Of the Baker City Herald

Theres an anniversary of sorts in Oregon this weekend, and if youre inclined to bring a gift, make it something in wool or goose down, please.

This commemoration isnt likely to invoke any toasts, except perhaps from that small segment of the population obsessed with the extremes of climatology.

It might, however, evoke unpleasant memories of busted pipes and frostbite, of hibernating batteries and hypothermia.

It was 69 years ago that Oregon put on its most convincing impersonation of Antarctica.

On Feb. 9, 1933, the temperature at Ukiah, south of Pendleton, plunged to the skin-freezing level of 54 degrees below zero.

The next night that frigid feat was duplicated in Seneca, south of John Day.

Never before, and not since, has the mercury in an official thermometer anywhere in Oregon fallen so far.

A record was set in Baker City at the time, too.

But unlike the state as a whole, the record established here during Oregons infamous 1933 cold snap did not survive the ensuing years.

On Feb. 9, 1933, the same day Ukiah set Oregons cold standard, Baker City set its own, with a low of 25 below zero.

According to the Democrat-Herald, that was the citys coldest temperature since weather observations started in 1889.

Other nearby stations were even colder that morning.

Austin reached 53 below, Meacham 51 below and the Fremont power plant, which was then still pumping electricity to mines near Granite, shivered at 45 below.

How low can it go?

Baker Citys record stood until January 1962.

A blizzard struck Eastern Oregon that month. When the snow ceased and the skies cleared the temperature plummeted, all the way to 28 below at Baker City the morning of the 22nd.

Halfway was even colder 35 below and schools there were closed because thermostats were set too low, the Democrat-Herald reported.

Seneca was colder still, with a low of 41 below.

But for Baker City, the polar weather of 1933 and 1962 was merely a prelude to December 1978.

The temperature started to drop after Christmas to 20 below on the 28th, to 22 below the next day.

On the 30th the mercury dropped again, but this time it didnt stop until it had reached 39 degrees below zero.

That shattered the citys old record by 11 degrees.

Yet it wasnt quite cold enough to beat Seneca, which recorded 41 below that day.

During the cold spell, which persisted into the first week of 1979, city public works crews fielded about 250 reports of frozen pipes or water meters.

It was so cold that city officials asked residents to open their faucets not only to prevent their own pipes from freezing, but to circulate more of the 66-degree well water the city was pumping into the water system to prevent its own mains from icing up.

Memories of the cold

Tim Collins, longtime city attorney for Baker City, remembers those last few days of 1978.

I remember it well because I had to walk to work because my cars wouldnt start, Collins said.

Collins was in private practice then and worked for the city on a contract basis. His office was at Main and Broadway, about six blocks from his home.

Just a stroll, really, a walk that on a warm summer afternoon might seem to end too soon.

But Collins remembers the trip differently.

I remember that as being way, way cold life-threateningly cold, he said

Yet Collins doesnt recall city residents acting as though the cold snap was unusually vicious.

Of course, he didnt talk to many people during those days, either.

We were all in our own homes because nobody wanted to go outside, Collins said.

Dick Humphreys is another longtime Baker City resident, and his job required him to be outside regardless of the weather.

Humphreys was Baker District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife from 1966 until he retired in 1995.

There was a score and more of subzero days during Humphreys career, and he said the record 1978 cold snap doesnt stand out in his memory.

But he does recall, and vividly, one of the perils of his job whenever the temperature dipped below about minus 20.

Every winter state biologists trap elk so they can take blood samples from the animals.

At 20 below and colder, Humphreys said, they had to be especially careful because the blood sometimes froze right in the needle.

Its almost instantaneous, he said.

The cold that set in during late December of 1978 held on, with a few brief intervals, the rest of that winter.

During a February freeze the temperature hit 22 below.

Baker Citys record of 39 below hasnt been seriously threatened since it was set 23 years ago.

The coldest temperature since then was 34 below, on Dec. 23, 1983.

The two coldest snaps since were in 1985 and 1990, but the lowest temperature during both was a comparatively balmy 25 below.