WEATHER: The Big Freeze

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As gales and subzero cold threatened to turn the Great Lakes into one vast skating rink, boat traffic virtually ceased. Only a few adventurous captains steered past the treacherous floes in Lake Michigan, where ice was a foot thick eight miles from shore. Worse, both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were frozen solid in long stretches. Some 300 barges and more than 50 tugs were locked in the 181-mile leg of the Mississippi between Cairo, Ill., and St. Louis. A few steel barges, weighing some 750 tons each, were shoved atop the sturdy ice like so many giant hockey pucks. Others were crushed by converging packs of ice. Even barges able to move were collecting ice barnacles up to 6 ft. thick on their bottoms. "That makes one hellacious load to push," said a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official.

The freeze of the waterways aggravated the region's fuel crisis. For a time, Cincinnati Gas and Electric Co. had 3 million gal. of fuel oil stalled on the Mississippi, 400,000 gal. blocked on the Ohio near Aurora, Ind., and another 400,000 gal. stuck in the river near Paducah, Ky. Electric utilities sent out crews armed with hammers and iron bars to smash the frozen coal loose from rail cars. "It's absolutely miserable work," said Detroit Edison Co. Vice President Walter J. McCarthy Jr. Strapped for fuel, his firm at one point was turning out only 250,000 kilowatts, less than one-tenth of its normal production. At one Cincinnati plant, the slippery coal would not stick to conveyor belts. Ingenious employees devised a solution: spreading molasses on the belts.

The fuel shortage led the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. to order 1,500 industrial users of natural gas to cut their consumption by 20%. Both Columbia Gas of Ohio and East Ohio Gas Co. limited 1,675 heavy users to only enough fuel to keep their machinery from freezing. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler laid off some 58,000 workers in Michigan and Ohio. In Cleveland alone, about 10,000 laborers were idle. The cutbacks forced the closing of schools in 245 downstate Illinois communities. In Milwaukee, which has had a record 21 days of subzero weather, water mains burst or froze, creating extreme fire-fighting hazards. Amtrak canceled trains on eight major routes out of Chicago —and sent 25 cars down to New Orleans to thaw out. However, the cold did bring some blessings. Street crime was down, and three gunmen foolish enough to hold up the Cleveland Trust Co. were quickly caught when their getaway car spun its wheels futilely in the snow.

The "cold soak" also plagued the Midwest's farmers. Near Mount Vernon, Iowa, Gordon Neal discovered that the frost had penetrated an astonishing 6 ft. into the soil, freezing his water line for the first time since it was installed at the turn of the century. His silage pile was unusable, frozen rock-solid; he was forced to feed his cattle scarce hay. Following an extended drought, the freeze endangered the winter wheat crop throughout the Midwest.

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