History of Freezes in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Part II  1895-1962

by Richard Travis
San Antonio, Texas

The 1880's had been a brutally cold decade for Texas.  South Texas received big freezes in 1880-81, 1886, and 1888, and had just avoided a fourth major cold outbreak which affected the rest of the state in 1883.  After 1888, however, the region got a short respite until the winter of 1894-95.  This is the winter that brought the infamous five-inch snowfall to Brownsville and a devastating double-freeze to the Florida citrus belt. 

The first freeze of that season came in December.  That freeze was not so bad in South Texas, sending the mercury down to 27 F in Brownsville.  The core of that cold air moved more eastward toward Florida, where it brought readings in the teens and low twenties to their citrus belt.  The orange trees suffered considerable damage but began to recover during a warm January.  In Texas, the real cold did not arrive until February, when two bad freezes came through. 

February 1895:  The first freeze, on the 7th and 8th, was the most intense.  Temperatures fell to 0 in Dallas, 11 in Austin and San Antonio, 15 in Galveston, and 16 in Corpus Christi.  It was a quick front which had lost some of its potency by the time it reached Brownsville.  The mercury at Fort Brown fell to 27 on the morning of the 7th, rose to 39 the next afternoon, then same to 22 the following night before warming into the forties.  North of the Valley, temperatures remained below freezing all day on the 7th and 8th.  This same freeze reached Florida with full force, sending the temperature down to the 20 range over most of Central Florida for a second time that winter.  This was devastating to the citrus trees since they were in a very vulnerable state, just beginning to recover from the hard freeze the previous December.  As a result, nearly all the citrus trees north of a Tampa-Melbourne line were destroyed (the Valley, of course, had no citrus industry back then.)

The second February freeze came a week later and was localized more in Texas.   While not as intense as the first Arctic blast, it brought a longer period of cold.   This is when the infamous Brownsville snowfall occurred, over five inches on level ground.  The high/low summary starts from February 14th. 

  14th 15th 16th 17th
Fort Brown 48/22 ?/25 ?22 ?22
Fort Ringgold 45/26 29/24 35/22 45/22
Unfortunately, the February high temperatures at Fort Brown after the 14th are missing, and the NOAA could not locate more detailed readings from either Brownsville or Rio Grande City.  While not the coldest of freezes, it was certainly extended and the five-inch snowfall still stands as the greatest (and last) snow in Brownsville.  Data between 1985 and 1899 are missing from Brownsville, and while some of those winters were severe in Texas, no great cold outbreaks were reported from South Texas. 

February 1899 - The Big One:  It was perhaps only fitting that the 19th century close out with the worst cold spell ever known to Texas.  The infamous freeze of February 11-13, 1899, arrived almost four years to the day after the 1895 snowstorm.  Though not quite the longest freeze ever known, it did bring two nights of unbelievably intense cold to the entire state and much of the nation.  Low temperature records were shattered throughout much of the United States, many of which still stand today.  It was probably the single worst Arctic outbreak to ever affect the United States. 

Not unlike the 1983 freeze, the 1899 freeze came toward the end of a long cold spell which had been persisting throughout much of the country.  North Texas was gripped in subfreezing temperatures for over a week preceding the big outbreak.  Then during the day of the 11th, the roof caved in. 

Temperatures began falling as the day progressed.  By late afternoon, readings in the mid to upper twenties were entrenched along the central and upper coast.  The real cold arrived later that night.  Even when measured against the worst cold waves, this was unbelievable.  The event was well recorded in Dallas.  Dallas had seen an inch of snow on the 11th, and after sunset the temperature quickly fell from 20 above to 2 below by 8:00 p.m.  Nearly every thermometer in town recorded -10 to -11 the next morning.  By 11:00 a.m. on the 12th, the mercury had only risen to -5, and by 8:00 in the evening it had climbed to a balmy 10 above, only to fall back to zero by midnight again (that'll certainly put a damper on palm growing in the Big D). 

Down in central Texas, Austin dropped to -1 and downtown San Antonio recorded 4 1/2 above zero, with a maximum of 25 the afternoon of the 12th.  Many thermometers around the Alamo city hit zero, and it was cold enough for boys to skate on the frozen San Antonio River.  Cuero was particularly cold for central Texas, reporting -4. 

Most amazing were the reports from the Weather Bureau of Galveston.  The temperature there started out at 28 the evening of the 11th, and had fallen to 10 by 8:00 a.m. on a cloudy, windy morning.  The strongest part of the cold air evidently passed over them late that morning.  After sunrise, the temperature did not go up but instead continued to fall through the morning, bottoming out at 7 1/2 around 11:00 a.m.   By 1:00 p.m. the mercury was still at 11.  Not only is that the lowest temperature ever recorded in Galveston, but it came nearly at midday under a cloudy, windy sky (the next night, incidentally, the skies cleared and the wind calmed but the temperature did not drop below 10).  A few places west of Galveston on the bay were known to have frozen completely over from the barrier island to the mainland. 

Further south, Alice bottomed out at 5 on the morning of the 12th, and Laredo reported the same temperature the following morning.  Corpus Christi had 11 the first morning, and 16 the second, with sheets of ice extending far into the bay.   North of town, the Nueces River reportedly froze "hard enough to pass over."  Port Isabel reported a low of 20 for the month but gave no further details. 

The readings from deep south Texas took a bit of work to decipher.  During 1899, readings from Brownsville and Rio Grande City still came from the Surgeon General, which evidently had a different method of recording temperatures than the Weather Bureau.   The following are the summaries from Forts Brown and Ringgold along with the records from Corpus Christi to use for comparison:

  Feb 11, 1899 Feb 12, 1899 Feb 13, 1899 Feb 14, 1899 Feb 15, 1899
Corpus Christi 48/24 26/11 35/16 52/32  
Fort Brown 53/39 55/16 29/12 49/18 68/36
Fort Ringgold 51/39 53/12 31/7 49/23 66/31
As best I can tell, it appears that the maximum and minimum at the forts must have been taken every morning (instead of midnight), and the maximum listed for each is really for the previous 24-hour period (the day of the 12th was the coldest during the freeze, the the 50 readings must have been for the previous 24-hour period.)  Also, unlike most of the state, the coldest readings in the deepest south Texas evidently came on the morning of the 13th instead of the 12th.  While Corpus Christi bottomed out at 11 after the first night of the freeze, Brownsville apparently had 16 that night, and Rio Grande City had 12 (this is confirmed in several newspapers).  The papers also reported a low of 18 in the Edinburg that morning.  After an entire day below freezing throughout the Valley, Brownsville then dropped to 12 on the second night while Rio Grande City fell to 7.  That afternoon, conditions then warmed rapidly into the forties as the cold moderated (the readings of 18 and 23 on the 14th probably came as the thermometer was reset on the morning of the 13th for the next day's records).

The Texas papers widely reported the event as the worst freeze ever known to anyone in the state, going back as far as 1832.  Some claimed is was the worst cold since the settlement of the Anglos in the region.  Even today, after150 to 200 years of recorded weather in Texas, the Freeze of 1899 stands without equal.  Such a freeze must be an extremely rare event indeed, almost certainly less than once a century.   It may well be that a freeze of this intensity could only be expected during a period of generally colder climatic conditions. 

The Twentieth Century

The turn of the century marked not only a chronological change but a meteorological one as well. After 1899, another serious freeze would not occur again in the Valley until midway through the new century.  Two sharp radiational freezes did occur in 1905 and 1911, with minimums of 22 and 21. respectively.  But both of those freezes were brief, and temperatures were well above freezing during daylight hours.  Other minor freezes did occur at long intervals.

In 1918, and especially 1930, the Valley dodged a bullet when some very strong cold waves went through Texas.  1930 was particularly bad in Texas, but the brunt of the cold moved more eastward instead of traveling straight down to south Texas.  For comparison, Houston recorded 5F, their coldest temperature ever (one degree lower than 1899), while San Antonio only saw 11F, and Eagle Pass did not go below 17F.   Brownsville bottomed out at 24 that winter, while other places in the lower Valley were a degree or two colder.  That winter (or possibly 1933) was probably the year Tampico recorded 27F, and Soto la Marina reached 21 (this coming from a summary of temperatures from the years 1921-1935 by the Mexican government).  Other freezes also moved through Texas in 1933 and 1940, but once again, neither was strong enough to have much of an impact on Brownsville, producing lows of 29 and 25, respectively.

This long spell free of extreme winters no doubt encouraged the development of the Valley citrus industry, which had not existed during the colder nineteenth century.   It also encouraged people to plant many of the subtropical ornaments now coming into the Valley from Florida and California.  But halfway through the century, the 5-decade run of relatively mild weather would come to an end.

January 1949:  On January 30, 1949, a strong cold front blew through Texas bringing snow and 0 readings to central Texas and a fairly hard freeze to the Valley.  Temperatures in Brownsville fell to 23F for an hour during the cold spell, with a number of hours in the mid-twenties.  Stations to the west were a little colder.  The coast was the place to be during this freeze -- temperatures did not go below 26F at Port Isabel.  Damage was more severe than the temperatures might indicate since many plants were not especially dormant.  Still, most of the citrus trees managed to recover and it looked like the industry would be back to normal in a couple of years.  The extreme mildness of the 1949-1950 winter must have caused further optimism.

January/February 1951:  In December, 1950, a relatively light freeze hit the Valley, causing temporary damage to some tender plants.  The weather then warmed and stayed mild until January 30, 1951.  Citrus trees which were slightly injured in the December freeze began to regrow in the warm weather.  Then, two years to the day after the '49 freeze, the worst cold wave since 1899 descended in the Valley, bringing two full afternoons below freezing.  Most Valley cities receded lows around 20.  Seventy-five percent of the citrus trees were completely destroyed -- many were actively growing when the freeze hit.  Such untimely conditions recalled the 1985 freeze in Florida:  an early freeze followed by a long mild spell, then a hard freeze late in the season.  The following data are from Brownsville: 

Maximum/Minimum Temperatures

1/29/85 1/30/85 1/31/85 2/1/85 2/2/85 2/3/85
71/30 30/25 31/27 38/22 44/27 60/25
Notice the extreme length of this freeze -- five consecutive nights below freezing and a period of over 60 consecutive hours from the 29th to the 1st when temperatures stayed below freezing.  Most of this time, however, was spent in the upper twenties. 

January 1962:  The period between 1951 and 1962 brought little cold to the Valley, then in 1962, another long severe freeze again hit the Valley.   As in 1951, most of the Valley had over two full days and nights below freezing.   Unlike 1951, the skies cleared off toward the end of the freeze and temperatures went lower.  This time, the lows went to 19F in Brownsville, and a brutal 10F in Rio Grande City, if only briefly.  McAllen recorded the lowest ever 17, one degree colder than 1989.  While most subtropicals were again killed to the ground, the citrus industry was not hurt as badly this time since trees were in a more dormant condition.  Again, the maximum and minimum are given for Brownsville:

1/9/89 1/10/89 1/11/89 1/12/89
76/29 30/24 31/25 51/19
The low of 19 is perhaps not as bad as it sounds.  Temperatures on the coldest night went from 30 at 1:00 a.m. to 19 very briefly at 5:30.  It was below 26 for 6 consecutive hours and below 23 for 5 hours, which is rather puny when compared to the freezes of the late 1800's or 1980's.  The following winter of 1962-63 was also fairly severe, when temperatures when to 24 at Brownsville, with lower twenties further west and even 23 at Port Isabel.  That winter was shared in Florida as well.

With the author's permission this article is reprinted from the Spring 1997 issue of the Palm Society of South Texas quarterly bulletin.

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