Jim Heffernan column: A brief history of winters in Duluth
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist.
This is shaping up to be a pretty decent winter — if you like winter. Snow one day, bitter cold the next, even an occasional thaw. All of the elements (pun actually intended) of a typical Duluth winter.
But it’s nothing compared to the winters we experienced when I was growing up in Duluth. Why, those winters were so severe they had to close down the schools it seemed like every other week; snow banks were so high cars had to have extended aerials with flags on them to alert other drivers at intersections. Red triangular flags, not good Old Glory.
Those were the real winters when blizzards were blizzards and not a Dairy Queen treat. I have told my kids (no longer kids) numerous times that my childhood winters were the toughest in weather bureau history. You wanna talk temperatures? How about 40 below? Pretty sure, at least. Coulda been minus 50, for all we knew. We’re not talking wind chills here. They hadn’t been invented yet. Scout’s honor.
No school, no ice skating, no skiing, no going outside unless absolutely necessary and then the snow so deep it engulfed entire houses, residents escaping their domiciles (I like to toss in fancy words once in a while) through second-story windows.
That’s what winters were like when I was a young lad.
But I always felt short-changed back then, listening to my father tell about the winters they had when he was a boy (he’d better be a boy or I wouldn’t be here). Even though our winters were pretty severe, they were like a couple of months on a tropical isle compared with the winters of my father’s youth.
Why, the snow was so deep, when he skied down the West Duluth hillside he ended up on the porch roof of a house at the bottom of the hill. Cars had to have chains on their power wheels from November to May in order to get around. Streets were so slippery, they took slag from the steel plant in Morgan Park and spread it all over the roadways. Supplies of coal were running low by February, causing widespread fear that people would freeze to death in their beds.
But my father’s dangerously severe winters were nothing compared to the winters of his father’s day. That’d be my grandfather, whom I never knew because he died around the time I was born. Might have frozen to death for all I know.
Those winters of my grandfather’s day made my father’s winters seem like a walk in the park and our winters today resemble the Fourth of July by comparison. The snow was so deep people had to tunnel through it to get out of their houses. Plows pulled by draft horses became stuck and didn’t get pulled out until spring, the horses frozen stiff. The frozen horses were dumped into Lake Superior near the city’s water intake, causing widespread typhoid fever when spring finally arrived. Those were REAL winters.
And so it went down through the generations. My grandfather’s winters were nothing compared to his father’s winters. That would have been my great-grandfather who wrote about winters in his day and passed it down through generations of family lore.
He wrote that most people heated their homes with fireplaces and barrel stoves fueled with wood. Many hardly got out of their houses except to heed nature’s call, the heeding of which involved trudging through deep snow and bitter cold to a small unheated building known as the “biffy.” As the poet once wrote: “The terror of that icy seat would make a Spartan sob.” They had to have a rope between the house and the outhouse to guide the folks wanting to see a man about a horse through the snow.
That’s pretty much as far back as I can go in telling of past winters. I suppose I had a great-great grandfather, but I don’t want to get going on the Mayflower people, who had some pretty tough winters themselves. Way more challenging than today. They had landed on Plymouth Rock and things were so bad they named a flathead six-cylinder car after it a few centuries later that never started when it got cold.
And how about George Washington at Valley Forge? Cold, snow, little shelter. He had to cut down a cherry tree for firewood, right?
So, yes, we’re having a pretty challenging winter so far, but as this report proves beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s nothing compared to past winters, which were always worse than current winters no matter what weather statistics tell you. Ask your ancestors.
I’m sure when my grandchildren are as old as I am, they’ll be able to tell their progeny that their childhood winters — like this one right now — were way more challenging than whatever it will be like several decades into the future.
And it’ll be true, that’s for sure.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at
and can be reached by email at