Flashback Friday: Low temperatures fell below zero every day for over a month in 1936

Snow is cleared in downtown Minneapolis in February of 1936. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Snow is cleared in downtown Minneapolis in February of 1936.

February 01, 2019 08:03 AM

The past few days in the grip of an Arctic deep freeze have certainly not been easy.

But at least it only lasted one week.


Back in early 1936, the Twin Cities endured a stretch of severely cold weather that lasted much longer.

From Jan. 18 to Feb. 22 of that year, the low temperature read below zero for 36 straight days - the longest such stretch in the metro by a long shot.

The second-longest streak was a mere 24 days in 1874-'75.

It included still record-low temperatures of minus 34 on Jan. 22, minus 24 on Feb. 6, minus 26 on Feb. 16 and minus 20 on Feb. 17.

And in other places, accounts of the time reported even lower temperatures. 

A 1962 story looking back on the cold snap in an Anoka newspaper stated the low temperature there on Jan. 22, 1936 reached minus 40 with a 50 mile-per-hour wind.

"One writer said that 'Anoka's Main Street took on the appearance of a hard-time party,'" the article reads. "Water mains and water pipes froze and burst; the old street car was unable to move because the lubricants in the wheels congealed and it 'reposed on the Main Street tracks all day.'"

What's worse is that the cold snap was accompanied by snow.

That included blizzard conditions the first week of February that crippled traffic in parts of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

"The storm in some areas of the state was reported to be the worst in 20 years," read an account in the Feb. 5, 1936 Minneapolis Tribune.

"Where rail traffic was continuing, it was slow. Many buses were canceled. Others were tied up after proceeding short distances. Rural mail deliveries were canceled in many counties, and numerous schools were compelled to close. Miles of road were hopelessly blocked."

Coal dealers were said to be rationing supplies in Fairmont. Snow drifts 10 feet high "choked roads" near Austin.

According to the Feb. 7 edition of the Dakota County Tribune, a 54-year-old Greenville farmer died of a heart attack while shoveling snow to remove his vehicle from a snow drift.

"The road blockade was the result of a high wind whipping up eight inches of snow which fell Monday," that same edition of the newspaper reported. "Snow swept across fields, and blinded motorists to such an extent that many were unable to see their car radiators. Headlights were turned on to avoid collisions."

In Jackson, Wisconsin, a Chicago and North Western locomotive was carrying 89 people when it crashed into a huge snowdrift and got stuck during the storm. The engine boiler froze, leaving the train with no heat, the Tribune reported.

Passengers were rescued almost 24 hours later and proceeded to form a club, vowing to communicate with each other every year after on the anniversary of the incident.

The stretch was even worse to the northwest. Mark Peihl, the archivist for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, wrote an article on the cold snap's impact on Moorhead and the surrounding area for the society's newsletter in 1993.

His article said a stretch of sub-zero days there lasted 37 days - from Jan. 15 to Feb. 20 - that year. Eight times over that stretch, the morning low reached minus 30,  twice going as low as minus 37.

"Wildlife suffered terribly," he wrote. "Newspapers carried stories about woodpeckers frozen to trees, chickadees stuck to iron pipes, and even a rabbit found with his tongue on an ax head."

Three blizzards accompanied that bone-chilling cold.

"The extended period of cold is what stands out most," Peihl said this week. "We experience 30 below from time to time. That's not so unusal up here.

"But to see it stretch out for such a long time had to be really terrible. Especially with all the snow that came along with it."

On the whole, the winter of 1935-36 does not rank among the top 10 worst for snowfall and temperature in the Twin Cities, according to records.

"It wasn't a terrible winter, it just had a pretty bad stretch," said Caleb Grunzke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities.

"December was more normal and early January was pretty warm. It was brutal from mid-January through mid-February. But the rest of the winter kind of offset it somewhat."

For a while, it was pretty darn awful.

Until, on Feb. 23 in Minneapolis, the temperature climbed to 38 above and the streak of days with a sub-zero temperature reading came to a halt.

"Besides forming small pools of water on loop streets and sidewalks and bringing out coatings of frost on stone facings of loop buildings, the day of thaw produced two reports that robins had been seen," the Tribune reported.

"Or maybe it was the same robin."

On that day, it mattered not. The long cold snap was finally over.

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Frank Rajkowski

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