldom, if ever, repeated. Of this class was the singular “dark day,” during the Revolutionary war. The sky was clear and the sun was not eclipsed by interposition of the moon; but the total obscuration of light— throughout the United States—commencing in the morning of May 19th, 1780—continued until the next morning. The sun shining brightly early in the day, seemed to set prematurely. The birds ceased their songs and disappeared in the woods; the barn-yard fowls flew up to their roosts; candles were lighted in the houses and all out-door work was suspended. The true cause of that mysterious darkness has never been satisfactorily explained. In this class of capricious processes of nature may be mentioned the “hurricanes” that in pioneer times swept with terrific force over the country—particularly in the southern portion of this State, leaving their course marked by streaks of prostrated trees, through the timbered regions, as if purposely cleared for railroad tracks. They are now, as “cyclones” or “tornadoes,” well understood, but none the less dreadful or dreaded. The earthquake of 1811-12 was another freakish caper of nature, fortunately not repeated, to the same extent, in this locality; but leaving us no assurance that it may not again occur. The appalling drout of 1820 that wilted and withered all vegetation and lowered the Mississippi so that at Alton, a man on horseback forded it; and the fearful overflows of 1844 which enabled a large steamboat to cross the American Bottom, starting from Main street in St. Louis, to the Illinois bluffs, are marked instances of the instability of our whimsical climate.
The most wonderful of all the sportive eccentricities of nature seen here—and not since repeated, but often described—was the “falling stars” in 1833. A short time after midnight on the morning of Nov. 13th of that year the display commenced. Myriads of meteors, igniting on coming in contact with the atmosphere, fell like a fiery snow storm, lighting the night with a weird brilliancy and continued until extinguished by the stronger light of the risen sun. A memorable meteorological freak was the “Cold Tuesday,” Dec. 20, 1836. A warm rain had fallen all day until about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when a black cloud was seen in the northwest swiftly approaching, propelled by a piercing cold wind; within an hour the temperature fell 78 degrees—to 18 below zero—at once freezing solid the mud and water, and forming ice on the Illinois river thick enough to catch and hold the canoes of fishermen before they could reach the shore. But, perhaps, not since the glacial epoch, has the great ice sheet or sleet, of November, 1881, been paralleled in this State. The entire surface of the earth was literally encased in ice from one to three inches in thickness. Trees and shrubbery were broken and crushed by its weight; ice-coated twigs were cut weighing 20 pounds, that denuded [stripped] of the ice, weighed barely one pound.
One of the worst weather freaks of recent times—still remembered by many—was the “Big Frost” of 1863. July had been unusually warm, but as August advanced, the nights became quite cool, until on Sunday morning, the 23rd, the thermometer here registered but 27 degrees above zero, and frost covered the ground like snow. Its destruction of garden and field products was general and well nigh complete. Late corn was ruined or fit only for cow feed; sweet potatoes and melons were killed and Irish potatoes badly damaged, and, in some localities, peaches and apples almost mature were frozen on the trees.
The early settlers of southern Illinois raised sufficient tobacco and cotton for their domestic consumption and castor beans enough for export. Those crops—very sensitive to the action of frost—have been entirely abandoned in this State since the “Big Frost” of 1863. But that event, the “Cold Tuesday,” the “Great Sleet” and occasional winters of unusual severity, are only exceptional atmospheric freaks, of no value as proof that the climate has undergone any permanent change of average mean temperature since the first European settlement of this country.