A Killing Freeze to Remember

Glen Conner
State Climatologist Emeritus for Kentucky

Unusual weather events frequently appear in newspapers and then are reprinted by other newspapers around the country. One of the weather observers in Sacramento, California, Samuel Gerrish, kept a scrapbook filled with those types of articles. One of the clippings reported on an event in Bowling Green, Kentucky in April 1875. The clipping was a quote from the Pantagraph, a newspaper published in Bloomington, Illinois.

In common parlance, it is very natural to talk about the weather, its sequences, consequences, adjuncts, effect, surroundings, probabilities, etc. Few men or women keep diaries, easy and interesting as is the process. For years we have kept one, in whatever clime, change, country, condition of circumstances. On the 19th, inst., beyond our own observation, we consulted a diary, carefully kept through more than a half a century, by one of the most talented, able, erudite, observant and discriminating gentlemen in Kentucky. In 1825, fifty years ago, farther back than we were born, there was such a killing freeze and frost as affecting vegetation and fruit and flowers but never of such long duration as the one last week. Our friends and readers may set it down as a fact, and fix it in their memories, that not within fifty years has there come upon us here in Kentucky weather equal in intensity of cold and destructiveness of effects to the days and nights of April the 16th and 17th 1875. In 1825 young trees and timber were killed. On the 5th of May 1850, leafy foliage was burned up by a passing frosty breath. The latter was transient. This last freeze, frost, ice, and winter has no parallel. In Kentucky at this season the thermometer was never so low nor the freezing so hard before. Not excepting fifty years ago.

The Kentucky observer and historian quoted in the article was John E. Younglove of Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was an observer in the Smithsonian Institution’s network but he also made notes about pre-observation weather as told to him by local residents. The reference to the 1825 cold spell indeed reported that trees were killed. The 1850 event froze leaves and others on 2 and 4 May 1851 produced a severe freeze that “killed all fruit, peaches as big as your thumb were killed.” He reported that on the night of 16 and 17 April 1875, the temperature fell to 20°F. That was well below the generally accepted killing temperature of 28°F. He commented that ice formed with a thickness of 1/4 to 1/3 inch, tobacco and cabbage were killed in the plant beds, and other early vegetables were also killed.

Diary entries often include extreme weather events. The Kentucky Climate Center would be interested in learning of entries about extreme weather events in the 1800s in Kentucky.