Think It's Cold Today? At Least the River's Still Flowing

Jan 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm
Woman crossing the frozen Mississippi, 1905. - courtesy Missouri History Museum
courtesy Missouri History Museum
Woman crossing the frozen Mississippi, 1905.

Yes, it's cold this week, the coldest it's been here in St. Louis in several years. What's particularly galling is that this cold is not as lovely and refreshing as we thought it would be last summer when the thermometer crawled up to 108. Remember that?

Back in the good old days before global warming, it got this cold a lot. The cold was enough to stop even the mighty Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Cakes of ice would jam the Mississippi from the confluence to as far south as Cape Girardeau. And then St. Louisans would go out on the river to play.

Mere ice skating was considered passe. Anyway, as the Post-Dispatch reported during the freeze of January, 1910,

The ice floor of the river is not smooth, but is covered with irregular ice peaks and miniature bergs, parts of the ice jam that were caught by the freezing of the surface and were cemented together in a mass. Those going across stumble up inclines to jagged plateaus and then slide down into little valleys. The trip on foot across the river will tax the strength of an able man.

That didn't stop many from going anyway, some for the adventure, some because of rumors of a free chicken dinner in Cahokia. Some carried sticks, held horizontally so that if they fell through the ice, the ends would (in theory) catch and keep them from falling through. (This theory, fortunately, was never tested, or at least the reporter from the P-D never heard about it.)

During the previous freeze, back in 1905, a few enterprising souls had set up illegal gambling operations on the ice. Recalled A. W. Long of the Harbor Department,

The confidence men planted their gambling apparatus in the middle of the river and the police could not touch them. If this freezing weather continues, we will probably have the same thing this winter. The women might hold their euchre parties out there now since Chief Creecy has begun a campaign against them.

This was one of the few cheerful news stories about the freezing of the river. There were many, many more heart-rending accounts of poor unfortunates (mostly hobos and alcoholics) who had frozen to death and subsequently had to be carved out of blocks of ice and identified at the city morgue.

The river froze at least ten times between 1831 and 1938. The ice jams stopped not because the weather magically got warmer, but because of the construction of the Alton Lock and Dam, which stopped icebergs from flowing south down the Mississippi and blocking the city's water pipes. The river still freezes sometimes, though, as in this RFT file photo from 1994: