Ed Grisamore

You think it’s cold now? The Ocmulgee River froze solid 133 years ago this weekend

Ed Grisamore sits in front of the skyline of Macon, the city he has grown to love.
Ed Grisamore sits in front of the skyline of Macon, the city he has grown to love.

Andy Lawson adored his grandmother to the point he might swear she walked on water.

One day, when he was about 10 years old, Minnie Schaefer told him she had.

He often would visit in her large Victorian home on Main Street, where he needed only two fingers to count the number of warm rooms during the winter.

“Why is your house always so cold?’’ he asked one day, wrapped in a sweater going from room to room.

“Cold? You think this is cold?’’ she said. “You don’t know what cold is. When I was about your age, I nearly froze to death.’’

It was the day she walked on water.

Minnie was a storyteller, not of tall tales but of local lore. She passed down those stories the traditional way – on the front porch and across the kitchen table.

She is one reason Andy became a history teacher and is a legend at Stratford Academy, where he has taught for 46 years. She also is why, at the beginning of each school year, he gives his sixth-grade students an assignment to interview a grandparent or older relative.

Minnie was reflecting on the winter of 1886, and a meteorological event that took place 133 years ago this weekend. On Jan. 12, the thermometer in Macon hovered around 3 to 5 degrees above zero, the deepest freeze in more than a half century.

Baby, it was really cold outside.

It was so frigid the Ocmulgee River froze solid from the east bank to the west. If it wasn’t the only time the Ocmulgee has been a giant iceberg, it certainly was one of the few.

Minnie easily could have gone from her childhood home on Church Street to walk across the river. Andy isn’t sure if she ventured onto the Ocmulgee ice or if she joined hundreds of others, who went over to frozen Central Pond, a reservoir owned by the Central of Georgia Railroad.

According to newspaper accounts, only one resident of Macon in 1886 owned a pair of ice skates – a woman who had brought them from her native Germany and dazzled the crowd with her figure skating.

The irony now is that the only place to ice skate is just a few figure-eights from the river -- at the Macon Coliseum ice rink.

Indeed, the Big Chill was a Big Deal all those years ago. Many wells and pipes froze. All the streets were dirt, and the icy glaze rendered them nearly impassable. The surface was as hard as concrete, and folks later laughed and proclaimed it Macon’s first street paving.

People shivered in their homes because firewood could not be delivered by the wagons. A fire broke out at Ralston Hall, a theater on the corner of Cherry and Third streets. The water was frozen in the hydrants, and the firefighters had to build fires to thaw them. The Ralston, and several nearby businesses, were destroyed by the blaze.

No one is sure why Macon plunged into such extreme freezing temperatures. Some might speculate it was due to the eruption of the Krakatoa Volcano. (No, I’m not making this up.) The volcanic eruption, one of the most destructive in history, took place three years earlier and halfway around the world in Indonesia. But it led to uncharacteristic weather patterns for many years, with a heavier than normal cloud cover cooling the planet.

The two coldest days on record in Macon also came during the month of January, but the river did not freeze over. It dipped to minus-6 below on Jan. 21, 1985, and was minus-1.7 on Jan. 29, 1955.

We usually take notice when the river rises above its banks, as it did last week, but this was most unusual. And it’s a historical footnote in the city’s meteorological history, taking its place beside tornadoes, hurricanes, 100-year floods and the record 16.5 inches of snow that fell on Feb 9-10, 1973.

Although somewhat cooler temperatures are in the forecast for this weekend, if you head down to the banks of the Ocmulgee expecting to walk on water, you had better take a life jacket.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.