The Island Queen in distance being pushed down the Ohio River by the ice. Source: http://www.cincinnativiews.net/images/Flood%20&%20Ice%20Gorge%2017rp.jpg; accessed July 23, 2009.
Fair Use Access Suburban Emergency Management Project,July 5, 2009
(now purged from the internet)
From the trenches,
Biot #637: July 23, 2009
Meteorologist Preston C. Day (1859-1931) wrote in December 1918, “The severity of the weather experienced during December and January of the winter of 1917-1918 over the greater part of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and also over much of Canada and Alaska during the early part of the period, was so unusual as to the length of time the low temperatures persisted, the great area involved, and the degree of cold maintained, that some discussion of the contributing factors, and comparison with similar occurrences of previous years, seems desirable.” (1-2)
The sinking of the Princess in the Ohio River, winter of 1917-1918. Source: http://www.cincinnativiews.net/images/Flood%20&%20Ice%20Gorge%2018rp.jpg
Climatologist Charles F. Brooks (1891-1958) wrote in June 1918, “Even though summer is upon us, it is not difficult to recall that last winter in the United States east of the Rockies was remarkably cold and snowy. The first killing frosts of autumn came early, and nipped crops which had started late and grown slowly in the cold spring and early summer. The South had a real winter, much to the detriment of fruit and truck crops which were caught by frost.”
Brooks continued, “By far the most intense winter conditions occurred in the regions from the Ozarks to New England, where low temperatures brought snow with passing cyclones, and the snow cover in turn cooled the air excessively whenever the sky was clear…In the eastern United States it was not surprising that autumn months which in many regions were the coldest on record, should be followed by a December and a January that defied the memories of the oldest inhabitants. For example, in Ohio, a 64-year record fails to show a colder December, and in New England, January seems to have been the coldest month at least since 1836, if an Amherst record may be considered as representative.” (3-4)
1. Three Theories
The extremely cold winter of 1917-1918 preceded the three deadly waves of pandemic influenza in 1918. Influenza and all other human disease occur in a context, an environment, which must be conducive to a disease-causing germ’s ability to enter and thrive in the human body. Classical germ theory states that an outbreak of infectious disease occurs because the germ itself has changed, becoming more virulent. For example, current theory on the origination of the influenza pandemic of 1918 suggests the causative virus became more virulent via drift or reassortment, while the environment more or less remained constant. Classical environmental medicine theory by contrast states that what is going on in the environment is as important as the nature of the disease-causing germ. Disease outbreaks occur even when the causative germ remains essentially unchanged, because the environment has changed, permitting the germ to, well, germinate. A third theory is that germs and environments change together. For example, a cold winter may cause humans and hogs to cohabitate indoors where they aerosolize and inhale one another’s influenza germs, which exchange DNA to create a new subtype of influenza A to which both species are newly susceptible.
Graph showing three pandemic waves: weekly combined influenza and pneumonia mortality, United Kingdom, 1918-1919. Source: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol12no01/05-0979-G1.htm; accessed July 23, 2009.
The purpose of this article is to document the reality of the unusually severe winter of 1917-1918 in the United States and its association in time with the subsequent emergence of pandemic influenza in 1918. The gravity of the winter of 1917-1918 needs further study as a factor in the emergence of the deadly pandemic influenza strain in 1918. Did humans and their livestock cohabitate in enclosed spaces on farms in Haskell County, Kansas, during the brutal winter of 1917-1918? Haskell is the place that some people believe the 1918 pandemic strain originated. (5-10) Was this cohabitation against the elements the opportunity for reassortment of genetic material between pig and human flu strains that produced the novel influenza virus of the pandemic of 1918? Did a new influenza virus to which immunity was lacking in most young adults arrive to the United States via icy winds that blew southward from the Arctic for two months?
2. Federal Censorship of the Press during the Winter of 1917-1918
Information in the print press about the influenza and other disease epidemics during the winter of 1917-1918 is limited because of the control of the release of information by federal authorities in the Wilson administration. The paucity of information makes reconstruction of disease events more challenging for medical historians. Meteorologists fared better because the information they developed and distributed was essential to military and civilian authorities.
The rationale of limiting what was published was to minimize the Central Powers (Germany and her allies) ability to know about any difficulties the United States was experiencing during its military and national war goods’ ramp up to fight Germany. The United States was wholly unprepared as the war came nearer and nearer to our shores. Much haste was involved in creating a conscripted army, because the U.S. entered the war so late, on April 6, 1917, compared with her closest allies, Great Britain and France (August 1914).
3. Weather Preceding December 1917
Prior to December 1917, says Dr. Preston Day, September was a cold month over much of the eastern half of the United States. October 1917 was also a cold month in all portions of the United States from the Rocky Mountains eastward. “In fact, it partook largely of the characteristics of a winter month in the great central valleys. Freezing weather occurred throughout nearly all portions of the country; the earliest frosts of record were reported from points in the Southwest; and unusually heavy snows occurred near the end of the month in the Lake region and northern Appalachian districts.” (1)
4. Weather of December 1917
November 1917, however, was warmer than usual. However, “with the closing days of November there was a rapid fall in pressure over interior Alaska and the British Northwest, which quickly overspread the United States.” Then high pressure and intense cold entered the Arctic portions of Alaska and pushed their way southward into the United States, where the month of December 1917 was one of the coldest of record over a large area east of the Rocky Mountains.
Map showing pressure change at start of horrific winter of 1917-1918. Note the high-pressure area feeding icy air into the heart of the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. Source: Preston C. Day: “The cold winter of 1917-1918.” Monthly Weather Review, December 1918, pp. 570-580.
On December 7, 1917, the strong high-pressure area moved southeastward in the wake of a heavy snowstorm, bringing during the following few days the coldest weather of the season to date into the Gulf and south Atlantic States. By December 12, 1917, cold temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit to -30 degrees Fahrenheit advanced rapidly into the central valleys and as far south as Iowa and Nebraska. December 13th and 14th, 1917, heavy snow with high winds prevailed form the Lake region to New England, followed by marked cold within the succeeding few days, the temperature falling to nearly -30 degrees Fahrenheit in portions of New England. (1)
In the latter half of December 1917 (28th and 29th), high pressure again entered the northern portions of the United States between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains, with barometer readings, reduced to sea level, above 31 inches, about 1 inch above the normal. At this time, temperatures ranged from -62 degrees F., on the Arctic Circle in Alaska, to -30 degrees F., or lower, in portions of Iowa and Nebraska, and to freezing on the south Texas coast. The cold wave extended to the eastern portions of the United States and Canada during the following few days, the temperature falling below -40 degrees F., in the heavily snow-covered northern portions of New York and New England, and to freezing in the central portions of the Florida Peninsula. This was one of the severest cold waves of record over the northern portion of the country from the Great Lakes eastward, particularly in New England.
Day notes three causes of the extremely cold weather of December 1917 in the United States east of the Rockies (the weather west of the Rockies was abnormally warm). First, the flow of air was unobstructed “from the intensely cold far Northwest into nearly all portions of the United States…In the Great Plans the winds were northerly from 40 to 70 percent of the time, and as far south as San Antonio, Texas, they were from a northerly point 60 percent of the time.” (1)
Second, the unusually extensive and deep snow cover over a large part of the eastern United States during most of the month presented a snow surface that favored rapid cooling of the air at night and by preventing appreciable heating by day, kept the northerly winds cold. Also, on account of the large amount of heat required to melt the snow, the infrequent southerly winds could not maintain their high temperatures.” (1)
Third, there was no departure from the normal amount of solar output of heat. “[I]n fact, at the most northerly station at which such observations were made, Madison, Wisconsin, there was an apparent slight excess of heat received from the sun as compared with the normal. This, however, is accounted for, in part at least, by the unusual dryness of the atmosphere, which favored increased transmission of the solar energy through it,” explains Day.
5. Effects of December 1917 Weather on Society: Food and Coal Scarcity, Soldiers Suffer
The heavy snow covering during much of the early part of December 1917 caused havoc with farming operations, particularly east of the Mississippi River. “Plowing was abruptly halted, and the husking of corn proceeded so slowly that at the close of the month a large part of the crop was still in the fields.” The United States had entered the Great War in April 1917, and any decrease in food production was a problem. “While the heavy snow-covering afforded ample protection to winter wheat over most districts during the colder period of the month, much damage from the severe cold was experience by the truck crops of the South,” notes Day. (1)
“Heavy snow and extreme cold in the principal coal-mining districts of the east interfered seriously with the production, transportation, and distribution of fuel. At the close of the month much suffering from the severe cold was being experienced, and many important industries were either partially or wholly suspending operations from lack of coal. Heavy ice had formed on most of the important northern rivers, and in the Ohio the conditions were reported as the worst in its history, gorges forming which held for many weeks.” An ice gorge is a mass obstructing a narrow passage.”
Hicks Field (northwestern Fort Worth, Texas) during winter 1917-1918. “When the trainees first arrived in November 1917, the fields were only partially complete. But training was started anyway, despite unfinished facilities, lack of water or sewer and unassembled aircraft. The first winter [1917-1918] was difficult. Many men lived in tents in this snowy winter. Source: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~txtarran/places/hicksfield.htm; accessed July 23, 2009.
Biot637PhotoF: Airfield at Hicks Field, near Fort Worth, Texas, after a snowstorm in the winter 1917-1918. Source: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~txtarran/places/hicksfield.htm; accessed July 23, 2009.
The unusual cold in December 1917 caused suffering among soldiers in the U.S. Army cantonments, even in those (the majority) that were located in the South to take advantage of the usually warmer weather there. For example, On December 20, 1917, soldiers at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, complained they “could not obtain equipment to protect them against cold.” In addition to a lack of hot water for showers and food that was sometimes only lukewarm, the soldiers lived in tents, instead of comfortable wooden barracks, heated by a small, wood-burning stove. A New York Times article from December 20, 1917, reads, “Each tent holds a squad of eight men and a corporal. The canvas conical [teepees] are heated by a small circular stove, burning wood. During the [ten-day] cold snap, water left in the tents at taps was ice at reveille. Three days ago, the entire camp water supply froze, and the men were forced to go outside the reservation and draw bucketfuls from farm wells.” The article continues,
The men assert that most of the wood goes into the incinerator fire or the fires in the company kitchens, which eat up five cords a day and burn all night-cooking the oatmeal for morning. Contending that they are unable to get enough wood any other way, the soldiers sometimes steal the kitchen supply or raid a more fortunate company. Recently an order went out threatening wood stealers with punishment in the guard house; but the men say they must keep warm and the wood still disappears. (11)
Coal in New York City was becoming so scarce in the last decade of December 1917, Federal Fuel Administrator Harry A. Garfield gave sweeping powers to the president of the Chase National Bank and the Fuel Administrator for New York State to deal with distribution of coal. “The authority to handle any emergency without first communicating with Washington was given” by Garfield. (11) Coal was not moving quickly enough into the city because of the ice and severe cold. “The largest number of deaths  from pneumonia in twenty-four hours in New York in the last five years occurred between December 17 and December 22, 1917, noted Dr. Charles Bolduan of the Health Department.” He attributed this increase to “weather conditions, dampness and slush, and added that in many instances it resulted through carelessness on the part of those who would not take care of themselves after taking cold.” (12)
6. Weather of January 1918
The weather got worse in January 1918. At the beginning of the month, snow cover extended over a wide area as far southwards as Tennessee and the Carolinas. An unusually low pressure over the southern districts of the United States caused a pronounced flow of cold air from the north into the central and southern portions of the country. On January 6th to 8th, a snowstorm further increased the depth of the snow cover. The coldest air of the season then moved down from the north. Snow was unusually deep east of the Mississippi River. January 11th and 12th witnessed very strong, cold, north to southwest winds prevailing over the middle portions of the United States, carrying the temperature to nearly -20 degrees F. as far south as Tennessee, and to 20 degrees F. or lower on the Gulf coast and in Northern Florida. In the Ohio Valley and adjoining regions, January 12  was probably the coldest and most disagreeable day experienced in a century, said Day.
Ohio Weather Bureau Chief W.H. Alexander summed up January 12, 1918, in this way:
It is scarcely possible to portray adequately the real penetrating character of the winds that blew with gale force all day, causing great suffering and even death to man and beast. It is true that at some stations the temperature has been lower on previous occasions than during this storm; at some the snowfall has been heavier on other occasions; and even higher winds velocities have been recorded, but rarely if ever has there been in this State a combination into which the principal weather elements entered with such force and persistency as during the cold wave of January 12, 1918. (1)
Unusually cold weather continued. Around January 20, 1918, a cold wave once again extended southward from the Arctic, bringing, in some districts, the severest weather of the winter. Cold air from the north moved swiftly into “the interior and Southern States, with little opportunity for heating, due to the expanse of the snow and ice covered areas over which it passed. Temperatures fell to -20 degrees F. in Nebraska and to freezing in southern Texas.” The period from about January 7 to 23, 1918 inclusive–17 days–temperatures in the east-central portions of the United States were almost continuously below normal.
7. Effects of January 1917 Weather on Society: Food and Coal Scarcity, Soldiers Suffer
Day wrote, “At the beginning of the month the ground was snow covered north of a line extending from South Carolina to the northern Rocky Mountain region. Frequent extensive storms sweeping well to the southward in their movements across the country added to the depth and surface extent of the snow, and by the middle of the month [January 1918] the greater part of the country was covered” with snow. “The depths had reached unusual proportions in the Ohio and middle Mississippi Valleys and thence northward over the Lakes region and northeastward to New England. At points in these regions some of the heaviest snowfalls and severest drifting ever known occurred; and the great transportation lines were often badly crippled and at times completely paralyzed. Wagon roads were blocked for long periods, the distribution of food and fuel was greatly delayed and much actually suffering was experienced, particularly on account of the intense cold and the general scarcity of fuel.” (1)
Severe cold, deep snow, and the attendant disorganization of nearly all industrial activities persisted with only slight variations until the end of the month, except that during the last week some melting of the snow cover occurred over the southern drainage area of the Ohio and thence to northern Texas.
Much additional ice formed on the rivers and lakes during the month, and in some of the important producing sections the gathering of the crop was delayed because the thickness was too great to permit the use of the special implements employed in the work. On the Ohio and middle Mississippi Rivers the amount of ice at points was the greatest ever known. Gorges that formed in the Ohio early in December, 1917, held in some places throughout the month [of January 1918], and when they finally broke up late in January, or early in February, caused much damage to river interests. It is estimated that one-half the tonnage on the lower Ohio and portions of the middle Mississippi was destroyed by the heavy ice. At Cairo, Illinois, it is reported that pedestrians crossed the Ohio River on the ice, an occurrence not previously related either in the known history or traditions of that place. At the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, where ordinarily no interruptions occur to traffic, there were 15 days during the month on which it was impracticable on account of the ice barriers to operate car floats between Cape Charles and Norfolk…
Farm work of all kinds remained practically at a standstill, much corn still remained in the fields ungathered, and wheat not protected by a snow cover was badly damaged by the cold. In the Southern States, winter oats were killed or their growth greatly retarded, and in the great winter trucking districts only the hardier vegetables made appreciable growth, and some that survived the cold of December were further damaged during January. (1)
8. February 1918 Weather
“For the month as whole the temperature averaged well above the normal over the greater part of the country, particularly in the central valleys, where it was in marked contrast with that of the preceding two months. The heavy body of snow on the ground at the beginning of the month disappeared rapidly, and at the close only the northern districts were snowbound. The breaking up of the heavy ice in the rivers and the discharge of the excess of water resulting from the large accumulation of snow was accomplished with much less damage and loss by overflow than had been feared, although in the Ohio and some it its tributaries the formation of several extensive gorges caused considerable damage.” (1)
“The milder weather of February brought much relief to the mining and transportation interests and greatly relieved the suffering from cold due to a general scarcity of coal and other fuels. Much progress was made in farming operations usual to the winter season, which had been practically at a standstill since early in December.” (1)
9. Weather Winter 1918-1919
The winter of 1918-1919 was as mild as the winter of 1917-1918 was severe. “The winter of 1917-18 and that of 1918-19 were two extremes,” noted meteorologist Robert DeC. Ward in March 1919. (13) “Coal that in 1917-18 came to the coal ports solidly frozen in the cars had to be steamed out, sometimes to freeze again before it could be dumped into barges, flowed out last winter [1918-1919] as freely as it does in June and there was no need of the elaborate steam sheds that had been added to the railroad equipment in anticipation of another hard winter and a continuation of the wartime demand,” noted another observer. (13)
The winter of 1917-1918 in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains was one of the coldest, windiest, iciest and snowiest on record, ever. The worst influenza pandemic in known history, caused by a novel strain, occurred in three waves immediately following this extraordinary winter. Environmental factors and germs are equal players in a disease outbreak.
- Preston C. Day: The cold winter of 1917-1918.â€ Monthly Weather Review, December, 1918, pp. 570-580.
- Dr. Preston Day obituary is available at http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/mwr/059/mwr-059-10…; accessed July 23, 2009.
- Charles F. Brooks: Notes on meteorology and climatology. The Old-fashioned winter of 1917-1918. Science, June 7, 1918, Volume 47, pp. 565-567. Available at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/47/1223/565….; accessed July 23, 2009.
- Dr. Brooks obituary is available at http://www.jstor.org/pss/2561518; accessed July 23, 2009.
- Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens:1918 influenza: the mother of all pandemics. Emerging Infectious Diseases, January 2006. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol12no01/05-0979.ht…; accessed July 23, 2009.
- Influenza: KansasHaskell. Public Health Reports, April 5, 1918, Volume 33, Number 14, p. 502. Available at http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/picrender.fcgi?ar…; accessed July 23, 2009.
- Public Health Reports was the predecessor of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR). The latter is published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first Public Health Reports issue was published in 1878. For all issues, see http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/tocrender.fcgi?jo…; accessed July 23, 2009.
- John M. Barry: The Great Influenza. New York: Penguin, 2004, pp. 94-95.
- John M. Barry: The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications Journal of Translational Medicine, 2004, Volume 2, Number 3. Available at http://www.translational-medicine.com/content/2/1/…; accessed July 23, 2009..
- Janice Lee McClure (ed.): Haskell County, Kansas: A Historical Anthology; 100 Years beneath the Plow. Newton, Kansas: Mennonite Press, 1988, p. 295.
- Spartanburg men complain of cold; have warm clothing, they say, but tents are badly heated and hot baths are lacking. New York Times, December 20, 1917.
- Sweeping powers given to fuel head; Dr. Garfield authorizes state administrator to close ˜luxury industries; priority in coal orders; domestic consumers to have first call deaths from pneumonia increase.â€ New York Times, December 22, 1917.
- Robert DeC. Ward: Meteorological observations while traveling. Monthly Weather Review, March 1919, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp. 170-171. Available at 701.http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/mwr/047/mwr-047-03…; accessed July 23, 2009.