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Looking back • The day St. Louisans walked across the frozen Mississippi River
A Look Back

Looking back • The day St. Louisans walked across the frozen Mississippi River

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Mississippi River Ice

Three men prepare to walk across the river from the foot of Gasconade Street in south St. Louis on Feb. 7, 1936, after a massive ice jam covered the river. They managed to get across. (Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS • In late January 1936, vicious cold tormented the Midwest. Lows here fell to minus-10 degrees. Coal supplies dwindled. Tardy trains limped into Union Station encrusted with snow. Hobos froze in downtown doorways.

On the Mississippi River, large pancakes of drifting ice crunched against bridge piers and boats. South of Cape Girardeau, a solid jam formed in the river and built its way upstream. It reached St. Louis on Feb. 6, covering the river here with a jumble of jagged, snow-covered ice.

It had been that way on the Missouri River at St. Charles since Jan. 29.

The Army Corps of Engineers warned against crossing the rivers on foot. The foolhardy rarely heed such warnings. People scrambled across the Mississippi on Feb. 7 at Gasconade Street in south St. Louis and, a few days later, near the Municipal (now MacArthur) Bridge downtown.

The jam reached as far north as the Chain of Rocks, where fast river current protected the city's water-system intakes.

Except for occasional temporary breaks caused by sudden changes in river level, the jam would hold for almost three weeks. On Feb. 27, as it was crumbling, a Humane Society crew lassoed a dog trapped on ice floating near Carondelet. The shivering pooch survived.

Winter 1936, the third-coldest on record here, had shoved the temperature below zero on a dozen nights. (Underscoring nature's cruel whimsy, a grinding heat wave the next summer killed 421 in St. Louis.)

River lore is filled with tales of daring people getting across without aid of bridges during hard winters. In 1873, horse teams crossed near the Eads Bridge, still under construction. Two winters later, saloonkeeper Chris Hilliflicker raised a tent halfway across, warmed it with a coal stove and poured bracers for chilled pilgrims. In 1881, breweries dispatched teams onto the river to cut blocks of ice. Twelve years, later, coal wagons went by river to avoid the bridge toll.

The river froze over at St. Louis at least 10 times from 1831 to 1938, when completion of the Alton Lock and Dam corralled much of the ice from the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Better weather often brought peril on the revived river. Disintegrating jams destroyed riverboats and freed surges of water. On Jan. 5, 1928, Henry Thron and John Parker were set adrift on a Wiggins Co. ferry downtown when suddenly shifting ice snapped its moorings. They were rescued with ropes near Arsenal Street.

Icing is a hazard of the river trade and a regular event on the upper reaches. Hefty ice cakes hamper barge traffic and, when it's cold enough, still jam narrow points below St. Louis.


Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.

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