Long before the prophets of gloom and doom predicted climate change will usher in both severe and extreme weather, Illinois experienced both severe and extreme weather.
The autumn of 1830, for instance, offered ominous signs of things to come with snows accumulating in the second half of November. Settlers had never seen snow so early. Later they would remember it as the “Winter of the Big Snow.”
On Christmas Eve, the state was hit by the season’s first big snowfall. The six or seven inches of snow deposited on Dec. 24 was but a precursor of the real havoc that awaited Illinois.
According to most accounts, the snow began in earnest on Dec. 30, when a bitter storm raged across the state. The vile weather continued in one form or another for about three months. By the time it finally concluded, the Illinois Intelligencer of Vandalia offered this view:
“The newspapers that reach us from every direction, are filled with accounts of severely cold weather, and immense falls of snow. In no part of the continent has this been felt more severely than in Illinois. We have had an extraordinary season. The cold has been intense and uninterrupted. The whole country has been blocked up with snowbanks, that have covered the earth since December. Several travelers have perished on the prairies near here. Such a winter has never been known in this region.”
In a 1909 article from the “Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society,” Eleanor Atkinson wrote that Edward Beecher, the first president of Jacksonville’s Illinois College, had been in Vandalia, the state capital, to seek a charter for the college. Beecher and a companion, Charles Holmes, were returning to Jacksonville when they were overtaken by the storm. The pair took refuge in a settler’s home.
“When the storm abated its fury, it seemed impossible to cover the remaining distance of 40 miles to Jacksonville, for the snow lay 3 feet in depth over the prairie. It seems probable, from the depth of the snow, that they were detained until after the storm of January 14 and 15...,” Atkinson wrote.
“A driving rain, freezing as it fell, formed a crust on top of this snow, not quite strong enough to bear a man’s weight,” Atkinson continued. “On top of this crust 3 more inches of snow fell, as light and fine as ashes and as hard as sand. Then a bright, cold sun shone on the dazzling landscape, to threaten the eyesight. To add to these difficulties a strong, northwest wind arose, to fill the air with flying snow, so stinging, blinding and choking that men could not make headway against it.
But Dr. Beecher was reared on Litchfield Hill, Connecticut, and was not easily dismayed by weather. He and Mr. Holmes hitched a horse to a light, improvised sleigh and, in some incredible way, accomplished the perilous task of crossing that 40 mile prairie, where the horse broke every step through ice crust and three feet of snow, and in the face of the blizzard. There is no record of any other men having performed such a feat in Illinois, that winter. That many must have attempted such journeys and perished, is proven by the finding of the bodies of strangers in many places when the snow went off in the spring.”
Travel was but one challenge during that treacherous winter. There were concerns that people would not be able to secure sufficient food and fuel to sustain them. Untold head of cattle, pigs and sheep perished – not only from the cold, but because grain lay frozen under the mantle of ice and snow. On the other hand, starving deer and other game were easy prey for hunters.
That winter proved to have a lasting impact. For example, writers of the early 20th century note that state’s deer herd did not rebound from the “Big Snow.” It took many years for game birds and other animals to recover their numbers.