Think it’s cold? Try the winter of 1889-90
With temperatures dipping and snow blanketing many of Nevada’s ranges, it’s a good time to reflect on what many historians consider the worst winter on record—the so-called “White Winter” of 1889-90.
The winter of 1889 — not unlike this year’s winter snow — marked the end of a period of extremely dry years.
In the beginning, Northern Nevada ranchers and farmers welcomed the December storms that assured a white Christmas. By late December, Virginia City was reporting 20-foot drifts that blocked roads and prevented the Virginia & Truckee Railroad trains from reaching Silver City.
And it would get far worse. Temperatures dropped to 20 below zero in Reno on January 2, 1890 and heavy snow fell almost continually from January 5 to January 8 — more than 51 inches of snow—and for much of the rest of the month.
Trains over the Sierra ran intermittently, depending on the weather, then, in mid-January, became stranded in Reno for more than two weeks. Washoe Valley had 8 to 10 foot drifts (a V & T train became stuck there for five days) while Carson City’s was so snowbound that the telegraph lines were down and there was no outside mail service.
Nevada historian Phillip Earl notes that the “Carson Appeal” became so desperate for items to fill its pages that it solicited readers for news and resorted to printing poetry.
More than 600 train passengers were stranded in Reno during the last two weeks in January. One, an East Coast newspaper editor, even found the time to produce his own paper, “The Snowbound,” filled with letters, essays and poetry about the snow.
In addition to all of that, several houses collapsed from the massive amounts of snow on their roofs, gravediggers found the ground too hard to bury the dead and hundreds of water pipes froze and burst.
Meanwhile, in Elko the situation was even worse. Heavy snow had begun to fall in early December and continued for most of the month. An amazing 18 inches dropped in one day, during the week after Christmas.
Then, as in northwestern Nevada, temperatures plummeted. According to James Young, a U.S. Department of Agriculture range scientist writing in the January 1984 issue of “Nevada Magazine,” by January 6, it was 40 below zero and, on January 15, temperatures fell to nearly 60 below.
Cattle began freezing to death on the range and ranchers trying to ship the few survivors to other markets found the trains could not operate in the snow.
While northwestern Nevada temperatures finally warmed in early February and life began to return to normal, the treacherous winter continued in northeastern Nevada. After a brief warming period in early March, a final winter storm on March 17 dumped additional rain, sleet and snow.
Most of the remaining cattle that had survived the earlier snows perished during this last freeze. Young estimates that 95 percent of the Elko area’s cattle died that winter.
And lest you think that was the only winter worse than the present one, historical weather records note at least another half dozen that easily surpassed it. For instance, the winter of 1860-61 reportedly included some 32 days of continuous snowing in northwestern Nevada.
Additionally, the winter of 1951-52 was also quite severe, with six foot walls of snow recorded in Reno by mid-January. That winter also saw Highway 40 (predecessor to Interstate 80) closed for 28 days.
A Southern Pacific streamliner with 196 passengers also became trapped for seven days in the Sierra (the passengers were removed after four days), capturing the imagination of the nation’s press. That winter, rail traffic through the Sierra was held up for more than 11 straight days.
And while this year’s winter weather seems pretty tame in comparison, remember that winter doesn’t officially end until April 1.
Rich Moreno covers the history of Nevada.