Worst winter in Wellington County was 1903-04

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

When I was young I was often regaled by old-timers contrasting the hard winters of their youth with the soft and easy ones of mine.

I’m sure everyone who reads this column has heard those monologues: seven mile walks through blizzards to school (and uphill both ways), and digging through snow drifts higher than the house (“…and we were too poor to have shovels, we had to use spoons.”)

I had doubts about those tales 50 years ago. Since becoming a serious student of local history, I have been accumulating stories and information on weather. There is no reliable and consistent record of the weather for Wellington.

Major weather events, though, had an impact on the economy and the functioning of our communities, and generally got some coverage in newspapers and mentions in diaries.

Looking through my notes on the subject, I can say with some confidence that the winter of 1903-04 was the worst ever experienced in this county. Admittedly, it is a difficult call. Emergency procedures exist now that were unheard of 100 years ago, and our ability to cope with snow and ice has improved steadily since the first settlers arrived here.

The winter of 1903-04 was a long one, a cold one, and a stormy one. The first flakes of snow blew around in early November 1903, but soon melted. A heavy snow fall blanketed Wellington on Nov. 17, and it stayed. From then on, there was at least a little new snow every day for the next five weeks.

At first, farmers looked on the snow and cold weather as a benefit. The roads froze solidly, and the thick snow offered good sleighing. Organizers of the big fat stock show in Guelph welcomed their largest crowd ever, as hundreds of sleighs and cutters brought in visitors.

For the first few weeks conditions had been colder than normal, with a lot more snow than the average winter. Everyone was able to cope. In fact, people expected an easier winter than the year before, when a miners strike in Pennsylvania had cut off the supply of coal.

The idyllic winter ended on Dec. 11. A blizzard hit the county that afternoon, and continued into the following day. Estimates placed the fall at 12 inches, but the wind blew it into high drifts. Then the winds shifted to the east, bringing heavy rains. On Dec. 13 the thermometer nosedived to below zero, and stayed there for three days.

The result of the rain and sudden freezing was a heavy crust of ice on top of the snow. Deep ruts were frozen into the roads, hampering transportation. Another blizzard came through on Dec. 20 and 21, and after that sleighing was almost impossible. Major victims were the threshing crews, who were unable to move their steam engines and threshing machines from one farm to another.

By then the railways were experiencing problems. The ice seemed to be hard as granite, and quite capable of derailing snow plows and locomotives. Trains of both the Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific ran hours late. CP’s Dec. 24 evening train from Orangeville, due at Mount Forest about 9pm, did not arrive until 4am Christmas morning.

By then there had been so much snow that the railways’ plows had nowhere to push it. As well, there was so much ice in the snow banks that they were as hard to move as rock. Both railways drew a lot of criticism for late and cancelled trains, but the worst was directed at the Grand Trunk. That line was ill-prepared for the traffic increase of the post 1900 period, suffering from a shortage of cars and frequent breakdowns of locomotives. Engines on its lines north of Guelph were all 30 years old or more.

The railways were barely able to keep passenger trains moving. Those trains were also the main distribution system for mail and express. By New Year’s Day 1904 a coal shortage was imminent, due largely to the inability of the railways to move freight during the cold, stormy weather. Coal ordered by local dealers in mid-November still had not arrived in early January.

Residents of Mount Forest were particularly infuriated when they learned that several cars of coal for local dealers had been sitting in the Grand Trunk’s Stratford yards for over a week. Some people wanted to switch to firewood, but split and dried cordwood was also in short supply, and those farmers who had some to sell could not easily transport it over the plugged roads.

The first two weeks of 1904 brought bitterly cold weather, but not much more snow. When the weather turned warm on Jan. 16 another storm hit the Wellington with a mixture of sleet, wet snow, and freezing rain. More snow and wind came when the temperature dropped.

Similar conditions prevailed across Ontario, and in the American states around the Great Lakes. There were a couple of casualties, but none in Wellington. The nearest casualty was a farmer from the Listowel area who got lost walking home. Neighbours found him in a field, near a house, frozen to death the next morning.

Canadian Pacific’s evening train to Elora, equipped with a plow, got stuck near Belwood on Jan. 18. Elsewhere it was worse. The CPR suffered a derailment and three trains stuck in drifts between Arthur and Mount Forest. That storm completely paralyzed the Grand Trunk, which shut down all service north of Guelph for three days. Even its main line, between Toronto and Chicago, was running a full day behind schedule.

Blizzard conditions persisted, with some brief respites, from Jan. 17 to 27. The railways abandoned their schedules, sending trains through whenever they managed to get a line open. A CP plow train took three days to get from Teeswater to Orangeville. It got stuck several times, and had to be dug out by hand.

On Jan. 23 the Grand Trunk got a train from Guelph to Fergus, the first in several days, but it had to stop there overnight. A plow, southbound from Palmerston, was off the track near Goldstone. Some people resorted to cutters to get around, particularly in the area south of Elora and Fergus. Even the post office abandoned the railways, sending mail on Jan. 25 westward from Orangeville in a cutter. It required a full two days to reach Mount Forest.

Under those conditions, business came to a virtual standstill. Aggravating the situation was the coal shortage, which became acute in the last week of January. Factories and mills that relied on steam power shut down. In Fergus, the electrical system owned by Dr. Groves closed down when it ran out of coal.

Yet another storm dumped more snow on the area between Feb. 2 and 4. The Grand Trunk tried to get a train of coal, powered by three locomotives, into the north, but it got stuck in drifts near Marden. The railways managed to get the trains rolling on Feb. 6. For many towns, this was the first rail service in five days. Postmasters had to deal with the largest one-day volume of mail they had ever seen. Mount Forest’s first train in a week arrived late on Saturday, Feb. 6. The postmaster there opened the office on Sunday after church, after working all night to sort the mail.

Canadian Pacific announced that they were sending a powerful rotary snow plow, normally used only in the Rocky Mountains, to southern Ontario. If it did arrive, it never saw service on the branch lines in Wellington, where problems persisted for the rest of the winter.

A brief relief from winter came on Feb. 6, with temperatures above freezing and a misty rain. The following day rains fell heavily. With the ice and snow covering the roofs of their houses, homeowners feared that they would collapse under the weight. A few did. A far more common problem was leaking. With ice at the eaves, water backed up under shingles. Some houses leaked so badly that furniture and flooring was damaged.

High winds followed and then the temperature dropped by 50 degrees Fahrenheit in 12 hours. For a week the temperature remained in the negative Fahrenheit region. The coldest spot in Wellington seems to have been Mount Forest, which twice hit -26 F (-32 C).

There were no major snow falls during that cold spell, and the railways had a window of opportunity to get their operations back to normal. But with the extreme cold weather, that was difficult, with frozen bearings on cars, cracked rubber in air brake systems, and other problems. They did manage to get supplies of coal to most towns on Feb. 8 and 9. Even so, that commodity remained in short supply, partially to the heavy demand everywhere.

To be continued next week.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 7,  2005.

Thorning Revisited