Did you know that 120 years ago this month, the people of the Mississippi Coast walked on water?
Thick ice on the Mississippi Sound and the bays made it possible. Reports of icebergs floating on the Mississippi River added more substance to what locals dubbed the “Blizzard of ‘99.”
When I long ago discovered this history-making weather event in old Daily Herald microfilm, I realized the icy blast of Feb. 13, 1899, is likely the Coast’s worst winter storm.
I also realized most folks fascinated with local history or weather would want to know the facts I uncovered in old newspapers and local history archives. My first ‘99 Blizzard article ran in this newspaper on Feb. 15, 1987, as a Coast Chronicle column.
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Here’s how I began the column:
“Cows’ ears froze, trees turned rigid with sleet and humans shivered violently when Father Winter aimed his frigid breath at the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On the Mississippi River, small icebergs stopped boats cold in their tracks, and six inches of ice on bays and parts of the Mississippi Sound enticed men to walk on water. Everywhere numbed fish became easy prey as they floated to the surface.
“Runners replaced wagon wheels and the makeshift sleighs glided past hundreds of showmen standing guard in neighborhood yards. Houses built for a subtropical climate creaked in the icy north winds, which steadily seeped into every crack and doorjamb. Businesses, schools, even churches, had to close. When gas lines became inoperable and coal supplies dwindled, families huddled together in bed for warmth.”
The Coast was unprepared. The newspaper the day before had printed a Washington D.C. Weather Bureau prediction: “Fair except snow or rain; continued cold, fresh to brisk northerly winds. At 7 a.m. on blast day, the thermometer at Phoenix Drug Store in Biloxi registered 3 above zero but others read 0. By Feb. 14, it was still too cold to deliver Valentines.
“Probably there is no person living on the coast who has experienced such cold weather as that of the last 48 hours,” the Herald report that day. “... Both the front and back bays were frozen out a distance of several hundred feet and of sufficient thickness to bear the weight of a strong man.
“The sight was indeed beautiful and was greatly admired by all who witnessed it. The heavy sleet which had fallen Saturday night afforded a fine opportunity for sleighing ... and a jolly good time was had.
“At Ship Island, the Storm King had wrought wonderful changes, and the 20-odd vessels anchored in that harbor presented a view rarely seen except in Northern climes. Every vessel in port with spars and rigging was clothed in a suit of ice, and when Old Sole shone forth in resplendent beauty, prismic colors were reflected as in a fairyland.”
Beauty aside, the main sources of heat, coal and wood, dwindled. When Buck Chinn of the Biloxi flour mill heard of the scarcity, he threw his coal bins open and charged only his cost. Others, unfortunately, price-gouged. Across the Coast, municipal water, gas and electric plants shut down as pipes, valves and wires froze.
Potter George E. Ohr turned his wagon into a sleigh and carried Dr. H.M. Folkes around Biloxi to call on sick patients. La Grippe, a 19th century term for winter flues and viruses, was rampant and even infected newspaper founder/editor G.W. Wilkes.
How many Coast folks died from grippe or ice falls is unknown, but one reported case was a Mr. George Reeves, who lived north of Mississippi City, today part of Gulfport. He slipped on an ice-coated log while rafting logs in Biloxi Creek and lethally fractured his skull.
These blizzard side stories, as I read over them, are sad, poignant and humorous and show the usual love-hate relationships with winter wonderlands. Next week I’ll retell a few more.
Who knows, the Coast may get some modern white stuff between now and then.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or
at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.