Just How Bitter Cold is it? Wyoming’s Coldest Stories

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Bill Sniffin
Bill Sniffin

During that recent cold spell of Feb. 4-5-6, Wyoming endured some of its coldest temperatures of the current 2013-2014 winter season.

Powell dropped to -24, for example, while in my town, Lander, the mercury dipped to -20.  Worland hit -24, Laramie -23, Cheyenne -22 and Sheridan had -19.

Up to then, tough-minded Wyomingites had been quietly snickering when national news reports showed below freezing temps in Texas, blizzards in New York and folks shivering in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Although we truly sympathized with folks enduring something called a Polar Vortex, we also knew what cold weather is really like.

Last week, it arrived with a vengeance.  Back in the first week of January, Wyoming folks also saw temps in the minus-teens. Since then, it was balmy. Until this past week.

This got me thinking about what were the coldest temperatures in Wyoming’s recorded history?  A lot of folks sent me anecdotal stories, which I will mix in here with a few facts.

Personally, I recall the winter of 1978-79. Again, here in Lander, I think the entire month of January was below zero. Amazingly dangerous and bitter conditions.

What is the official coldest temperature ever? Historian Phil Roberts from the University of Wyoming: “I think the record is still -66 recorded Feb. 9, 1933, at Moran. I heard the temperature was actually colder, but the thermometers didn't have the capacity to register a lower reading!”

Clay James, who operated Jackson Lake Lodge at Moran for decades, recalls -54 one cold winter day in the mid-1970s. “Thankfully we woke up as the power went off.  We called all of our employees to turn on the faucets and start the fireplaces.  The power was off for several days.  Never have I been so cold,” he recalls.   

Former Cheyenne, Torrington and Sundance publisher Mike Lindsey recalled the blizzard of 1949, which history generally considers  the worst ever in the state.

“Up in Sundance, cattle froze standing up. Wind blew drifts into buildings through keyholes in doors. Machinery would not start. Kids who stuck their tongues to the door handle did not get thawed until their junior year!” Not sure about that last fact, which was reminiscent of the famous scene from the movie A Christmas Story.

Jim Smail of Lander recalls snowmobiling with a group that included Charlton Heston at Togwotee Lodge in 1964 where the mercury dipped to -64.  No, they did not go sledding that day.

Wyoming Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau of Gillette recalls playing Laramie in football when the wind chill was -65. 

Dewey Vanderhoff of Cody recalls: “It was New Year's weekend of 1979 when Jackson Hole went -60. Friends from Meeteetse had gone to ski there but came back with horror stories of busted pipes, bone-cold motels, blackouts, everything closed, no skiing opportunity at all. Nothing fun except sharing beds for warmth and drinking a lot. Consolation prize I suppose. Was there a spike in babies born in September-October?”

Jody Coleman of Riverton says about that same ski trip: “I was in Jackson that New Years of 1979. The power was off and we woke up at the Antler motel with the walls inside covered with frost. We went outside and started our pickup every hour. The next day we spent the day jump-starting other people's cars. My mom bought me a ski suit. But urged me to move home to California.”

Worland can get pretty cold. Debbie Hammons says: “That super-duper cold winter of 1978-79 was when the weather was sub-zero.  I moved home to Wyoming in September 1978.  Best New Year's Eve ever was Jan. 1, 1979.  All the young singles in town packed into the Three Bears Bar downtown and kept their cars running into the New Year. We knew if we shut off our vehicles, we might not be able to start them again until March!”

When Pat Schmidt was publisher of The Lovell Chronicle, folks there arranged a hay bale mission to rescue the poor wild horses in the Pryor Mountains. “The BLM and others organized a hay drop from a helicopter to bands of horses stuck on mountain ridges. I recall taking a picture with one hand as I was dropping a bale with the other. The effort only compounded the problems, we learned later, as the horses' digestive systems were not used to the rich protein in the hay. Their systems compacted, causing a quicker death. Only around 75 survived.”

These are some of my favorite “how cold is it” stories. What about yours?

 

Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com.  He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent book is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at www.wyomingwonders.com.

 

 

 

 

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