National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

The 3rd largest snowstorm in Wilmington’s history occurred February 17th-18th 1896, where 12.1” of snow fell during the two days. February 18th 1896 also holds the record for greatest 24-hour snowfall total at Wilmington – 11.1 inches. A stretch of over a foot of snowfall extended from Wilmington north to Greenville. Heavy snow was accompanied by gale winds, creating blizzard conditions, and low temperatures in the teens. The 12.1” of snow in Wilmington was the heaviest in at least 90 years - the oldest city residents at the time said the most snow they had ever seen previously was six inches in 1846. The blanket of snow led many of the people in Wilmington to participate in the "rare sport of snow balling".


Snowfall Totals Map February 17-18 1896


Storm Evolution

On the morning of Monday February 17th, low pressure was noted off southeastern Florida coast on the archived daily weather map. By 5pm, the storm was believed to be several hundred miles off the South Carolina coast. On Tuesday morning the surface low was analyzed to be east of the NC/VA border. Although there were no pressure observations over the ocean at the time, the information available indicates the pattern for this storm lined up well with the ideal surface pressure pattern for Wilmington snow events, where the low pressure passes close enough to the coast to bring moisture but not too close to change precipitation type to rain.


Loop of Daily Surface Weather Maps – February 16th-19th 1896


Light flurries began in the Wilmington area early on Monday the 17th before snow started to fall in earnest around 3pm. Snow continued to come down heavily through the night until ceasing around 9:30am Tuesday morning, with the sun coming out by 10 o’clock. It snowed for 17 hours straight without any visible break. Winds were almost gale speed during the night creating blizzard conditions across southeastern NC. Sustained NE winds of 58mph was measured at Kitty Hawk, NC on the 17th, and 60mph winds from the north were measured at Cape Hatteras and Kitty Hawk on the 18th. A total 12.1 inches had fallen in Wilmington by Tuesday morning, with drifts two to three feet deep in many places. Other significant snowfall totals were 11” in Southport, 13” in Greenville, 18” in Wallace, and 19.8” in Sloan, NC (east of Wallace).


Temperatures Monday night dropped to a cold 17°F in Wilmington, tied 2nd coldest Feb 18th on record. Highs Tuesday only reached 36°F, allowing the snow to stick around for a day with only a slight thaw. Warming on Wednesday the 19th with a high of 54°F all but cleared up the big snow from just 36 hours prior. The snow was “ugly and disagreeable” on Wednesday as it melted rapidly under the sunshine.


Snow Totals (Weather Bureau sites, COOP stations, and Newspaper Articles)

Snowfall totals by State: February 17-19 1896 Storm


One fatality was recorded near Elizabethtown Tuesday night, where a man froze to death after being caught out in the snowstorm. [A second death occurred later in the week in Southport as a man froze to death when temperatures dropped to 12°F Thursday night following a cold front.] The only other personal injury noted from the snowstorm in local papers was a broken arm due to a fall. Property owners at Ocean View had slight damage to furniture in cottages due to the melting of snow. A large ship lost her rudder in the gale and had to dock at Cape Hatteras. Delays occurred on the local railway lines due to heavy snow on the tracks needing to be cleared out ahead of the trains. A freight train derailed on the Carolina Central Railway. Some damage was thought to have occurred to local truck farmers that had begun to cultivate early crops. However, most of the agricultural community was glad for the snowstorm as it kept the fruit trees and other plants from developing too early. No vehicles were moving Tuesday and the few people who were out and about had a hard time moving around, having to make their way through deep drifts and create paths in the snow. There was great demand for firewood and bread in Wilmington, the latter of which ran out early Tuesday afternoon.


One theme that showed up in the local newspapers for this storm was the residents of Wilmington area enjoying several snow-related activities Tuesday while the rare snowfall lasted. Front and Market streets were full of young people eager to enjoy winter sports. Many sleds were built and could be seen on most of the street corners, with sleighing parties out in large numbers during the day and into late Tuesday night.  Snowball fights were numerous across the city. According to The Wilmington Messenger, “the merchants, clerks, and pedestrians engaged in snowballing, and on all the residence streets the neighbors were out pelting each other.” Almost every wayfarer was bombarded with snowballs, either willingly or caught unaware.


Newspaper Articles from the Snowstorm (click images to view full articles)

A Regular Blizzard.

The Wilmington Messenger Feb 18, 1896

A Snow Storm.

The Wilmington Morning Star Feb 18, 1896

Beats the Record.

The Wilmington Messenger Feb 19, 1896

The Snow Storm.

The Weekly Star Feb 21, 1896

The Snow Storm.

The Southport Leader Feb 20, 1896

Two Men Frozen to Death.

The Wilmington Messenger Feb 25, 1896

The Snowstorm.

The Wilmington Messenger Feb 19, 1896

The Storm at Magnolia.

The Wilmington Morning Star Feb 20, 1896

Kick Against Snow Balling.

The Wilmington Messenger Feb 19, 1896


Research & Page Author: Victoria Oliva
Page Created: January 31, 2020