The Biggest March Snowstorm in Wisconsin History

Written by Alan Lemus
Updated: June 30, 2023
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The Midwestern state of Wisconsin is vulnerable to icy, cold arctic air masses and warm, humid air masses from the Gulf of Mexico in the summer due to the absence of mountains to the north and south. Lake Superior and Lake Michigan are the state’s northern and eastern borders, and these water bodies have a cooling effect on areas near their shorelines.

This results in a wide variety of temperatures throughout the state. The state’s northern region gets icy winters and mostly temperate summers with brief periods of extreme heat. In contrast, the south has chilly winters and mild to hot summers.

Apart from sporadic bursts of milder air from the west and south, dry, chilly air characterizes winter. Conversely, summer is typically associated with warm air masses, which can either be hot, dry continental air masses from the arid west and southwest or warm, moist air masses from the south. Nonetheless, sporadic bursts of cooler Canadian air offer respite from the summer heat. 

39°F in the north and 50°F in the south are the two annual average temperature ranges. On July 13, 1936, the Wisconsin Dells recorded 114 °F (46 °C), the state’s highest temperature ever. Conversely, Wisconsin experienced its lowest temperature on record, -55 °F (13 °C) at Couderay in February 1996. 

The state also records significant yearly snowfall, reaching up to 160 inches (410 cm) in the Lake Superior snow belt and roughly 40 inches (100 cm) in the state’s southern regions.

What Was the Biggest March Snowstorm in Wisconsin History?

Ski resort in the winter at Wisconsin.

There was definitely a snow day in 1881 during the worst snowstorm ever to hit Wisconsin.


Snowstorms are commonplace in the Badger State. The weather during a winter storm may be extremely severe, with snow, ice, and strong wind gusts. 

In March 1881, Wisconsin had the worst snowstorm ever, with two blizzards occurring within a single week and drifts reaching high. The drifts were reported to have covered telegraph poles, trains, and buildings. This storm is considered the worst to have impacted Wisconsin and the Northwest though state records weren’t available then.

The Big Snow of ’81 was another title to describe Wisconsin’s largest March snowstorm. In fact, many people in the state continued to reference “the year of the big snow” when describing subsequent events many years later.

On February 26, 1881, a slight drizzle turned to snow, and two blizzards ensued over the following seven days. All forms of road transportation, including train service, were suspended. Digging tunnels to escape their homes was necessary for certain people confined to their houses.

“All communication with the outside world has been entirely cut off,” according to a Watertown newspaper. “Rubber boots and shoes are not to be had in the city, all shoe dealers having sold out….Masses of snow are everywhere, some of it in piles ten to sixteen feet high, thirty feet wide, and sometimes one to two hundred feet long, which the wind has blown together.”

Impact of the Snowstorm

The snowstorm, according to all accounts, was a record-breaker. There was a two- to four-foot snowfall in the state’s south and central regions. The state capital Madison received 28.5 inches of snow over three days. 48 hours of snowfall in Milwaukee was reported as 28.5 inches. The city accumulated 63.7 inches of snow between February 24 and March 20 of 1881.

In its account of the event, Wisconsin State Journal reported widespread difficulty finding food and fuel, and some areas experienced severe misery and a high risk of starvation. In addition, the state was devoid of any train infrastructure. Every line was effectively blocked off, and the blockade was expected to last about a week.

The drifts had blanketed railroads, homes, and telegraph poles. The snow was estimated to be between three and six feet deep on a level throughout the state’s telegraph points.

Reports from Wisconsin’s interior indicated that everything smaller than big buildings was entirely covered by snow. 

Wisconsin’s biggest snowstorm halted business activities, including statewide regular mail delivery. At the time, railway workers asserted that a week must pass before the trains could start running again, even in ideal atmospheric conditions.

Milwaukee experienced a coal famine because merchants were unable to transport it.

What is the Typical March Weather in Wisconsin?

A view of Devil's Lake at Devil's Lake state park on a hike up one of the trails in Baraboo, Wisconsin, USA.

March weather in Wisconsin is typically still cold and wintery, with a few warm days to hail the coming spring.

©Sarah Quintans/

Ideally, March ushers in the change from the gloomy, chilly winter days to spring’s lighter, cozier days. Wisconsin’s March weather, on the other hand, can be a tad unpredictable. Snowfall and dramatic temperature swings are still frequent occurrences throughout the state.

From temperatures below zero to 80-degree highs, March weather extremes are nothing new in the state. The state’s coldest March day on record was March 1, 1962. Wisconsin had morning lows far below zero, with Milwaukee experiencing a -10 degree drop. The morning low in Eau Claire was -35°F, while Rhinelander experienced a complete plunge to -36°F.

The state has also had a few unusually warm March days. For example, in late March 1962, La Crosse and Eau Claire had temperatures around 80 degrees.

In March, the statewide typical high temperatures rise from the low to mid-30s to the 40s and, in some places, even the low 50s.

For instance, La Crosse’s average high temperatures increase by 15 degrees from March 1 to 31st, going from 37 to 52. The average high temperature in Madison also increases, rising from 36 degrees on March 1 to about 50 by the 31st.

By March 31, most other cities in the state experience average high temperatures that reach the mid to upper 40 degrees.

How Do Late-Season Snowstorms Impact Wildlife in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, winters are typically bitterly cold, covered in snow, and bleak. Some wildlife species like the winter and do well in the chilly weather. Others who don’t thrive in the season typically adjust to survive the winter.

Non-migratory birds, such as the majestic northern cardinal on our cover, survive the winter by fluffing their feathers to trap air and add an extra insulation layer to their bodies. In addition, Cardinals use their large, conical beaks to crack seeds and nuts found in bird feeders when there’s a short food supply.

While redpolls burrow themselves in the snow, chickadees and titmice resort to shivering to produce heat. Some hibernate or enter torpor, a low-temperature, inactive state, and others, like central newts, remain active.

Winter coping mechanisms also vary among mammals. Some gain weight and bolster their coats. Some store extra food for later consumption and congregate in burrows or tree cavities.

However, the ice cover could be too thick for an extended duration. Thus, oxygen loss can kill some hibernating species. 


The native frog species of Wisconsin is known for its overwintering adaptations. Some species burrow themselves into the ground, can withstand temperatures as low as 28°F, and are moderately freeze-tolerant. Others hibernate in water bodies such as deep ponds, lakes, and streams but cannot endure frigid temperatures or an oxygen shortage. 

Certain Wisconsin frogs, like wood frogs and spring peepers, freeze to a solid over the winter. They hunker down in leaf litter to protect themselves as the weather cools. Their metabolism accelerates as soon as their body temperature dips to freezing, releasing a natural antifreeze called glycol.

Once their hearts and brain waves stop, they also cease breathing. They are technically no longer alive. Yet, they thaw out and continue living in the spring.

Thus, late-season snowstorms may cause most species to burrow down a little longer and delay reproduction. 

However, this doesn’t exclude the fact that a deep frost can kill frogs, and extended ice covers can deprive ponds of oxygen and cause winter death, just like it does for fish.


Turtles undergo a similar experience as frogs. Most turtles in the state spend winter beneath the ice, where they either burrow in the mud or go into semi-activity, lowering their body temperatures and drastically reducing their metabolism.

Painted turtles, for instance, breathe through their buttocks, skin, or mouth when unable to come up for air. Additionally, they break down glycogen and borrow from their skeleton and shell to combat the resultant acidity.


What’s a Badger State without its badgers? The short-legged mammal is the official state animal of Wisconsin. They saunter down to their expertly dug sett during the winter and go into torpor, which lasts for around 29 hours and lowers their metabolism to preserve energy. Then, after a brief hibernation, they leave their underground homes when it gets warmer than freezing.

Typically, badgers shore up their food storage before “hibernation,” they preserve some of their prey—including pocket gophers, mice, snakes, woodchucks, and moles during the fall for later consumption. 

Caching and weight gain are ways badgers prepare for the long, bitter winter and possible late snowstorm.


Typically, ducks migrate south in late summer or early fall for overwintering. 

However, they can perch on frozen lakes without becoming cold because their arteries and veins have been modified to serve as heat exchangers. 

In a process known as counter-current circulation, the arteries and veins that deliver warm blood to the birds’ extremities and cold blood back to their hearts are entangled in their legs.

Before the blood gets to the feet, heat is transferred from the arteries to the veins, conserving body heat while maintaining the feet at the proper temperature to avoid frostbite.

It has been proven that ducks only lose about 5% of body heat through their feet. Therefore, they can stand on one foot while hiding the other beneath their feathers in exceptionally cold conditions. 

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed grouse are rugged forest birds that benefit from heavy snowfalls. They move to more established woodlands in the early winter. They also huddle inside the thick fir needles to stay warm when the snow cover is thin or slippery.

Deep snow simplifies their lives. They don’t try to avoid the snow; they dive in and dig a tunnel. Moreover, grouse develop unique feathers on their legs and beaks to better insulate themselves from the cold. 

Pectinations, which are scales that grow on their feet, enable them to walk on top of the snow and grasp ice-coated twigs. These seasonally appropriate scales and feathers molt in the spring.

Buds from aspen, poplar, birch, cherry, or apple trees make up the grouse’s winter diet. In a half-hour, they can consume enough heat-producing buds to keep them alive for a day or more while sitting on treetops. Their big crop, a pouch in the esophagus, is used for temporary food storage. They can fill it with enough food for later digestion.

White-tailed Deer

Deer have evolved various valuable traits that aid in their ability to endure winter or late-season snow storms till spring. They increase their body’s fat reserves in the fall by consuming high-calorie foods like nuts and fruits.

Deer have oil-producing glands on their skin that help the hairs in their coat become hydrophobic and able to withstand water from melting snow.

They lose their summer coats as the weather turns chilly and replace them with heavier undercoats. Guard hairs—darker, longer, hollow hairs that grow in their overcoat—help to protect their body by absorbing heat from the sun. Only two mammals, deer and moose, share this particular adaptation.

Deer become less active and congregate with other deer around coniferous trees, such as cedar, spruce, and fir, which retain their leaves throughout the winter. These stands, often known as “deer yards,” offer protection from snow and wind.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © MarynaG/

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About the Author

Alan is a freelance writer and an avid traveler. He specializes in travel content. When he visits home he enjoys spending time with his family Rottie, Opie.

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