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A look back at Wisconsin’s historically cold, snowy weather

By Karin Swanson, kswanson@wisctv.com
Published On: Jan 30 2014 08:54:48 PM CST
MADISON, Wis. -

If you travel to the National Weather Service in Sullivan, Wis., you'll see computer screens filled with isobars, radar and satellite views, and projections galore. Outside the office, snow is measured the good old-fashioned way and a new high-tech way.

Meteorologist Ed Townsend said the NWS takes snow measurements using an ultrasonic snow-depth sensor as well as a snow stick. All these measurements are studied and logged. Of course it wasn't always been this way.

Ed Hopkins is Wisconsin's assistant state climatologist and is the keeper of the records. He has the original books where weather data was entered for Madison. Those original record books date back to the 1800s, well before the NWS was established. Hopkins is also an expert on the history of record keeping in Madison. Hopkins said John Muir, a name recognizable to many, was one of Wisconsin's first weather observers and record keepers.

The most fascinating parts of the record books tend to be the entries including personal observations. In the book from 1916, the page for March 22 describes nine inches of snow on the ground and a total of 11 inches falling from midnight to midnight. The notations for that date talk about thunder at 2 a.m. and the Madison streetcar line being out of business in the morning because of heavy snow.

The old record books also contain saved newspaper accounts with significant information. One newspaper headline reads, "1916 Weather Report Shows Vagaries of Nature; Extreme Heat and Unusual Cold Marks Year. Holidays are Pleasant."

We've all been enduring some rather difficult temperatures recently, but we're still some distance from the all-time record lows. The all-time record low for Madison was 37 degrees below zero, set on Jan. 30, 1951. On that same morning the people of Lone Rock, Wis. woke up to even colder temperatures. Lone Rock resident Sue Sadler recounted the day: "Fuel oil froze and the LP gas gelled, and one family lost their pet goldfish. They woke up in the morning to find him frozen and in a bowl of ice."

Sue Sadler has all the newspaper clippings from that historic day. It was her dad, Ben Silko, who worked at the Lone Rock airport and made the official measurement. Sadler said, "He went out to get the recording that morning and the mercury had dropped into the bulb of the thermometer and the thermometer went down accurately to minus 45 degrees. So he got the calipers and measured between things and measured it to where he thought it would have stopped, which would have been 53 below. He said it probably could have gotten colder.”

Sadler said her father retold stories from that frigid day. Recalling one of his stories, she said, "On one of the buildings, I don't know if it was at the airport or not, but the metal was so cold that the paint just literally slid off it. So it looked like a shiny new nickel." She went on to say the paint, "just fell off in sheets."

When asked if the children of Lone Rock attended school on Jan. 30, 1951, Sadler responded, "Uh, no, they had the day off, but it wasn't because of the weather. The furnace had quit. There were furnace problems; otherwise they would have been in school. Isn't that interesting?"

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