Ice-Skating on the Brazos

By Robert F. Darden

Waco and the Great Artic Outbreak of 1899

Readers of “The Waco Times-Herald”, “The Waco Tribune-Herald”, “The Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune”, “Artesia” and the town’s other newspapers had plenty to read about in February 1899 — the war with Spain in the Philippines, the recent death of legendary lumber magnate William Cameron, and efforts by a group of more than 150 educators to create a subscription teacher’s library for the city.

Attentive readers would have also noticed a disturbing series of short articles chronicling what was already dubbed the Great Blizzard of 1899 or the Great Arctic Outbreak as it roared down from Canada and how the snow and extreme cold had already shut down the Eastern seaboard, including all shipping. Congressmen were unable to report to work in Washington D.C. and snowdrifts blocked roads in New York City. In Ohio, temperatures ranged from -15 to -24. Farmers as far south as Florida eyed the storm nervously.

Sometime during the early morning hours of Saturday February 11, the massive blizzard slammed into Waco.

The newspaper accounts in the days that followed described a storm that longtime residents said was unparalleled for its ferocity — and brutal cold.

Driven by a steady 30-mile-an-hour wind, the temperatures dropped from 18 degrees to -10. The streets quickly became impassable and supplies of coal, already limited, disappeared. “The Tribune-Herald” warned of the shock of the weather on the “destitute, sick and poorly sheltered.”

By the morning of February 12, the Brazos River had frozen over and a few “hardy skaters braved the winds to skate on the smooth surface.” “The Semi-Weekly Tribune” marveled at the “stormy, beautiful scene of the Ice King’s sway” in the town’s blanket of snow, but also noted that all pipes and water lines were frozen.

Reports of the impact on the on-going storm began to trickle in as well.

Waco once more turned into a winter wonderland during the 2021 polar vortex that covered the city in ice and snow from February 10-19, breaking a record with 205 consecutive hours of sub-freezing temperatures.

There were, however, surprisingly few reports of deaths directly related to the blizzard and extreme cold. The cold was too much for George Wright of East Waco, who had been struggling with “consumption” for several weeks. Also in East Waco, the Stuart family, enroute to Calvert was traveling in the family wagon when their hunting stove ignited nearby bedding, badly burning his wife and child. In Blooming Grove, a child died from another heating fire. In Elm Mott, much of the livestock and virtually all of chickens in the area were reported to have frozen to death. In Oglesby, Mrs. J.J. Stovall was badly injured in a fall on the ice and Mrs. Sam Trent died of pneumonia.

The effect of the storm was felt throughout the city, with a number of fires caused by the storm, including a kitchen fire at 615 South Eighth that destroyed C.C. Womack’s cottage, though neighbors managed to save much of his furniture.

Elsewhere, a frozen water pipe in Levinski’s Jewelry tore away a large section of the ceiling and shattered the glass showcases below. Hill Bros., at the corner of Fourth and Austin, suffered a similar fate. Another frozen pipe at the home of C.J. George, just north of Waco, destroyed his family’s kitchen.

Throughout Central Texas, there were numerous reports of frozen crops, including winter wheat, oats and barley and entire herds of cattle lost to the cold. As with the Brazos, even the Bosque River had “frozen solid.”

Wacoans responded. As one headline put it, “Many Destitute Families Succored by Ministering Angels or Charity Organization.” Mattie Wright of the Fifth Street A.M.E. was recognized for her tireless efforts in organizing relief efforts to feed and find housing for the many desperate citizens. Mayor A. Hinchman called for emergency donations of apparel, bed-clothing, fuel and provisions. “People who have cast-off clothing can aid me very materially in furnishing relief and comfort to needy, men, women and children,” Hinchman told “The Times-Herald”.

After a few days, the brutal cold at last eased, though the damage had been done. Sub-zero weather from Florida and Texas had severely damaged citrus crops. Waco newspapers also reported on the response to the failure of the coal trucks to make their essential deliveries during the worst of the storm and its aftermath and the ongoing problems with thawing water and sewer lines and even water wells.

The Great Blizzard of 1899 set a host of records for lowest temperatures across the United States, and it remains the second coldest February in Texas on record. Nationally, more than a hundred people were known to have died from the cold, though experts suggested that the figure was doubtless much higher, particularly in under-reported rural areas.

In Waco, the lowest official temperature is -5, set on January 31, 1949, though there were multiple reputable reports of much lower temperatures during the storm of 1899. For most people, the stunning winter of February 2021, where temperatures remained below freezing for 205 consecutive hours, remains the worst stretch in the history of the city.

Perhaps the best story to emerge from the storm comes to us from the tiny McLennan County village of Downsville, where a group of aging Civil War veterans dismissed the notion that February 1899 was the worst weather in Central Texas history. Billie Wallace, Bud Orman, Pick Sparks and his brother Tom instead confidently asserted to “The Tribune-Herald” that the winter of 1863 was much worse, back when Waco was barely a hamlet and “the Brazos River was frozen over for three weeks and Bob Smith was the only man in Waco that could skate on steel skates. At that time, all Waco turned out to see Bob Smith skate on the ice.”

But the last word goes to the gossipy “Artesia”, which faithfully covered on the activities of Waco high society. After reporting on the damage done to the prize gardens to some notable Wacoans by the cold — save for one woman who had her servants remain outside with smudge pots to protect her beloved roses — the editors lamented the other cost of the Blizzard of 1899: “The cold wave of the past week paralyzed the wheel of social motion. The week is without a parallel for dullness before the Lenten season.”