The Big Freeze, 1918-1919

Dec 29, 2015

It seems like almost yesterday that the Mississippi River was solidly frozen over. It was the winter of 1918 and 1919 when a cold December with extended low temperatures closed the river to all north - south river traffic.

Prior to the flood of 1927 and the construction of a series of coordinated dams, levees and dikes, the river's current was wider and slower. The river, thus, was more likely to freeze over more frequently than in modern times.

As steamboats were generally made with wooden hulls, they could not function when the river was carrying ice. Consequently, at the first sign of floating clusters of ice, these wooden-hulled vessels would retreat to a warm water port, such as Paducah or Memphis, to tie up and wait out the ice and cold.

Many would push their luck to get as close to Christmas as possible in order to benefit from the seasonal market and then they were out of commission for six to eight weeks.

Ferries did not function when there was ice was in the river and as there was no bridge between St. Louis and Memphis, there were periods, almost every winter, in which it would be impossible to cross the Mississippi here in the middle section.

One of the consequences of having the river closed for a long period of time due to ice was that the coal supply from southern Illinois was shut off. This meant shortages, high prices, and the rationing of coal in January and February of virtually every year, especially so in 1919. The situation was made severe by the presence of the great influenza epidemic of that winter.

The winter of 1918-1919 was so cold and so difficult that even though it was almost a century ago, it seems like Almost Yesterday.