Yes, the weather lately has been bad. But, even if your nose and extremities might suggest otherwise, we are still a fair ways off from the all-time record low temperature in Washington. That distinction goes to February 11, 1899. Around 7 a.m. that morning, the Weather Bureau at 24th and M St., NW recorded its lowest reading ever, a frigid 15 degrees below zero. It was the low point in a brutal three-day stretch, during which D.C. was the coldest place on the east coast – 11 degrees colder than Baltimore and “6 to 10 degrees colder than the New England states even.”
During the cold snap, which followed a significant snowstorm, “untold suffering has resulted from the cold spell among the destitute, and that class of laborers whose duty compelled them to remain out-of-doors any length of time. ... Many persons have been frostbitten of had portions of their anatomy frozen so badly as to necessitate amputation.” To keep the force safe, the Metropolitan Police Department shortened some beat cops’ shifts to three hours. They could rest easy knowing that the frigid weather was just as much of a deterrent to ne’erdowells as D.C.’s bobbies could hope to be.
No doubt the Evening Star echoed the sentiments of many readers when it begged mother nature to show some mercy: “Since the accomplishment of its purpose, the breaking of all known records for this section of the country, it is to be hoped the mercury will take some pity on suffering humanity and come from its hiding place in the bottom of the bulb. The novelty of the coldness has passed, now that new figures have been made for the old inhabitants to recall, and there is no more interest attached to the antics of thermometers.”
But was it really an all-time record? Well, that’s debatable.
Fifteen-below was definitely the lowest temperature ever recorded by the Weather Bureau. But, as of 1899, the Bureau had only been around for about twenty years — a pretty limited sample of time.
For most of the city’s history, the highs and lows were recorded in a much more rudimentary fashion. According to the Washington Post, “it was customary to chalk the hot and cold records on a board fence. The oldest inhabitants all remember how they used to take turns inspecting the thermometer that hung in Hancock's and then go home to tell how cold or how hot it was. But when the Weather Bureau was opened it was thought there would be no further need for the board-fence records, and accordingly, the palings were one by one knocked out and taken home for firewood.” (Check out a photo of Hancock's on Shorpy.)
So, while some old-timers claimed that there had been days that were just as cold or colder than minus 15, the documentation had probably gone up in smoke by 1899. Still, the Post made one last appeal on behalf of the Bureau on February 12: “If any of the oldest inhabitants can find one of the boards of that fence in his woodshed, the Weather Bureau would like to buy it. The record made by the thermometer yesterday beats anything known, hence the desire to find the boards of that fence.”
No one came forward with convincing evidence — a fence post or otherwise — of a D.C. temperature reading below minus 15. So, the 1899 record stands. And, since the official weather monitoring station for Washington was moved to local warm spot Reagan Washington National Airport in 1942, the mark isn't likely to fall anytime soon.
Note: The picture at the top of this post was taken between 1909-1920 and does not depict an actual snow removal crew in 1899, though the wagon-and-shovel tactics shown were very similar to those used in 1899. For more information on the photo, visit the Library of Congress website.