The Great Arctic Outbreak, February 1899

ARctic Outbreak
ARctic Outbreak(whsv)
Published: Feb. 11, 2021 at 10:23 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2023 at 5:03 PM EST
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The great Arctic outbreak, February 1899. Some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded across the area. This started as a cold front on February 5th and that turned into a coastal low, which dropped several inches of snow. Arctic high pressure built in behind that which sent low temperatures plummeting below zero by February 9th.

The cold was brutal, across most of the country during the first two weeks of February in 1899. Our weather records for Dale Enterprise, just west of Harrisonburg are extensive and detailed. We know that temperatures never got above freezing for 8 days.

Here are low temperatures for the coldest two day stretch. Not only do these record cold lows still stand, but there were also record coldest high temperatures set as well. These lows were on February 10th and the 11th.

The great Arctic outbreak of February, 1899
The great Arctic outbreak of February, 1899(whsv)

L.J. Heatwole was the original weather observer for Dale Enterprise. According to his records, this was the coldest temperature he recorded. That record lowest cold stood until January 1912. Now the coldest low for the Dale Enterprise weather records is -25. Even though the low in 1912 was colder, the persistence of the cold air was not as great.


While still in the middle of the Arctic blast, lows on Valentine’s Day 1988 were as cold as -10° and these still stand as current record lows. Not only was it cold, but there was still 1-2′ of snow on the ground at the time.

The Arctic Outbreak, these lows still stand as the current record low
The Arctic Outbreak, these lows still stand as the current record low(whsv)

The Staunton Spectator reported “schools have been suspended until better weather” and many of the casualties were livestock.

Now there is an account in the History of Rockingham County book that states January of 1881 was colder. I have gone back through Newspapers and one states that Brocks Gap got to -30 degrees. Is this possible? Yes seeing as how we are limited in the data reporting at that time and we all know temperatures vary greatly per location because of the terrain, especially if the night was clear. From what I can find there was a great cold snap between December 30th, 1880 and January 1, 1881 but likely not as extensive or as long lasting as February 1889. This is something I am continuing to research.

So did snow accompany the cold? Yes, there were two back to back storms. Here’s the surface weather map from February 13th. This would be a classic Nor’easter.

February 1899
February 1899(NOAA)

The first storm dropped about 8″-20″ of snow across the area over 3 days.


The second snow storm came just a few days later on the 16th.


Here’s a clip from the handwritten weather records from L.J. Heatwole. If you look you can see he writes about a thunder shower on February 3rd. The high that day was 54°. So with thunder in February, that tells us there was a very strong cold front, an Arctic front that crossed and dropped temperatures dramatically.

Handwritten weather records from L.J. Heatwole
Handwritten weather records from L.J. Heatwole(NOAA)

The cold was so widespread, it snowed in Florida. Newspapers reported a snowball fight at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Snowfall was reported as far south as Fort Myers Florida!

The coldest low recorded during this Arctic outbreak was in Fort Morgan, Montana where the temperature dropped to an astonishing -61 degrees.

More than 100 people lost their lives due to the extreme cold.

So why was it so cold? It was a series of high pressure, straight out of northern Canada sending cold, polar air southward across the U.S.

The great Arctic outbreak of February, 1899
The great Arctic outbreak of February, 1899(whsv)

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