The winter of 1861-1862 is by far the worst in Washington Territory's short history since the arrival of the first non-Native settlers. In November and December of 1861 heavy rains cause extreme flooding on the Willamette, Deschutes, and other rivers in Oregon. Although Washington Territory avoids the worst of these inundations, it does not avoid the heavy rains that caused them, followed by nearly three months of freezing temperatures that grip the entire region, east and west of the Cascade Mountains. The loss of human life is limited, but livestock are killed by the thousands and ground travel between Northwest towns and the outside world is brought to a virtual stop. Almost no detailed Territorial weather records are kept at the time, but Fort Vancouver tracks daily temperatures at 7:00 a.m. and the few local newspapers then in print provide some largely anecdotal chronicling of the severe weather and its impacts.
First the Floods
Oregon and Northern California bore the early brunt of 1861's weather onslaught, with the Willamette and other rivers reaching never-before-seen heights after heavy rains in both November and December. To the north things were, for the time being, somewhat calmer, although the Puget Sound Herald, published in Steilacoom, complained on December 5, 1861:
"Than that of the month just passed (November) there never was any weather in this country more disagreeable, if there ever was any half as bad. It has been more windy, more rainy, more haily, and more stormy generally, than any month in the last four years, to our certain knowledge" ("The Weather," Puget Sound Herald, December 5, 1861).
Things were to get even "more disagreeable" before long. The rain did not let up the following month, with the The Dalles reporting four inches on December 8 alone. In the second week of December, the Oregonian out of Portland reported of the Willamette River:
"The river is highest at the present time as ever before known to the oldest residents. The destructive effects occasioned by this unprecedented rise are as yet unknown; but no doubt great damage has been sustained along the banks of the river." (Oregonian, quoted in "The Late Freshet," Puget Sound Herald, December 12, 1861).
And in mid-month, the Overland Press, an early Olympia newspaper, waxed eloquent on the subject of rain:
"The rain it raineth every day, and every night also -- week in and week out, from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, there is nothing but rain, rain, rain, 'The windows of heaven are opened up.' Pluvius, grieved at some earth-giving wrong, weeps as if he never would dry up" ("The Weather and Things," Overland Press, December 16, 1861).
Then the Freeze
West of the Cascades, temperatures in early December were, if anything, slightly above normal, with Fort Vancouver reporting the temperature at 7:00 a.m. on December 2 at 51 degrees, followed by 56 degrees on December 3 (the average normal temperature at 7:00 a.m. for nearby Portland in early December was 30 degrees). As late as December 19, papers west of the Cascades were still complaining about the rain, not the temperature. While reporting that Oregon rivers were still in flood, the Puget Sound Herald noted that despite the heaviest rains in the memory of even the oldest settlers, western Washington Territory had so far averted such a catastrophe:
"If we are not mistaken, it has rained for forty consecutive days and nights (as long as it did when Noah's Ark was launched), but as yet there is no sign of submersion hereabouts" ("Rain," Puget Sound Herald, December 19, 1861).
Territorial settlers may have been grateful to have avoided the disastrous flooding to the south, but the reprieve from dangerous weather was not to last. Ultimately, it was the cold and not flooding that was to make the winter of 1861-1862 one for the record books in Washington Territory.
Despite the absence of detailed statistics, it is clear that the winter of 1861-1862 had freezing weather of a duration and severity that had not been seen before by white settlers and does not appear to have been seen since (as of 2012). West of the Cascade Mountains, the snow appears to have begun in earnest on Sunday, December 22, 1861. As reported in Steilacoom's Puget Sound Herald:
"After a couple days clear sunny weather, snow commenced falling rapidly on Sunday morning last, and continued without intermission until night, when it had attained a depth of about five inches, and in the country about fourteen inches ... . This is said to be the most severe snowstorm in this county within the recollections of our oldest white settlers" ("Snow Storm," Puget Sound Herald, December 26, 1861).
The onset of cold weather struck Fort Vancouver on New Year's Day, 1862, when the temperature at 7:00 a.m. was 22 degrees. By January 3 the Columbia River was blocked by ice upstream from Vancouver, and by January 6 the mercury had plunged to 9 degrees at the fort. At Olympia there were 20 inches of snow on the ground by January 8.
The weather west of the Cascades would remain frigid for weeks. Morning temperatures at Fort Vancouver were -7 on January 16 and -10 on the 17th. For weeks both Seattle and Olympia were covered with two feet of snow, and in the former city Lake Union was frozen over with at least six inches of ice. Overland mail from California and Oregon stopped for weeks, and ice blocked both the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers. The only communication between Puget Sound and California was by ocean steamer, and Portland was completely cut off from overland and river traffic.
East of the Cascades
Parts of the Territory had some previous experience with moderately cold weather; others, less so. In a letter to the editor of the Walla Walla Washington Statesman, a correspondent identified only as A. B. R. sought to explain the reasons for that area's usually mild winters, while taking note of the fact that the weather in late 1861 was not at all usual:
"Having been frequently asked why it is that we … have such mild winters, I have concluded to give you my reasoning upon the subject -- based upon several years' acquaintance in this valley … .
"The dryness of the climate will be the first point to notice: (And I will admit that the present 'spell of weather' is rather an unfavorable time to consider this subject.)" ("The Weather," Washington Statesman, December 20, 1861).
The severe, unexpected, and unprecedented cold was taking an ever-increasing toll in the eastern part of the Territory. Orofino, Idaho, which in 1862 was still part of Washington Territory and was located about 40 miles east of what is today Clarkston in Asotin County, had four feet of snow on the ground in the first week in January. Freezing weather and snow gripped the entire area, causing huge losses in livestock. As reported in the Washington Statesman on January 10, 1862:
"The late snow and cold weather has been disastrous for stock of every description. Cattle have died by hundreds from cold and starvation. One gentleman informs us that in going out to search for his stock on one of the small streams in the valley, he found upwards of forty dead cattle in traveling a distance of only three miles. On the Walla Walla, we are informed, dead stock are strewn here and there along the river ... . Indian stock has suffered greatly, and large bands of horses have perished" ("Farmers Should Prepare for Winter," Washington Statesman, January 10, 1862).
Another article in the same edition pointed out that, while such weather may have been common in other areas of the country, settlers in Washington Territory were simply not equipped for it:
"We don't run on cold weather here -- we don't wear overcoats, mittens, muffs, furs and shawls, and bundle up with a dozen appliances in order to escape with dear life. We don't have all these appliances to render a sleigh-ride agreeable, nor an adequate preparation for the prosecution of business through a long winter season. Our farmers don't have capacious barns, with ample sheds all around them and stalls inside, for their horses and cattle; they don't have the big hay-mows and granaries, with an everlasting store of provisions for winter ... . We don't live in houses constructed for the purpose of keeping the cold out ... our buildings are not lathed and plastered and ceiled and stuffed with wool and batting to keep them warm" ("The Weather," Washington Statesman, January 10, 1862).
Temperatures stayed well below zero for much of January, and this was something not seen before in the region by white settlers. On the 25th, the Washington Statesman looked back at the frozen month that had brought such devastation:
"Again the weather furnishes us a scene for comment ... . It has been confessedly the severest season ever experienced here -- at least so runneth the memory of the 'oldest inhabitants,' and they are proverbial in all latitudes for sticking to the truth ... . To the country folks, the great loss of stock has been a serious misfortune, and given them just cause to lament the severity of the season. It has marked a new era with us -- weatherometrically speaking -- and bidden all prepare for like visitations from the storm-king in future.
"For four weeks past, the weather has been constantly cold, continuing almost uniformly so even through the middle of the day -- the thermometer ranging from a freezing point down to as low as twenty-nine degrees below zero! This was on Thursday of last week at five o'clock in the morning. At twelve o'clock of the same day, the thermometer stood at twenty degrees below, and at six in the evening it was at twenty-four. This was the coldest day we had, by several degrees; the average cold was probably about ten degrees below zero.
"During the past three weeks the snow has been from a foot to a foot and a half in depth in the valley, and from two to three feet on the hills and bench-land. In some places it has drifted to the depth of four and five feet; obstructing travel for a few days until a trail could be beaten out" ("The Severe Season," Washington Statesman, January 26, 1862).
Another article in the same paper that day bemoaned the fate of the Walla Walla Valley's livestock:
"The severe weather has swept it off at a most fearful rate. Nearly if not quite all the stock that was driven from the Willamette late last season has perished; and a great deal of stock that was in good condition last fall has shared the same fate ... . Some gentlemen with whom we have conversed estimate the proportion that have died from the effects of the weather at one-half, and some at two-thirds of all the stock in the valley" ("Great Loss of Stock," Washington Statesman, January 26, 1862).
A False Thaw
On January 16, 1862, the thermometer hit -29 at Walla Walla, and as noted, Vancouver that week also saw record cold. Then, first in the west, temperatures began to rise, around January 17 or 18. On January 23, Walla Walla also enjoyed some respite from the Arctic temperatures. But by January 27, Vancouver was again locked in deep cold, with a reading of -2 degrees on January 30, and this was followed by yet more heavy snow. At Florence, Idaho (then part of Washington Territory), the thermometer hit an astounding -34 on February 2. Fresh snowfall in Steilacoom was reported in the Washington Statesmen on February 2, but by the 13th the Puget Sound Herald reported, under the headline "A Gratifying Change":
"For the past week the weather has been clear and warm, and the snow and ice have been steadily disappearing, until hardly a vestige of either is now visible in many places ... . This is consummation devoutly to be wished, for the sake of the poor cattle, which have suffered this winter beyond any former period known in this century" ("A Gratifying Change," Puget Sound Herald, February 13, 1862.
But a week later, the situation east of the Cascades was reported in much less rosy terms:
"The country east of the mountains has suffered much more severely from the late extreme cold than that on the Sound ... . Three men … were frozen to death on the 10th while walking from John Day's River to the Dalles. Several others, whose names are not given, are also supposed to have lost their lives in the same manner, while a number are mentioned who have sustained the loss of limbs from the cold" ("East of the Mountains," Puget Sound Herald, February 20, 1862).
One of the few sources for details on the weather east of the Cascades was the Washington Statesman. Its February 22, 1862, edition looked back at the previous two months and fretted about the future:
"On the 22nd of December the winter set in and two months of severer and more disagreeable weather it has never been our lot to witness. When the white mantle that enshrouds the earth and the icy chains which fetter it will disappear, no one can predict ... . Since the settlement of this country no such winter ever was known before.
"Out of the thirty thousand head of cattle supposed to be in this valley last fall it is doubtful whether five thousand head are living, and the numerous band of sheep have almost disappeared. Out of one lot of seventeen hundred head only three hundred are alive. At a moderate estimate, this valley alone has sustained, by loss of stock, one million of dollars … .
"If this weather should continue for two weeks longer there will be but few cattle of any kind left, as they cannot be fed but a few days longer; for feed, even at the unprecedented high rates it is commanding, cannot be had ... .
"What the effect of this loss will be it is hard to predict; but aside from the great amount of suffering it has produced, it is certain that it will materially impede the development of the country. With an ordinary winter, during this month our farmers would have been sowing grain, with which to supply the various mining regions next fall. But how can our farmers raise grain without teams?" ("The Cold Winter -- Loss of Stock," Washington Statesman, February 22, 1862).
"Spring Has Come at Last"
By March 6, 1862, the Puget Sound Herald could finally announce, at least as to the areas west of the Cascades, that:
"Spring has come at last, and no mistake. The snow and ice have disappeared, and Dame Nature is donning her raiment of green" ("Spring," Puget Sound Herald, March 6, 1862).
East of the mountains, relief was also in sight, but taking a little longer. On March 8, 1862, the Washington Statesmen reported, with a mixture of relief and concern:
"The snow is gradually disappearing. In the valley, it lies at a depth of ten inches, excepting where it was drifted. In some of these places the snow is still several feet deep. While we are all anxious to see the ground once more bare of its winter covering, the slow process is perhaps better for the people in the valley, as it will not be liable to occasion a flood" ("Disappearing," Washington Statesman, March 8, 1862).
But winter was not quite yet done. A week later, the same paper reported, with a note of exasperation:
"The weather still continues a fruitful theme for comment in this locality; but the universal decision now-a-days is that 'all signs fail,' and that weather prophets, whether scientific or illogical, 'don't know nothing about it.' Just before going to press last week, we made an item to the effect that the snow was gradually disappearing from the valley; but on rising the next morning we were surprised to find the snow falling fast and the ground covered to the depth of four or five inches. That soon disappeared, however, and it has been thawing slowly ever since; yet, though all the indications are to the contrary, we have no assurance that it will not snow before tomorrow. Like the past winter, the spring, so far, has been unusually severe for this locality" ("The Weather," Washington Statesman, March 15, 1862).
Finally, on March 22, the newspaper could report that spring had indeed sprung in the Walla Walla Valley:
"The weather has moderated we have had two or three days of warm rains; the birds are beginning to sing; spring is opening at last. Occasionally the sun shines out, when the sunny side of the street is lined by men. All look upon our final escape from a most severe winter as a subject of general rejoicing" ("Change for the Better," Washington Statesman, March 22, 1862)
It does appear, based on the absence of additional reports of severe weather, that the Territory to its entire extent had by the last week of March 1862 emerged from the worst winter the region had recorded up to that time, the worst that its inhabitants would see in their lifetimes, and perhaps the worst to this date (2012). While the loss of human life appears to have been relatively slight, cattle, horses, and sheep died in the thousands, and the Territory's supplies of grain were seriously depleted.
Many years later, when earth and atmospheric sciences had become more sophisticated and historical records of natural events more widely available, it was noticed that the protracted and severe cold weather of the winter of 1861-1862 was seen throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere and was not merely a local phenomenon. Scientists also learned that in May of 1861, a large volcano named Dubbi in the northeast African country of Eritrea had erupted. It was the largest volcano recorded on that continent since records had been kept, and it spewed a "sulfate aerosol veil" into the sky ("Largest Known Historical Eruption in Africa: Dubbi Volcano, Eritrea, 1861"). Subsequent studies conclusively established a link between massive injections of sulfates into Earth's atmosphere by volcanoes and widespread, if temporary, global cooling. Today the scientific consensus is that this was the most likely cause of the Northwest's most severe winter on record, although the absence of contemporary physical evidence of the atmosphere's composition makes certainty impossible.
Knowing that the probable cause of the unprecedented winter was an exploding mountain nearly half a world away would have been scant comfort to the early settlers and Indians who had to endure that winter of 1861-1862. To them it would be remembered as a deadly siege of frigid air and foul weather that none who survived it would forget and none would wish to see again.