The Sudden Change of 1836 and 2014 in Illinois

One piece of weather lore in Illinois was the “Sudden Change” of 1836, which referred to a rapid drop in temperature on December 20, 1836. At the time Illinois was sparsely populated with few weather observation. The accounts of the time talk of a mild December day with the high temperature reaching into the 40s. On the horizon appeared a dark cloud, followed by strong winds, and a sudden drop in temperature. Some claim the temperature dropped from 40 degrees to -20 degrees in a matter of minutes!

That kind of temperature change seems a bit far-fetched. We do know that the weather observer for Augusta, IL, (west of Springfield) reported 40 degrees at dawn and 0 degrees at 2 pm on December 20, 1836. And what they describe sounds like a very strong low pressure system passed to the north of Illinois with a trailing cold front moving through the state, ushering in much colder air, high winds, clouds, and rain changing to snow. It sounds very similar to the conditions of January 26-27, 2014, in Illinois (I’m writing this on Sunday night as the wind howls outside).

Of course, this was long before there were accurate forecast or even the basic understanding of warm and cold fronts. It comes as no surprise then that several people perished during this sudden change of temperature. John and Sarah Power recount some incredible hardships in the 1876 “History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois”.

One account told of two travelers, named Hildreth and Frame, who were caught out in the open as the cold front hit. By dark, with no house in sight and plummeting temperatures, they killed one of the horses, took out the entrails, and crawled inside the carcass as far as they could for warmth. By midnight, the horse was frozen so they attempted to kill the second horse. But someone dropped the knife and they couldn’t find it in the dark. By 4 am, Frame was in the advanced stages of hyperthermia and “sank down in a sleep from which he never awakened”. Hildreth continued on horseback the next day. After one family refused to help, others came to his aid in the afternoon. He ended up losing most of his toes and fingers to frostbite.

One of the more humorous accounts was about a man named Crowder who was riding into Springfield to get a marriage license. He met the strong cold front about halfway to town. The water and slush on the road turned to ice in a matter of 20 minutes. Once in Springfield, he “attempted to dismount, but was unable to move, his overcoat holding him as firmly as thought it was made of sheet iron. He called for help, and two men come out, who tried to lift him off, but his clothes were frozen to the saddle, which they ungirthed, and then carried the man and saddle to the fire and thawed them asunder.” He made it back in time for the wedding on the 21st.

Many other stories were told of the sudden warming of 1836, such as two men frozen as they stood – one holding the reigns of a horse and the other kneeling as to start a fire. I’m sure many of these were embellishments of real and imaginary events. However, I am equally sure that many humans and animals suffered and perished during this sudden change.

In closing, we can now talk about the “Sudden Change of 2014” which was probably comparable to the 1836 in terms of the meteorology. However, in 2014 we benefit from better forecasts, warmer houses, and better modes of transportation than horseback. Be safe and stay warm.

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One thought on “The Sudden Change of 1836 and 2014 in Illinois

  1. […] What made this weather interesting is that there was a 40 degree drop (F, about 22 degree drop in C) over an 8 hour period. Now something like this has happened in 1836 in Illinois, back before we had forewarning of such events. I can recommend climatologist Jim Angel’s report on this; it is very interesting. […]

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