Chicago Panics Over Record Snow! (Circa 1896)

The city is set to break a monthly snowfall record that’s stood since the 19th century. Just be grateful that it’s not a dark mush of cigar ashes, soot, and “horseshoe particle” like the one that fell back then.

Tonight Chicago will probably break a 115-year-old record for snowfall in the month of February. That would have been 1896, and I was curious to see how the city coped back then. Turns out it was pretty bad:

Though it could have been worse:

And the Tribune had their best men on the case:

The black snow storm of February 18 sounds like something out of Dickens, or maybe The Road:

Street car passengers noticed the “black snow,” as they called it, and talked about it during their entire journey. They had no theories to offer, but they all had tales of damaged clothes to tell. The newly-fallen snow was black from Madison street all the way out to Jackson Park–all over Cook County, in fact. In the the dim light of the street lamps the snow looked everywhere the color of the earth. At 10 o’clock there seemed to be a quarter of an inch of the black covering.

Fortunately, scientific men had theories! Tom Skilling should be grateful we don’t treat him like this:

About 7 o’clock the wind increased to a gale, which brought clouds of dirt from the housetops. It might have passed into history as an ordinary dust storm with a thirty-mile wind but for the fact it was accompanied with a brisk flurry of snow which amalgamated with the dust particles and made every separate flake a fair-sized mud ball. The phenomenon lasted over an hour.

The weather man says there was nothing uncanny or unnatural about the mud storm. He admits it was a little unpleasant and unexpected–like some other recent storms–but he insists it was not his fault the morning’s prediction did not contain a forecast of a heavy fall of mud. Up to a late hour in the afternoon he had received no reports from the West which any sane man could consider a reasonable excuse for hoisting mud signals.

By the next day, the Tribune had the ingredients of the black snow, thanks to an analysis by the analytical chemists at Dickman & Mackenzie: street dust; coal ashes; oat straw; cigar ashes; cigaret filling; sand and lime mortar; particles of brick; particles of stone; particle of horseshoe; particle of diamond dust; lake sand; one short hair; flakes of soot. In other words, all homegrown dust and not, as was suggested, from a volcano or meteor.

Four days later the Trib explained why Chicago streets were so disgusting. It will probably not surprise current residents of the city that the two evils (their word) were “paucity of appropriation” and the “political contract system.” Regarding the former, Chicago was compared unfavorably with–wait for it–New York City, as it was shown that New York cleaned 300 miles of streets for $3m, and Chicago cleaned 1,000 miles with $250k in the Chicago way:

Even if every dollar of the $250,000 was honestly and economically expended in the work it would be impossible to keep all the streets clean, and when political contractors have things pretty much their own way the result is apparent.

Share

Advertisement

Submit your comment