Local Weather History: The October 1880 Great Storm with Early Major Blizzard, Severe Weather & Wind Storm

October 15-16, 1880 storm was historic in its crippling early blizzard in the Plains, the severe weather & the following damaging windstorm over a massive area...

Posted: Oct 15, 2021 6:33 PM
Updated: Oct 16, 2021 1:58 PM

The October 14-17, 1880 storm was historic in the amount of damage produced not only from a cool-season (high shear, low CAPE) Progressive Derecho, but the extreme gradient winds with it over the Great Lakes.  This result in massive damage to shipping vessels with more than 80 sinking.  Meanwhile, crippling blizzard of historic stature (even by winter standards) resulted in snow drifts up to 20' in Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota & northwestern Iowa.

This was one of several historic, "bombs" in the U.S. in 1880 with the great "Sitka Hurricane" in Alaska October 16, 1880 as the remnants of Typhoon Oho with mid-latitude storm caused a single storm system of extreme wind, heavy rain & snow. 

January 9, 1880 saw the historic "Storm King" or "Great Gale of 1880" bomb cyclone with hundreds of thousand of acres of forest heavily withrowed to completely flattened.  Gust of 70 mph was measured at Portland, Oregon.  100 mph gusts occurred on coastal Oregon.  20-30" snow fell in the Seattle area with building collapses.  Official total was 24". Olympia saw 19".  Port Townsend, Washington saw 60" of snow.  18" of snow fell near Beaverton, Oregon.  Damage was significant.

"The Great California Storm" of April 19-23, 1880 dumped record rainfall for the spring on the central part of the state.  An incredible 14.02" of rainfall occurred for the month at Sacramento, a record that would occur even in the wettest time of year:  winter.  14.70" fell in just 24 hours north of San Francisco & 8.88" fell at Napa Valley.  4" of total rainfall occurred in the storm as far south as Merced.  1-2" rain fell in the Fresno area.  194" snow fell in the Sierras! 

The storm has a strong atmospheric river connection from deep in the subtropical to tropical Pacific.  The cold air aloft of the upper low caused hail-producing t'storms by April 23 with unusually cool temperatures.

1880....what a year.....& so was 1881!!

So, with the mid-October storm here..........a warm spell occurred ahead of it, then unseasonably cold conditions arrived with temperatures to 25 degrees below modern-day normals in the Plains to Midwest behind it.

This began the great Long Winter of 1880-81, not only across the central, but eastern U.S. overall after an usually warm winter in 1879-80.  In fact, January 1880 is still the warmest January on record for Greater Lafayette & one of the warmest winters on record as a whole.  The only noteworthy cold snaps of that winter occurred Christmas 1879 & to a lesser degree in March 1880.  This is very similar to the unusually warm 2006 winter with the second warmest January on record.  The only substantial cold snaps were in early December 2005 & late February 2006.

The center of the surface low of this storm tracked from Kansas to Michigan's UP with the blizzard on the backside & the derecho with multiple tornadoes on the southeast side.

One of the biggest factors with the system is that it occluded & stalled for a time over Iowa & Minnesota, keeping the same areas in the high wind & heavy snow for a long, long period of time.  Snow falling at 1" per hour with thunder & lightning occurred frequently up to 30 hours from Nebraska to South Dakota.

The wind was very bad with the system 15-16th in the Plains, but the worst wind appeared to have occurred in the overnight of October 15 to the morning hours of the 16th in the area from nortwest Iowa to southwest Minnesota with gust reported to 75 mph.

As far south as Kansas, gusts of 55-60 mph were measured.

It was still very windy to windy late on October 16.  

The afternoon of the 16th is actually when our strongest gradient winds from the system arrived as temperatures fell from the 60s in the morning to 40s by late afternoon.

Our winds were west at 20-35 mph with gusts 40-55 mph.  In central Illinois, reconstruction shows sustained winds of 25-40 mph with gusts 45-60 mph.

Temperatures surged above normal ahead of the system.  This warmth with accompanied by paltry CAPE of only around 250-400 J/kg.

However, shear was very intense with Effective Bulk Shear analog reconstructions show up to 65 knots of shear over the Illinois & a pocket of 400 m2/s2 Effective Helicity over eastern Iowa.

So...warmth Midwest...the cold coming into the West with storm.  Note the cold off the East Coast showing that this colder, stable airmass mitigated a better influx of CAPE into the area. 

If there would have been more CAPE, it may have ended up as a November 11, 1911-style severe weather outbreak over our region with that historic Progressive Derecho over our area.

Storm was intensifying on the 15th with our wind from the south & strengthing winds from the northwest in the Plains to a gale.

Note the very high winds in that Iowa, Nebraska, Dakotas to Minnesota area late on the 15th to the 16th as storm deepened extremely rapidly to near "bomb".

Shipping losses on Lake Michigan make sense.  Note the high winds there late on the 16th-17th.  For the Great Lakes as a whole, 84 vessels were lost & 93 were drowned, according to the U.S. Weather Bureau at the time (National Weather Service today).  80% of the losses were on Lake Michigan.

Value of property lost on the Lakes alone was +$20 million (inflation-adjusted),

The warm side saw a December 1998-like derecho rake Illinois to Ontario.  The '98 derecho had a similar track.

The worst damage from the derecho was in north-central Illinois from south of Davenport to southwest of Chicago with a band of winds of a "hurricane".  Damage to homes, farms, trees & wires suggests a small bow of winds 75-90 mph from Henry & Bureau to Kendall & Kane counties.  It may have been a tornado at Morrison, Illinois given nature of the damage.  It was reportedly the worst storm ever seen with the entire town damaged.  "The wholesale destruction of windmills" was done across central Illinois.  Corn left in fields was flattened & outbuildings were destroyed.  "Considerable damage" was also reported from Springfield, Illinois, as well as Rockford.

At Guttenberg, Iowa:  "severe thunder-storm, creeks in vicinity rose 11 feet above low-water mark".

At Mitchellville, Iowa on October 15, observer reports:  "about 4 p.m. a tornado was noticed in the west coming rapidly in the direction of town, accompanied by a deep, heavy, rumbling sound.  The cloud, funnel-shaped and twisted with great rapidity, was accompany by a heavy western gale, and sudden darkness over-shadowed everything as it approached the western edge of the village, where it lifted from the earth and passed harmlessly to the northeast, when it again seemed to descend."

"Building damage" & damage to a boat "The Gaff" was reported from tornado at Memphis, Tennessee, while another tornado caused building, fence & tree damage to destruction 32 miles west of Little Rock, Arkansas.

"Just across the river from Little Rock" the circus was in town & the storm blew down the large tents.  Wagons & carriages were overturned & an overall "panic" was reported.  A male & female lion escaped when their cage was compromised by the falling tent polls.  They were found & carefully recaptured hours after the storm.

In our area, it was tree & wire damage reported with corn blown over from the severe storms.  The strong gradient winds & tanking temperatures followed.  At Purdue, we went from a high of 77 to a low of 32 with an unusually cold high (for mid-October) of 41 in a few days.  A record low of 20 was recorded on October 20.

October 1880 weather records from Purdue University:

Severe storm reports (does not include gradient wind reports):

West Lafayette
Partly Cloudy
36° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 30°
Kokomo
Clear
34° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 25°
Rensselaer
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 26°
Fowler
Partly Cloudy
36° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 30°
Williamsport
Partly Cloudy
37° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 30°
Crawfordsville
Partly Cloudy
32° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 25°
Frankfort
Partly Cloudy
32° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 22°
Feels Like: 25°
Delphi
Clear
33° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 24°
Feels Like: 26°
Monticello
Clear
33° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 26°
Feels Like: 26°
Logansport
Clear
34° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 28°
A few showers, then much warmer weather is ahead...
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