The Ice Storm of 1922

Jan 16, 2019

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz looks back on an ice storm that happened in Wisconsin back in 1922.

People who live and work in the Northwoods are accustomed to cold temperatures, ice, and snow.  No matter what time period in history we look at, people adapted and dealt with the weather conditions.  However, every once in a while the weather packs an unusual wallop, and sometimes it is so severe that it can even bring hardy Northwoods residents to a standstill.  Such was the case with an ice storm that struck Wisconsin in February 1922.

An ice storm can happen when rain forms in a layer of warm air but then falls through a thin layer of below-freezing air right near the surface of the earth.  Ice accumulates when super-cold rain freezes on contact with physical surfaces that are below the freezing point.  On the afternoon of February 21, 1922, a low pressure system that can cause this sort of weather moved northeast out of the Great Plains and by February 22 it was over Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  In the southern parts of Wisconsin a mixture of rain, sleet, and freezing rain fell heavily throughout the day and into the early morning of February 23.  However, in the northern regions of Wisconsin, a heavy snowfall was added to the mix of sleet and freezing rain.  The damage was severe.  Power, telegraph, and telephone lines collapsed from the weight of the ice, and communications were snarled from anywhere from 2 to 15 days in some places.  Transportation was similarly knotted up.

Reports from the town of Hurley said that the storm blew in on Wednesday the 22nd and was continuous until late in the afternoon of Thursday the 23rd when it finally abated.  It was the worst storm that most people could remember.  Streetcar traffic in Ironwood and Hurley came to a complete halt, and even the railroads came to a standstill.  The last train to reach Hurley was on the morning of Wednesday the 22nd, and even then weather delays caused it to be two hours late.  The afternoon train from Chicago got no further than Antigo when heavy drifts and strong winds stopped it in its tracks.  Nothing moved south.

Friday the 24th was a clear day, and rail crews in Ironwood and Hurley began the laborious work of digging out.  A locomotive pushing a plow took off for Ashland at 7:00 am, and by early afternoon two locomotives in tandem managed to buck the drifts to pull two coaches, a mail, and a baggage car from Antigo to Hurley.

It was a storm for the record books and a record that most people did not care to try and break.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio and the web by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington BearThe photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.