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The Winter of 1886-87 in Montana

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#1 Jesse

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Posted 02 March 2008 - 12:03 AM

From Helena's Queen City Newspaper:

While Montana has experienced many “legendary winters,” no one cold season can top the winter of 1886-1887, which, in essence, ended the era of the open range and transformed the cattle business.

Montana holds the record for the coldest temperature ever documented in the lower 48—70 degrees below zero recorded north of Helena near Rogers Pass in 1954. Quite possibly, in some high basin or out in the Missouri Breaks, this number was surpassed during the winter of 1886-1887. But whether or not it was colder than 70 below, that winter more than a hundred years ago remains imprinted in Montana’s history.

Sometimes you read a piece and realize that to improve on describing the event is beyond your talents. So instead of painting a word picture ourselves of that memorable winter, we chose to use the words of Joseph Kinsey Howard from his book first released in 1943 entitled “Montana High, Wide and Handsome.”

Howard went to work in 1923 with the Daily Leader, the newspaper that would eventually be renamed the Great Falls Tribune. At the young age of 20, he became the paper’s news editor. He left the newspaper in 1944 and died in 1951. His writing is used with the permission of Yale University Press as it appears in our book, “This Is Montana.”

“The summer of 1886 was parching. Great fires swept the range; those cattlemen who could find new grass began the move through a haze of smoke which hung over Montana for months. The grass began to die in July and all but the largest streams and water holes dried up. Water in the creeks became so alkaline that cattle refused to drink it.

That fall, wild game moved early from its favored shelters in the Missouri badlands and hurried south and west. Birds which customarily remained all winter fled, too. The horses' winter coats appeared earlier than usual—Nature had set her stage for the last act.

Kissin-ey-oo-way'-o, the Crees said; ‘It blows cold.’ The Crees were the northern people, from the Height of Land; they had many words for cold, degrees of coldness, the effects of cold—but none more literally translating into speech the condition it described: in kissineyooway'o the north wind sang, softly at first, then rising to a wail and a howl. ‘It blows cold.’

It began November 16 ... The gale was icy, and it had substance: it was filled with glassy particles of snow, like flakes of mica; it roared and rumbled. After the first day the tonal pitch rose: from a roar it became a moan, then a scream. The snow rode the wind, it thrust forward fiercely and slashed like a knife; no garment or hide could withstand it. The gale piled it into glacial drifts; when cow or horse stumbled into them the flesh on its legs was sheared to the bone.

Now suddenly there appeared white owls of the Arctic. The cattlemen had never seen them before; but the Indians and the Metis knew them—and like the beasts and birds, they fled south. Slowly the temperature moderated. The stockmen prayed for what the Indians called ‘the black wind’ from the arch of black cloud on the western horizon from which it emerged; but it was too early in the season for the chinook. The drifts dwindled but did not disappear; they spread, crusting the range.

In December there were two more blizzards.

January is the Moon of Cold-Exploding-Trees. On the ninth day of that month it snowed without an instant's interruption for sixteen hours—an inch an hour; and the temperature fell to 22 below zero. Intermittent snow continued for another ten days, with temperatures ranging from 22 to 46 below in central Montana; in some other sections it was 40 below day in and day out for more than two weeks.

There was a respite of a little more than a week; then, on January 28, the great blizzard struck. For three days and three nights it was impossible to see fifty feet in any direction and ranch thermometers read 63 below zero. A sudden break in the cold and a wind shift gave promise of a chinook, but the storm set in again and lasted through February 3. A rider who dismounted dropped into snow to his waist on level ground."

#2 snow_wizard


    PNW winters are DEFINITELY colder than some other places.

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Posted 02 March 2008 - 12:59 AM

Pretty interesting the article doesn't even talk about February. That month was very cold in the lowlands of Western WA so Montana must have been very severe that month too.

#3 KVUO snowman

KVUO snowman

    Why does our weather always suck?

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Posted 02 March 2008 - 01:25 AM

Yes, I remember that winter very well.

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