The Great Blizzard or “Superstorm” of March 1993 buried Birmingham in 17 inches of snow and left indelible memories for Birmingham the state and entire region. But guest blogger Art Black gives us the following accounts of two equally historic winter storms — both hitting in Februarys. In 1923, news organizations found work-arounds for downed presses, essential workers walked to work, and most kids had a snow day off from school. The immense span of the 1899 blizzard–known as The Snow King–completely iced over the Port of New Orleans and sent Tallahassee’s temperature to minus 2 degrees–“the only recorded instance of a sub-zero Fahrenheit temperature in Florida to this day.”* One notable fatality of the 1899 storm in Birmingham was the city’s now-forgotten Mardi Gras celebration, which at one time drew some 50,000 revelers to the streets of the Magic City.
The Great Blizzard of 1899, the Snow King or Valentine’s Blizzard
During the early evening of Saturday, Feb. 11, 1899, it was 21 degrees outside as snow began falling. The night grew steadily colder and snow continued to fall until daylight Sunday, when the temperature was 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
All day Sunday it was “fearfully cold” as The Birmingham News put it. Coal dealers broke Sunday rules and worked their wagons and teams of horses. In outlying areas, such as Woodlawn, the coal supply gave out entirely.
On Sunday night it grew colder, and the mercury fell to 10 degrees below zero. By 8 a.m. Monday, the temperature had risen only slightly–to minus 5 degrees. Anniston reported 15 below zero.
Monday’s Birmingham News carried the following headline:
Birmingham in the Blizzard’s Grasp
Ground Wrapped in Mantle of Snow; Sleighing and Skating Possible; White Plumbers and Coal Dealers Reap a Harvest; Street Cars Ran All Night to Keep Tracks Clear; East Lake Frozen Over.
Associated Press dispatches told of “the entire country shivering and great suffering in many places.” The Birmingham Post office would not receive mail from the East for an entire week.
Perhaps the most lasting– but least memorable– damage done to the city was the end of a wildly popular Mardi Gras celebration. The famous French Bachanal on the eve of Ash Wednesday was started in Birmingham by the German Society in which 30 organizations hosted floats and pretzels were thrown instead of coins. Snowfall dampened two of the city’s six parades but the 1899 blizzard canceled the February event, despite fully occupied hotel space. The city would hold only one more Mardi Gras, in 1900.
The News said that “water pipes froze and burst with the regularity and sound of July 4 firecrackers, and it is no improbable that the telephones of plumbers will need new bells when the freeze is over.”
The denouement began Tuesday morning. It was 16 degrees at 7 a.m., but the sun shone warmly all day, melting most of the snow. Still, there was a large crowd of skaters at East Lake. Wednesday morning’s temperature was 34 degrees, and the emergency was over.
“Birmingham, Isolated, Center of Sleet Storm” was the headline in The Birmingham News of Monday afternoon, Feb. 5, 1923.
The most disastrous sleet storm in 50 years, according to the day’s news, had visited north Alabama the day before and Birmingham awoke Monday in a straitjacket of ice. Western Union, the Postal Telegraphy Company, and Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co. all lost service into or out of Birmingham.
Newspaper press wires stopped sending news. For the first time in the history of the Birmingham bureau of the Associated Press every wire was silent. Early Monday morning The Birmingham News finally attempted to reach the outside world through the new medium of “radiophone” or radio for short. Alabama Power Co. had erected the state’s first radio station, WSY, primarily to communicate with workers in the field, and would later donate the equipment to new station WAPI. But for now, it used the radiophone to relay this message on behalf of The News:
“To All Radiophone Stations Everywhere: Birmingham, Ala. is isolated. Owing to the storm of the past 48 hours, all press wire communication with the outside world is paralyzed. Radiophone transmitting stations are requested to send to WSY any news of importance in their territory.”
Footing it to work
With streetcars not working, cars not operable and streets impassable, people everywhere walked to work Monday morning. Every teacher in the public school system was at his or her post, but due to crippled heating systems, only three high schools and five elementary schools were in session the entire day.
Even the meteorologist performed under hardship. Marooned in his observatory in Fountain Heights, E. C. Horton of the U.S. Weather Bureau was without telephone communication and made his readings by candle light.
In all, the city’s isolation lasted 20 hours. But as The News put it, “Above the ice and slippery sidewalks, however, there was one thing especially noticeable. In the way of real Birminghammers there was a general prevalence of smiles Monday morning despite many cold toes and red noes. Everybody was taking the inconveniences with the best of good humor.”
Taken primarily from The Birmingham News and Age-Herald Newspapers, Bhamwiki, and Mental Floss* trivia magazine.
[This article is second in a series of relevant but dated news stories written from Birmingham newspaper archives. Guest contributor Art Black is a technical writer for KBR engineering firm in Birmingham. He is currently conducting research on Rickwood Field.]