A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 6, 2014
Snow has no respect for the calendar, so the snowfall season for the National Weather Service starts on July 1 and ends on June 30.
So far this season, Chicagoans and suburbanites have already had to dig themselves out of more than 70 inches of snow, and the total keeps rising toward the record of 89.7 inches, set in 1978-1979.
What’s made this season seem particularly ferocious is that we’ve had really mild winters in most years over the past decade and a half — averaging 31.9 inches between 1999 and 2007, and recording just 19.8 inches in 2011-2012.
It was, wrote one reporter, the “summer winter.”
Consider this: On January 1, 1921, the city was hit by two thunderstorms, the first ever on New Year’s Day in Chicago. That didn’t keep a couple of North Side men, A. E. Neuffer and John Reid, from taking a dip in the lake off of Winona Street in Uptown — not exactly a polar plunge since temperatures were in the upper 40s. And, nearby, at Nick the Greek’s newsstand outside the Argyle “L” station, Patrolman Paddy Nolan saw a butterfly.
All of that, and much more, was reported by Chicago newspapers during a winter when the word “balmy” was used with some frequency.
Over the next month and a half, Lincoln Square resident Henry E. Cordell had netted his own butterfly, and three schoolmates at the Kinzie Elementary School at Ohio and LaSalle Street — Clara Cain, Jeanette Bafeth and Nara Anfossi — skipped rope during recess while young boys played marbles nearby.
Despite a snowfall here and there, ducks were seen flying north, and, in the woods, lilacs and other wildflowers were budding. “And the spooning couples — my dears, you should have seen ‘em,” reported one news story.
By mid-February, Chicagoans were talking seriously about the early arrival of spring. “When I feel spring in the air, I am content to say spring is here and rejoice,” said attorney George W. Underwood.
At the North Shore lighthouse, E. J. Moore, a keen weather tracker, was perplexed: “I have never in my life seen winter quite as queer.”
It certainly was odd. In addition to those New Year’s Day thunder-boomers, the city suffered through a thick fog, a hailstorm and shirt-sleeve temperatures.
Well, maybe it’s not accurate to say the city “suffered” on March 19 — almost exactly 93 years ago — when temperatures rose to 77 degrees.
The “pea soup” fog, however, was something else entirely. It rolled in on the night of Friday, February 4, blanketing the South Side but sparing the rest of the city. With visibility down to as little as five feet, auto and street-car traffic inched along while, one news story reported, “pedestrians were forced to grope their way homeward by looking at the sidewalks.”
On the Illinois Central, the Cannonball train arrived at 67th Street before its engineer realized that he’d missed the 63rd Street station. He had to back the cars up four blocks.
Akin to a biblical plague
The hailstorm on March 8, which followed another unseasonable thunderstorm, was something akin to a biblical plague, pounding the city with hail variously described as the size of walnuts, bird’s eggs, billiard balls and baseballs. At least one was, according to an eyewitness, as big as a Civil War cannon ball.
“Conditions this winter are unprecedented in our records,” the National Weather Bureau, as it was then called, announced.
Alas, our present winter isn’t unprecedented although it could be if we get another 15 or 20 inches of snow and set a new record. That additional amount would be about twice the snow that fell in all of 1920-1921, but, as we all have come to recognize, this is a winter when we could get that snowfall in a weekend.
None of this, I know, is much comfort as we battle this winter’s cold and snow, and I wish I could report that, despite the extreme mildness of the 1920-1921 winter, the next one was a drastic change, dumping a boatload of snow on the city and suburbs.
But I can’t. It was more of the same. The next four winters were nearly as mile, averaging just 19.9 inches of snow.
If that precedent — more of the same — is what we can expect after this savage season, ….well, let’s hope it’s not.
Patrick T. Reardon