By Jim Zbick
The new year of 1912 was just days old when a cold wave descended over much of the eastern portion of the country.
On Jan. 6, a weather forecaster said that the single-digit temperatures were the coldest weather the eastern portion of the nation had experienced in years. After a slight moderation over a few days, the thermometers again plunged during the second week of the month and this time, there were fatalities.
"Not only is the present weather the coldest of the year, but undoubtedly the coldest that Tamaqua has ever experienced," a Tamaqua Courier stated on Jan. 13.
The writer expected city residents especially to have difficulty coping with the cold snap.
"Numerous deaths have been reported of persons overcome with the cold and the hospitals are filled with persons taken to the institutions suffering from the low temperature," he wrote.
There were several weather-related deaths reported in the area, where temperatures dipped as low as 18-below.
The frozen body of a Hungarian resident from Coaldale was found lying along the trolley tracks near Lansford. The victim, who was about 35, apparently fell "exhausted from the bitter cold and quickly froze to death," the Courier reported. "His body was removed to Quinn's undertaking establishment at Lansford and later to his boarding house at Coaldale."
Also, the lifeless body of Lawrence Noll, an ice cutter at the Lakeside Dam, was found in a snowbank between Lakeside and Barnesville by several others walking to work for their morning shift. Noll had only been working a few days at his ice-cutting job at the dam.
"Just why he happened to start for Barnesville on such a cold night is not known," the Courier stated.
Deputy coroner John Williams of Mahanoy City was notified and preparations were made to hold an inquest.
The Panther Creek Valley Hospital also treated John Whildin, 13, of Lansford, who was injured while taking advantage of the frozen conditions to do some coasting down a hill near his home. His collision with a telegraph pole sent him to the hospital, with serious internal injuries.
Along with cold-related cases of exposure, cuts and broken bones, the hospital was kept busy with the usual amount of mine-related injuries, one of which was fatal.
Bryan Wurcolliz of Tamaqua, 34, was killed in a dynamite explosion at Shepp's Colliery. The Courier said he died at the hospital "after suffering great agony from his injuries."
George Dorbitz of Hauto, 53, was also severely burned on the hands and face after an explosion at the Hauto banks.
The hospital also treated John Whildin, 13, from Lansford, who was injured while taking advantage of the frozen conditions to do some coasting down a hill near his home. His collision with a telegraph pole sent him to the hospital, with serious internal injuries.
With the cold wave came a number of heat-related fires. A defective chimney flue was the cause of a late-night fire in Tamaqua's Merchant's Hotel. After investigating the smell of smoke, the bartender found it was coming from a fire within the walls of the second floor.
"After awakening the proprietor he fought the flames without arousing the guests and was finally rewarded in extinguishing the last spark, just as the firemen responded," the Courier reported.
That same night a much more serious fire swept through an entire block in Philadelphia. Eight firemen were injured fighting the Market Street blaze which began after several explosions at the General Film Company. Fire officials called it "one of the most disastrous and one of the hardest fires to fight in years." It being the coldest day in the city in seven years, "the firemen suffered intensely."
Just as the oil supplies dictate how much we pay for today's gas, consumers a century ago relied on a plentiful supply of ice to keep things cool through the warmer months and thus keep prices low. With the cold wave that began 1912, it appeared the ice crop would be plentiful.
"The consumer who mourns over his woodpile or coal bin depleted by the cold wave can reflect that it has assured a lavish ice crop, thus giving the ice man no excuse for high prices next summer," a Courier writer said.
The writer explained that the United States was the greatest ice-consuming country in the world and that "ice for the table" was scarcely known in Europe until American travelers began to demand it during their visits.
"Our nervous temperament seems to deprive the appetite of all zest in summer unless it is stimulated by chilled food," he scoffed.
The writer explained that while some parts of the country were getting their ice from "artificial plants," some southern cities were still buying Kennebec River ice from Maine and and having it shipped by river. He said a failure of the natural crop, however, creates a demand, thus raising the price.
"The natural ice crop is apt to undergo an annual failure during the month of January, much like the annual freeze of the peach crop by the late frosts," he explained. "The worrying, though, is commonly confined to the newspaper offices. The seasoned ice man knows that while January is actually the coldest month, the highest point of ice formation is not reached until well into February."