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The Worst Winter in Whitewater

Snow drifts on Main Street (north side). Images in the collections of the Whitewater Historical Society

The winter of 1880-81 was the worst winter in the Great Plains and upper Midwest in history. In Whitewater, it was a cold, snowy winter all the way up to the end of February of 1881, but the weather between February 26 and March 4 put the icing on the winter cake. The Whitewater Historical Society’s museum has an unusually large collection of photos from the storms of this period. One of the photographers made stereoscopic (early 3-D) photos because the storm was so significant and people wanted to remember it.

It began in late February. The Whitewater Register mentioned that on Saturday, February 26, 1881, a rain storm hit the city. The rain storm turned into a snow storm on Sunday, February 27. The snow soon piled in drifts and for the first time since the railroad came to Whitewater in 1852, there was no rail service in and out of the city on Monday, the 28th. But, this was just the appetizer for the big blizzard of March 2-4.

Snow drifts on Main Street (south side). Images in the collections of the Whitewater Historical Society

On Wednesday, March 2, another snow storm began and with the wind, it created havoc for two days. Accounts of this storm suggest that 2-4 feet (24 to 48 inches) of snow fell on southern and southeastern Wisconsin. The drifts were so bad that even residents with horse-drawn sleighs could not travel anywhere. Someone from the Town of LaGrange reported on March 10 that there had been no mail service for 10 days. Accurate records for Whitewater were not kept at the time, but Madison reported approximately 114 inches of snow fell in the winter of 1880-81.

The effect on Whitewater of these snowstorms is shown in the many photos the museum has of downtown Whitewater dated April of 1881. The middle of Main Street could not be cleared, so openings were shoveled out in front of businesses and at a couple of locations crossing the street. Some people actually built tunnels because the drifts were so high. The cold weather remained into April, but finally in May, the inevitable melting snow caused flooding, also pictured in many photos.

Flooding on Whitewater Street that came out of Cravath Lake in the background. Image in the collections of the Whitewater Historical Society

If using this article, please cite, Carol Lohry Cartwright, “The Worst Winter in Whitewater,”

2016, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.

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