By Dr. Shaun Treat
Great jumpin’ Jack Frost it’s cold! Since Texans take to driving on ice about as well as a drunken elephant to water-skiing, most have wisely hunkered down as our last few days of sleet, snow, and ice have caught up with us. It got me to thinking about the Great Blue Norther of 1911, which makes our whining about cold sound plain silly compared to this freeze back in the day.
For those who ain’t fluent in old timer jargon, a “Blue Norther” is a fast-moving cold front that causes temperatures to drop dramatically and quickly. Common characteristics are a dark blue-black sky, strong winds, and temperatures than can drop 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit in a few minutes. The Blue Norther is more common to the Texas panhandle when the Arctic Jetstream dips south, but one of the most historic Blue Northers occurred in on Nov. 11, 1911 across the midwest. Some still say it was among the most sudden and dangerous cold blasts in American history... and that'd be remembered as the Big Freeze of 11/11/11, BTW!
And boy howdy, a winter apocalypse it surely was, indeed! The weather had been unseasonably warm for November, hovering in the 80s. On Saturday Nov. 12, a sudden blizzard front had traveled over 400 miles from the west in just a little more than seven hours and, “except for the Weather Bureau warning, in which many place no credence,” the oh-so-Texan DR&C dryly noted, “there was almost no indication of the impending change.” As Denton’s paper of record goes on to breathlessly report:
“The transition from summer to winter was a matter of little more than minutes. At 5 o’clock the mercury showed 85 above. At 6 o’clock, thirty minutes after the blue norther struck, it had descended to 68 and continued to descend until 7 o’clock Sunday morning when the minimum was registered – 22 above, a drop of 63 degrees in a little more than twelve hours.”
To say that Denton was caught unprepared is an understatement, since they went to sleep eating ice cream in their sweaty shorts on Saturday evening only to wake up the next morning desperately trying to fire-up their wood stoves! “The gale that had been blowing since Friday from the south lulled a moment, a temporary calm,” the report explains, “and then out of the west poured an icy blast that cut like a knife, that whirled dust and small pebbles through the air as from an air-blast and made it impossible for pedestrians to see a few feet ahead.” Winds were gauged over 50mph as the sand-snowstorm hit as hard and fast as a tequila hangover to chill water pipes solid within hours. In fact, the freeze swept in so fast, ranchers in Bolivar lost a devastating portion of their herds while they slept, and said they had cattle freeze to death standing up as the beasts wandered lost in the whiteout! Accompanied by tornados in some parts of the region, the Great Blue Norther of 11/11/11 was one for the books!
That there is just one more reason Texans do NOT like the cold and DO like whiskey, y’all. So stay safe and warm as you wait out the weather, be careful when invariably defy common sense to venture out anyway, and hopefully this story will make for an interesting conversation as you wait for the tow truck to pull you outta the ditch and drop you off at the pub.
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Office of History & Culture as well as our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.