Deja Brrr: The Deep Freeze of Fifty-One

It was what WBAP TV meteorologist Harold Taft called “stock show weather.”

And it bulldogged areas of the country that knew naught of saddle or cattle.

Fort Worth’s annual stock show was in its fifth day on January 31, 1951 as a polar cold front swept across the United States, dumping snow from the Rockies to New England. The southeastern part of the country was hit even worse as a tropical low moved northeastward from the Gulf of Mexico while the polar front moved southeastward. Their collision created the Big Bang of blizzardry, a perfect storm of ice, snow, sleet, hail, thunderstorms, and high winds that suspended animation from Texas to Florida.

According to the National Weather Service, the ice storm across the South was the costliest on record. The U.S. Weather Bureau at the time estimated storm damage at $100 million ($1 billion today).

The  Nation

By February 1, up to three inches of dry snow had fallen on top four to five inches of sleet in parts of the country. In the worst-hit areas, because of melting and refreezing, a solid sheet of ice covered the ground for ten days. Ice on the ground was four inches thick in places.

Tree limbs laden with ice and battered by wind snapped and fell, downing utility lines and leaving 100,000 people without telephone and telegraph service and without electricity to operate radios, television sets, lights. People living in modern all-electric homes had to take shelter with friends whose homes were heated by gas.

In homes heated by gas fires broke out as people overtaxed or misused stoves. Firefighters were hampered by winds, freezing temperatures, and frozen hydrants.

Roofs collapsed under the weight of snow.

Public transportation stopped or slowed as street-sanding and snow-clearing crews were overwhelmed; airlines and airports suspended flights; on the nation’s railroads, crews worked to clear tracks and free frozen switches.

Cold? On February 1 United Press news service reported: “North central sections which had suffered in weather as low as 50 below zero ‘warmed up’ yesterday to the minus 20’s.”

More cold, hard facts: forty-two below zero in Lone Rock, Wisconsin, thirty-five below in Greensburg, Indiana, twenty below in Denver, twenty-one below in International Falls, Minnesota.

Some headlines from ground zero (degrees):

In Louisiana the bald-cypress trees no doubt wished they had more Spanish moss. Bossier City had four inches of snow on the ground, and a low between zero and five degrees was forecast.

Alabama braced for a record low.

In Tennessee the Nashville Banner’s banner was “Cold Paralyzes City.” Meanwhile the Nashville Tennessean wrote: “Never before in recorded history did winter hit this area with such devastating force to paralyze the everyday life of the community . . . Never before were so many faced with hardship and suffering in what was once the security of home.”

In Ohio as much as fifteen inches of snow caused roofs to collapse. The storm was blamed for six deaths in the state.

Pittsburgh was glazed with ice. On February 1 seventy people were taken to the hospital after slipping and falling on ice. But that was an improvement: Four days earlier almost five hundred Pittsburghers were taken to the hospital after falling on ice.

And as for New York City, fuhgeddaboudit. Not even underground mass transit was immune to the storm: Subway trains ran late.

Even Florida was not spared. Snow fell in St. Augustine and Tampa-St. Petersburg. Citrus farmers lit smudge pots to protect their crops.

Nationwide, on February 1 a survey by United Press reported 206 dead from Texas to Maine.

Texas

The ice storm was worst from Louisiana to Virginia, but Texas got its share of shivers.

On February 1 temperatures across the state ranged from nineteen below zero in Dalhart to thirty-eight at Laredo (six hundred miles south of Dalhart).

North Texas suffered the coldest temperatures, but south Texas suffered the worst of the ice. As in Florida, citrus farmers lit fires to protect their crops, but the cold wiped out the citrus and vegetable crops and damaged fruit trees. On February 1 the low in the Rio Grande Valley was twenty degrees.

Some highways in south Texas were closed, and commercial airline flights to south Texas were suspended. Greyhound and Continental bus lines also suspended service to south Texas.

United Press reported that ranchers in the Houston area estimated their losses to cattle  at $18 million ($182 million today). In Harris County many dairymen had to warm up their hands and resort to milking their cows the old-fashioned way after power failures caused by the ice storm knocked out their electric milking machines.

In Beaumont time stood still when the big clock atop the fifteen-story San Jacinto Building stopped at 9:37 a.m. after ice on the clock’s eight-foot hands became too heavy for the mechanism to budge.

At Victoria County Airport, an ice-skating party was held on the runways. There were plenty of three-point landings but none by airplanes—all air traffic was suspended.

In Dallas a used-car dealer was puzzled to find some of his cars covered by ice up to thirty inches thick, whereas other cars had only a thin layer of ice.

At Galveston ice coating the causeway stopped traffic and interrupted telephone service.

The cold caused people to become careless with sources of heat. Major fires, whipped by high winds, were fought in Lubbock, Galveston, Houston, Childress, Corpus Christi, Kilgore, and Idalou. A fireman in Houston died of carbon monoxide fumes.

Lone Star Gas Company shut off delivery to industries in Abilene, Sweetwater, and Colorado City and delivered only ninety percent to industries elsewhere in the state.

Statewide the Star-Telegram reported forty-four people killed by “exposure, traffic, and other mishaps.”

Fort Worth

In Fort Worth the cold front hit on January 29.

On January 30 a broken water pipe in Riverside created an ice sculpture fifteen feet high and twenty-five feet wide. The Fort Worth fire department reported that three residents were burned in eight fires as residents used gas and wood fires to stay warm. In Burleson a resident died from lack of oxygen in a tightly closed bedroom heated by a gas stove.

On January 31 police reported thirty traffic accidents. A house in Meadowbrook burned after a bathroom stove overheated. A faulty gas stove caused a fire that burned a house on South Jennings Avenue. A Poly woman slipped on the ice on the concourse of the Texas & Pacific passenger station and broke her wrist. A police officer broke several ribs and an arm when he slipped and fell. A boy lost his spleen in surgery after his snow sled veered into a tree trunk.

Airline traffic from Fort Worth to south Texas was suspended, and Fort Worth’s American Airlines canceled some flights to the east because airports east of Memphis were reported to be hazardous. Convair canceled two flights to Nashville and Little Rock. The Santa Fe railroad brought its Texas Chief passenger train into Fort Worth from Galveston—five hours late.

The storm peaked in Fort Worth on January 31-February 1. By January 31 Fort Worth had about two inches of precipitation, .72 inch of that in the form of snow, hail, and sleet. More snow fell on Wednesday, January 31, causing schools to close Thursday and Friday, giving kids a four-day weekend.

The low in Fort Worth on February 1 was six degrees, a record for that date. (Wind chill factors were not reported in 1951.)

On February 1 the Jennings Avenue underpass under the Texas & Pacific railroad tracks south of downtown was closed to traffic after snow on Vickery Boulevard, despite sub-freezing temperatures, melted, ran down into the underpass, and refroze.

Parking meters froze and were inoperable. Garbage cans overflowed because trucks could not run on schedule.

The Salvation Army sheltered three hundred “penniless transients,” some of whom slept in chairs because no beds or cots were available.

Some residents in Weatherford, served by Upham Gas Company of Mineral Wells, reported insufficient gas pressure to heat their homes, and Parker County Hospital reported that it could not raise the temperature of its operating room above sixty-two degrees.

To navigate slippery sidewalks, some pedestrians wrapped their shoes in burlap bags or wore socks over their shoes. Others wore spiked golf shoes.

The Will Rogers complex was covered in snow.

Youngsters with packing crates and cardboard found a new use for the hills of Worth Hills golf course.

February 2 brought another record low for that date: eight degrees. But later in the day February 2 also brought an end to the sub-freezing marathon. Fort Worth’s longest stretch of sub-freezing weather, which had begun at 12 a.m. on January 27, ended at 2 p.m. on February 2: five and a half days. The previous record, set twice, was four days. (The 1951 record now ranks fourth behind 295 hours—twelve days—set in 1983 from 7 a.m. December 18 to 2 p.m. December 30. See freeze summary at bottom of post.)

(But unlike in 1930, in 1951 Lake Worth did not freeze over because prolonged mild weather earlier in January had warmed the lake water.)

As the thaw began on February 2, 1951, so did the phone calls—hundreds of them—to plumbers. Water pipes had burst all over town. The city water department reported seventy-five water main breaks. The city repaired the breaks and then had to repair the streets that crews had dug up to repair the breaks. But gradually planes and trains and automobiles resumed normal schedules. Telephone and telegraph communications normalized. Kids went back to school.

Cowtown stopped shivering.

And in case you are wondering, the (stock) show must go on: Fort Worth’s annual celebration of broncs and Brahmans was unfazed by the Deep Freeze of Fifty-One.

But despite the thaw, Harold Taft’s stock show weather remained visible for a while. This photo shows snow still on the ground on WBAP’s Broadcast Hill on February 5, 1951. (Photo from UNT Libraries Special Collections.)

(Thanks and a tip of the earmuffs to Dennis Hogan for the suggestion.)

Posts about weather:

“Greatest Tragedy of the Century” (Part 1): “Dead Outnumbers the Living”
Winter 1930: Lake Worth Ice Capades
Deja Brrr: The Deep Freeze of Fifty-One

Texas Toast: The Summers of 1980 and 2011
The Flood of 1889: The First of the Big Four
Double Trouble: The Twofer Flood of 1915
From Beneficial to Torrential: The Flood of Twenty-Two
The Flood of Forty-Nine: People in Trees, Horses on Roofs
Deja Deluge: Forty Years On, the Flood of 1989

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2 Responses to Deja Brrr: The Deep Freeze of Fifty-One

  1. Dennis Hogan says:

    I had to eat a hot bowl of Cream of Rice this morning after reading this story.
    Excellent as usual!

    • hometown says:

      Hah! I had the same reaction. Way too cold for a state that swelters in the summer. Thanks for the tip.

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