The winter of 1861-62 was record-setting by most historical accounts. It was one of the coldest, snowiest and wettest winters ever recorded. It was also the first winter of the Civil War.
For the West Coast of the United States, it was a season of extreme storms and torrential rains that were biblical in proportion, beginning in November and continuing into January. The continuous rain and the following storms flooded great stretches of Oregon, Nevada, Utah, California and Arizona. The State of California, which relied on taxes from land, was bankrupted by the floods.
As the winter stretched on in Oregon and the Territory of Washington, snow fell in feet, rather than inches, and was either so powdery soft that snowshoes would sink through it, or frozen, making travel by wagon dangerous, if not impossible. Rivers, even those as large as the Columbia, froze and became impassable.
In Washington Territory, along the Mullan Road, the heavy snows made traveling difficult and supplies soon became scarce. Without access to commodities by road or river, towns such as Walla Walla suffered. According to reports in the town’s newspaper, the Washington Statesman, citizens were panicked and angry about the shortage of food and the exorbitant prices of necessities, including firewood. In fact, firewood became so scarce that anything that would burn was used, from furniture to fence posts.
It was bitterly cold that winter — temperatures stayed below freezing during the day and once reached a low of minus 29 degrees. There was constant snowfall, up to 5 feet in some areas, which forced Walla Walla’s citizens indoors, if they were lucky enough to have sufficient shelter. Some settlers arriving to the area in the late fall of that year didn’t have time to build a structure that would withstand those conditions, and the toll on their physical and mental health was heavy.
The men who had flocked to gold mines in the mountains of Idaho were ill-prepared for the severity of that winter. There were accounts of miners who refused to leave their claims starving to death. Those who made it back to Walla Walla didn’t fare much better, as some citizens took to stealing as a way to survive.
Livestock — including horses, cattle and sheep — were unable to dig through the snow to find grass and died by the thousands of cold and starvation. An estimated million dollars worth of livestock was lost.
Snow stayed on the ground until the spring rains arrived in March.