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Frozen in time

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Area residents suffered during ‘Deep Freeze of 1918’

By Dave Taylor

The recent onslaught of below-freezing temperatures that occurred between Dec. 24, 2017 and Jan. 6, 2018, may have inconvenienced many local residents, but it was a mild situation compared to harsh weather conditions endured by our antecedents a century ago.

According to the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Louisville, the period of December 1917 through January 1918 still stands today as the coldest and snowiest December-January period ever recorded in Louisville, and several other locations across southern Indiana and central Kentucky. The 49 inches of snow that buried Louisville during those two months beats the second snowiest December-January by more than a foot and a half.

During the two months of bitter cold experienced by Ohio Valley residents between Dec. 8, 1917, and Feb. 7, 1918, locals walked, skated and even drove automobiles and heavy horse teams across the frozen Ohio River that winter.

Temperatures had been below freezing during the last 10 days of November in 1917. Lower temperatures set in on Dec. 8, and continued almost without interruption for a period of 67 days, with only six days when the temperature was above normal. The river levels were low and the water was cold when the severe cold wave swept over the Ohio Valley with a vengeance in December. The temperature at Cincinnati, Ohio fell to two degrees below zero on Dec. 8.

Light ice formed in the Ohio and its tributaries during the night of Dec. 8-9, and the tributaries froze over at many places during Dec. 9 and 10. In the Ohio, ice continued to form so rapidly that practically all navigation had been suspended by the morning of the 10th.

According to a United States Weather Bureau report, dated March 25, 1918, the temperature at Cincinnati, was below zero on 16 days and only slightly above zero on several other days. The lowest temperature recorded in the Queen City during December was -13 degrees. The temperature dipped to -16 degrees on one January day.

In southern Indiana temperatures bottomed out at -14 degrees at Madison on Dec. 30. In central Kentucky the coldest readings were -16 degrees at Bardstown and Frankfort, and -20 degrees at Taylorsville, according to NWS records. But the worst was yet in the offing. A few more inches of snow fell on January 1-2, 1918, and with the exception of a brief respite on Jan. 5-6, colder than normal conditions continued through the first three weeks of the new year. Even after the blistering cold of early December, citizens of southern Indiana and central Kentucky hadn’t seen the worst cold of the season yet.

Along the lower stretches of the river the weather was even colder than at Cincinnati. At Vevay, across the river from Ghent, the temperature fell below zero on 22 days, the lowest for December being -20 degrees and for January being -24 degrees.

According to the NWS in Louisville, more than a foot of snow fell on the lower Ohio Valley on Dec. 8, including 16.4 inches of snow recorded at the Louisville Weather Bureau station and about 10 inches at Lexington. The heavy snow was accompanied by strong winds, gusting to 42 miles per hour at Louisville and 37 mph at Lexington, resulting in massive drifts.

Transportation was made extremely difficult by the heavy snow, resulting in shortages of fuel and other supplies. Trains transporting coal were unable to reach rural locations. River traffic on the Ohio was paralyzed for seven weeks. Country roads were impassable for several days and some rural schools were closed for a week or more. Young livestock suffered greatly and there was considerable loss, especially among pigs. Quail were reported to have starved and frozen.

A Milton correspondent with The Madison Courier reported on Jan. 22, 1918: “The farmers report heavy destruction of all birds on account of the heavy snow and lack of food, and especially the quail, which it is feared, are almost extinct. Everyone should do their fair share in feeding our feather friends.”

Much of the length of the Ohio River froze over completely. By Dec. 11, the ice was solid at Madison and gorged at Evansville, and by the 17th the river was solid at Cincinnati. At the mouth of the Ohio at Cairo, Ill., the ice conditions exceeded in severity anything in the memory of the oldest inhabitant. The Kentucky, Little Kentucky and Licking rivers, and many other tributaries froze over as well.

The majority of river steamers in those days were wood-bottom craft and great measures were taken during periods of extreme cold to moor them in secluded areas—near the mouths of large creeks or rivers—wherever possible to protect the hulls from ice damage. At the mouth of the Kentucky River in Carrollton, the pleasure steamboats Island Queen and Princess, the towboat Eugene Dana Smith and a former prison ship, The Success, were moored for safe-keeping.

Along the Ohio, the ice began to compact, or gorge, in numerous places. The most extensive gorge between Louisville and Cincinnati occurred in the river bends immediately above Sugar Creek, a stream that empties into the Ohio between Warsaw and Rising Sun, Ind. This gorge finally broke on Feb. 12, after holding firm for 58 days.

The ice was very hard, due to the continued cold weather. The height of the water gradually rose from about 12 feet to about 22 feet from Cincinnati to Carrollton between the middle of December to Jan. 27. Although boat navigation ceased, travel of other means continued on the frozen river. At several places heavy loads crossed on the ice with horses and by automobile.

My father, the late Henry F. Taylor, was 10 years old at the time and told of my grandfather, the late John Milton Taylor, crossing the ice with a team of horses and wagon from Milton to Madison, Ind. The family resided in the Locust community in Carroll County at the time. Grandpa drove the team of horses across the dike at Milton. Reaching the end of the dike across the river channel from Madison’s Walnut Street, he then steered the team off the dike structure and across the frozen stream to spend a day of trading in town.

There are photos on Cincinnati newspaper websites of others driving horses and wagons on the frozen river. A photograph also survives of Hanlon’s Mail and Express Truck, a Model T truck which was said to be the first automobile to cross the Ohio River on ice between Ghent and Vevay on Jan. 1, 1918. Numerous photos were taken in cities all along the Ohio of pedestrians walking, playing and skating on the ice in the middle of the river.

The Kentucky River was frozen, with ice more than one foot thick, from its source to its mouth. The Ohio became covered with ice equally thick, and thicker in some places, from the mouth of the Kentucky River to Cloverport, Ky., except over the falls of the Ohio at Louisville. There was heavy ice near the shore all along the river. The harbor and the canal at Louisville were kept open by breaking the ice with boats.

The 12th day of 1918 “was probably the coldest and most disagreeable day experienced in a century,” according to Monthly Weather Review. At 7 a.m., the NWS reported winds were blowing at 20 to 30 mph while the temperature at Louisville was -15 degrees and Lexington was -14 degrees. Using the modern calculation, that gives a wind chill around -45 degrees.

Fuel shortages added to the misery as many industries, businesses and schools burned coal for heat and/or steam industrial operations. Schools were closed for several days. In northern and western sections of Kentucky, some rural farmers were snowbound for up to two weeks. Temperatures at Madison fell to -17 degrees on Jan. 21.

The termination of the cold weather came in the closing days of January when a day or so of thawing weather with rain brought a break-up of the ice. When the ice gorges finally began to move downriver, massive ice cakes were left behind on the riverbanks. Numerous boats caught in the floe were crushed to pieces in the shifting and splintering ice causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. That story will be told next month.

Dave Taylor retired as the managing editor of The Trimble Banner. He is the author of three books that focus on the history of the region, including “With Bowie Knives and Pistols,” “Murder in the House of God” and “Happy Rhythm.”