You think you've seen snow? We had real snow in February 1899

The Baltimore Sun

There are a few of us here in the newsroom who are still praying for a really big snowstorm - call us nutty, if you want - before the winter of 2009 recedes into memory.

So, it's not uncommon for us to beat a path to our in-house weather oracle, Frank Roylance, who keeps his eyes on the skies and for developing lows over the Gulf of Mexico.

Those southern-bred storms give us snow-lovers hope and have the potential of being big snow-makers as they roll up the Eastern Seaboard, sucking up all that wonderful Atlantic Ocean moisture that translates into snow, snow, snow and more snow!

We came close the last weekend of January when our hopes were raised that this one might have the potential to be the memorable snowstorm of 2009.

Roylance predicted in a Jan. 31 article that "forecasters warned of a powerful storm expected to spin out the Gulf of Mexico early next week, just as bitter cold drops south out of Canada on Monday."

Depending on the storm's track, Roylance wrote, "forecasters said, it could drop up to 2 inches of rain on the Baltimore area, or deep snow if it passes farther east off the coast."

Alas, it didn't happen.

A check with Roylance on potential snowstorms wasn't encouraging. "The clock is on the field. We're running out of days," he said.

However, for snow lovers and Valentine's Day lovers, the Feb.11-14, 1899, blizzard still ranks as one of the top 20 snowstorms to hit Baltimore between 1891 and 2006.

As the powerful February storm swept up the East Coast in classic form and roared into New England, in its leaving it managed to dump 21.4 inches of snow on the city and environs, on top of an existing 11.7 inches from a Feb. 5-8 blizzard.

"Baltimore is buried under the greatest depth of snow known here since the weather bureau was established in 1873," reported The Sun two days after the storm began at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Bone-chilling temperatures fell to 6 degrees below zero on Feb. 11, and managed to nudge up to only 9 above zero by noontime Sunday.

Adding to the misery, The Sun reported, were many empty coal bins in the city and the inability of coal merchants to make deliveries because of the depth of the snow. Mail delivery ceased, and schools were closed for a week.

"There is also great suffering among the poor, and demands are being made daily at the police stations for aid," reported The Sun.

Seventy-three persons who had been designated as tramps "enjoyed the hospitality of Turnkey Godwin at the Canton police station," who billeted the men eight to a cell and then gave them a cup of coffee and a loaf of bread before sending them on their way the next morning.

The newspaper stated that snow depths across the state ranging from 18 inches to two feet had accumulated since the storm's beginning on Saturday and continuing into Sunday.

"Drifting snow has blocked many county roads. Railroad travel is generally delayed. The many rivers are closed and the Tangier and Pocomoke sounds are frozen up. The oyster industry is at a standstill. Ice is ten inches thick in the Susquehanna River at Havre de Grace," said The Sun.

The snow was so heavy that a 300-foot-long section of shed at the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad's President Street Station gave way with a massive roar, leaving behind three wrecked passenger cars and five boxcars in the tangled debris.

"Watchman Mitchell made a narrow escape from being buried in the ruins as he had just left the shed," said The Sun.

The City Passenger Railway and the Consolidated Railway Co. made a valiant effort to keep their streetcars running.

"The street railways of Baltimore had the hardest experience in their history yesterday," reported the newspaper. "They battled hard all day with the elements and when night fell were obliged to admit defeat. The companies had been warned on the coming of the storm and made what provisions they could to meet it."

Heavy snow sweepers were kept traversing streetcar tracks in a vain attempt to keep lines open. Service to Catonsville and Towson finally screeched to a halt as the storm built in intensity.

As a sweeper struggled up Charles Street, it was trailed by several other streetcars and a buggy.

As it crested the hill at Lexington Street, the overhead electric power flagged, which stopped the sweeper. The giant machine skidded backward as its desperate motorman tried to set its brakes.

Disaster was averted when a quick-thinking motorman on a trailing streetcar quickly threw a piece of wood under the sweeper's wheels, which brought it to a stop.

The Sun reported that "all of the railroads entering Baltimore were compelled to abandon practically all of their trains early in the day" and that "powerful locomotives were no match for the storm."

"Perhaps never in the history of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad have the conditions been equal to those of yesterday," said the newspaper.

Suburban service north of Baltimore on the Northern Central Railway to Cockeysville was finally suspended as news arrived of trains being stuck in deep drifts in Virginia.

At Camden Station, scores of passengers jammed the waiting room, hoping against hope that they'd be able to leave the city.

"In reply to their queries they were politely informed that no one could say just when a train would arrive," reported the newspaper.

The human toll was incredible as inhabitants became disoriented in the storm, fell on ice or the destitute were found frozen to death in their homes.

Severe weather didn't deter a New Castle, Del., sheriff from placing eight prisoners in the pillory and publicly whipping them, reported The Sun. "The mercury was at zero and it was the coldest day for a public whipping," observed the newspaper.

By Wednesday, aided by bright sunshine and rising temperatures, winter began to loosen its arctic grip and life struggled to return to normal.

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