Cold snap of February 1876 — winter’s icy grip continued throughout month

by Bruce Cherney

It’s not surprising that the weather is a major topic of conversation among Manitobans. After all, this province is subject to some of the greatest extremes in temperatures experienced on the planet. For example, it is possible within the space of a few months to bake in 40°C weather during the summer and then encounter a bone-chilling -40°C in the winter.

This February has been one of those months when discussions about the weather are continual among Manitobans, primarily because the province is in the depths of a deep-freeze, which has caused school bus service to be cancelled, exhaust fumes to hover ominously above intersections, cars not starting in the morning and winter driving warnings to be issued by the Manitoba Highways Department.

On Monday morning, February 4, the thermometer dipped to an unbearable -40°C, the temperature at which both the fahrenheit and celsius scales meet. The reason for this unpleasant turn of temperature is a cold Arctic air mass parked over Manitoba, the result of a high-pressure ridge. And this air mass is not 

expected to be nudged northward any time soon to provide at least a bit of relief from the numbing cold.

Across the province, record lows were recorded by Environment Canada on Sunday, February 4 — in Gimli (-39°C, old record -35.8°C in 1979), Pinawa (-40°C, old record -37.2 in 1966), and Portage la Prairie (-38.9°C, old record -31.4 in 1895).

A temperature of -39°C in Winnipeg marked the coldest February 4 since 1979 when the thermometer was at -36.2° C. A day later, the temperature dipped even further down to -41.7°C as recorded at the airport — just 0.1°C off the lowest temperature for February 5 recorded in 1996 — though The Forks was a relatively balmy -33.1°C thanks to the “heat island” effect. 

The record low for February 4 in Winnipeg stands at -42.2°C which was recorded in 1876. 

But if you think that was cold, Old Man Winter struck with a vengeance on January 9, 1899, when the temperature was -52.8°C at Norway House, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the province since official weather records have been taken.

Snag, Yukon, has the dubious distinction of having recorded Canada’s lowest temperature ever, which was a mind-numbing -62.8°C on February 3, 1947. In a Beaver magazine article (February-March 1997) about this event, author David W. Philips wrote that weather observer Gordon Toole’s “exhaled breath made a tinkling sound as it fell to the ground in a white powder ... One only had to remain outside for three or four minutes with face exposed before cheeks, nose and ears were frozen.”

Carrying the thermometer back to the barracks at Snag Airport, 30 metres from the weather station instruments, Toole,  “From the corner of his eye ... saw ... the bulb at the end, well below the -80°F point — the last mark on the thermometer.”

Toole marked the metal sheath where a tiny bit of alcohol remained and estimated the temperature to be -83°F.

The thermometer was packed up and sent to Toronto for verification. Three months later, the temperature was verified to have been -81.4°F.

The month of February 1876 in Winnipeg was noted for its severe chill, although the temperature was nothing near what had been recorded at Snag in 1947.

“The mercury marked the lowest degree Thursday, that has been recorded here for eight years,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on February 12, 1876. 

“The figure was -43°F (-41.6°C). One degree higher has frequently been reached, in former years, but it remained for 1876 to carry off the palm for a real cold snap. We don’t know whether it is anything to brag of, though.”

On March 3, 1876, the Manitoba Free Press commented on a London Free Press report about the adverse weather conditions.

The local newspaper commented  that the London, Ontario, publication would have been fairer in its assessment if it had also said “all Ontario would stay indoors and freeze, while here the weather — owing to the dryness of the atmosphere — is not at all disagreeable.”

Possibly, this is the origin of the common statement — “It doesn’t feel that cold because it’s a dry cold” — heard across Manitoba when the thermometer reading dips to well below freezing.

“In fact,” continued the 1876 Free Press,  “many residents prefer the winter to any other season. Eastern people can’t understand this, but such is the case; and, we venture to say, that in no other portion of the Dominion has more enjoyable weather prevailed this winter than in the Prairie Province. When Ontario papers refer to the severity of Manitoba winters, they should also state that Manitoba is the only province in the Dominion where building operations and railway grading are vigorously prosecuted in the very midst of the coldest weather.” 

It is perhaps a mistake made by the local newspaper which led to the reporting from Eastern Canada of the deep freeze in Manitoba. On February 12, 1876, the local newspaper indicated a low of -45°F (-42.7°C) was recorded at Winnipeg on Friday, February 11. A week later the same newspaper issued a correction, saying the thermometer had only dipped to a low of -15°F (-26.1°C). It was a typographical error, according to the Free Press.

Actually, -26.1°C would have seemed like a downright balmy temperature when a day later the lowest thermometer reading was -33.3°C.

According to the Free Press,  temperature readings were still in the low double-digit range as the month progressed. On February 22, the temperature hit a low of -34.4°C and the next day the low was recorded at -35°C. On the last day of February — a leap year so the final day was the 29th — the low stood at -30°C.

Throughout Manitoba’s recorded history, a common theme is the bite of Winter’s chilly breath. Some of the earliest comments on local weather were made by Hudson’s Bay Company factors (governors) at the various factories (posts) erected by the Company to serve the fur trade. Though general in nature, these entries in daily journals — a mandatory bookkeeping exercise for factors or their deputies — relate how weather has been a serious topic throughout the years and how much it played upon people’s minds.

On January 20, 1787, Chief Factor Joseph Colen at York Factory, along the shores of Hudson Bay, wrote, “For days past we have had the severest weather ever remembered by the oldest native on the Plantation.”

One of the Selkirk Settlers of 1813, a man named McKinlay, wrote, “The thermometer stood for most of the winter from 72° to 87° (Fahrenheit) below the freezing point.” Though he further wrote, “the embarrassment of the miskeeties fly in the summer exceeds that of the blistering cold in the winter.” 

It must have been a “dry” cold.

On February 29 — another leap year — 1816, “Weather more intensely cold than I knew it before in Hudson Bay during a period of 25 years,” wrote a keeper of the HBC journal.

Since, the information from journals is primarily personal observations, reports on the weather can be called speculative or, at the very least, open to interpretation, but the journals do provide insight into the general climate of the era.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the HBC meteorological records improved with the use of barometers and thermometers.

In its first years, thermometers were imperfect instruments and “sometimes did not agree among themselves,” because of the different scales being used, according to W.E. Middleton, who wrote a history on the invention of meteorological instruments.

“The thermometer is that termed Standard with Fahrenheit’s scale, the freezing point is the thirty-second degree above the Cypher,” wrote Thomas Hutchins in 1771, who served at York Factory, of one of his valued instruments.

Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the first mercury thermometer and the scale was named after him in 1724. The scale now used in Canada to record temperatures was developed by Anders Celsius in 1742.

Thermometers of the HBC were far from as accurate as they are today. In fact, the mercury used became useless to record the lowest temperatures during severe winter cold spells.

Now, official alcohol thermometers used in Canada have markings down to -70°C (-94°F) as a result of the difficulty recording the coldest day ever in Canada at Snag.

Obviously, today’s thermometers use a high-alcohol content fluid to prevent freezing.

James Isham of he HBC reported in his journal at Churchill in 1741 that: “The weather had an equal effect on potables and men — they froze once outdoors ... beer, wine, brandy spirits &c sett out in the ope’n air for three or four hour’s, will freeze to solid ice.”

In the days before insulation and vapour barriers were used to encapsulate a building and keep out the cold while preventing the build-up of unwanted condensation, Isham said men used axes to hack away ice that was six to eight inches thick from inside walls. And open fires or stoves did little to keep away the chill.

Fur trader Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-94), who joined the HBC at 16, wrote about his six years as a clerk with the Company in a popular 1843 book.

Writing about the Christmas holidays, Ballantyne said the moisture that had accumulated on the walls, from their celebrations the night before, was frozen by the next morning and the “Bachelor’s Hall was apparently converted into a palace of crystal. The walls and ceiling were thickly coated with beautiful minute crystalline flowers, not sticking flat upon them, but projecting outwards in various directions, thus giving the apartment a cheerful appearance, quite indescribable. The moment our stove was heated, however, the crystals became fluid, and ere long evaporated, leaving the walls exposed in all their dinginess.”

According to Environment Canada, the present cold snap is expected to persist into the weekend in Southern Manitoba, with temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below normal, and will continue for a while longer in the North.

In 1876, the cold snap didn’t end until well into March. In mid-March, the low temperatures in the city ranged from -26°C to -29.4°C (-16°F to -21°F). By March 24, there was a break in the weather when the high was just above 0°C. On March 31, the low was only 0°C and the high was 1.1°C. It wasn’t exactly a heat wave, but winter’s chill had ended.

What remains to be seen is if we — like Manitobans of 1876 — will have to wait until late March for a change in the weather for the better. Keep in mind that Environment Canada is also predicting three more months of below-normal temperatures with relief only coming in early spring. Brrr!