Springfield’s temperature fell to 24 degrees below zero at 7 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 13, 1905, the lowest official reading ever recorded in the city. Engines seized up, gas mains failed, and the destitute crowded local jails. Even the ink in Gov. Charles Deneen’s inkwell froze.
It may have been colder yet. According to Springfield’s official “weather observer,” William G. Burns of the U.S. Weather Bureau, the 24-below reading “was made from the roof of the postoffice building fifty feet above the ground,” the Illinois State Journal reported.
“It is possible that many of the thermometers in use throughout the city recorded a lower mark than this,” he told the paper.
A volunteer at Alexander, near Jacksonville, recorded 29 below using the same model thermometer as the Weather Bureau’s, Burns said. That suggested the temperature at ground level was colder than atop the federal building/post office at Sixth and Monroe streets, he said. (Old-timers also swore temperatures had fallen as far as 30 below in the severe winter of 1831 — the winter of “the Deep Snow” — and again in 1867. However, official weather records didn’t start until 1879.)
Whenever a cold wave was expected, one of Burns’ duties was to alert the citizenry by hoisting the “cold wave flag” above the federal building. Warnings helped only slightly, however. Both the Journal and the Illinois State Register reported on the effects of the savage cold. The Journal’s story said:
The suffering among the poor was severe and the charitable institutions were taxed to their utmost. … The jail and city prison were besieged last night and were packed to overflowing with destitutes. At the city prison the plight of many was pitiable, some having endured the cold as long as possible before seeking shelter there and the character of the inmates of that institution was above the average, some never before having been within the walls.
The Salvation Army and the Volunteers of America threw their doors open to the needy and spent the day in seeking out those who were in want. Hot food in plenty was provided for them and doled out as required. Humane Officer Stone was called out a number of times during the day to look after animals that were in bad condition, and two horses were shot, one of them being frozen about the legs.
Under the headline “Much Suffering Throughout the City,” the Register added other details.
One little girl in the first year at high school reached school yesterday morning with her hands almost frozen. Her mittens were frozen fast to her hands and a cold water bath was necessary before she could remove her mittens.
A little boy was picked up on the street almost frozen to death and was sent to the hospital but was soon able to leave for his home and his name was not learned. …
A bitter wind from the northwest added to the unpleasantness of the situation and all hackmen, carriage drivers, and teamsters suffered greatly. It was a bitter night for all who were compelled to be out of doors.
During the worst of the cold in the early morning hours of Feb. 13, a fire destroyed several buildings near 11th Street and Sangamon Avenue. The blaze started in a saloon and was discovered by an anonymous “crippled boy” who stayed in the building as its night watchman. The family of Daniel Goble – two adults and four children – also lived above the saloon. The Journal reported:
(The boy) immediately snatched up his crutches, and without stopping to dress started to make his escape, when he remembered the Goble family on the other side of the partition. At the risk of losing his own life he knocked on the partition with his crutch and awakened the family.
When Mr. Goble awoke he found the tongues of flame licking through the partition into his room. He grabbed his little 5-year-old girl and, calling to the rest of the family to follow, rushed for the door. The nearest residence that offered him protection is a half a block off, and all that distance the family ran in their bare feet and night clothing. They were almost frozen when they got into the house.
Gov. Deneen, meanwhile, arrived at his Statehouse office the morning of Feb. 13, “only to retrace his steps a second later,” the Journal said.
One of the windows had been left open and the thermometer registered near the zero mark. The ink had frozen and, in fact, the office was anything but comfortable. The official business of the state was transacted in the outer office during the morning hours, while all radiators were turned on in an attempt to make the private office of the executive warm.
The story did not explain why the window was open.
The cold wave gradually diminished, and Springfield’s official temperature crept back above freezing by Feb. 20.
According to the National Weather Service, the second-coldest day in Springfield history was Jan. 5, 1884, at 22 below. The three hottest days were July 14, 1954, when the high reached 112 degrees, and Aug. 8-9, 1934, with highs of 108 degrees on both days.
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