Two Anniversaries: Statehood and Snow

Happy January 26th! Today is a big day in Michigan history – it’s both Statehood day, when Michigan became the 26th state, and it’s the anniversary of the great Blizzard of ’78, one of the biggest snowstorms to hit the state. These two events have nothing to do with each other except that they are both part of Michigan’s past, which is reason enough to be featured on this blog!

Michigan’s statehood day came about a little over a month after the famous Frostbitten Convention, at which Michigan agreed to give up claim to the Toledo Strip in exchange for the western part of the Upper Peninsula along with statehood. The convention occurred on December 14th, 1836. By the end of the month, Congress had passed a statehood bill for Michigan. Then, on January 26th, President Andrew Jackson signed the bill into law, officially making Michigan the 26th state in the union. Seeking Michigan, the online presence of the Michigan Historical Center, has some great documents relating to statehood, including a 1835 letter from Andrew Jackson giving instructions for what Michigan would need to do to become a state, and the December 1836 Senate bill declaring Michigan a state. You should definitely add checking those out to whatever other statehood day celebrations you have planned – oh wait, you don’t celebrate statehood day? Is that just me?

First page of the Senate bill for Michigan's statehood.  See a better image here.

First page of the Senate bill for Michigan’s statehood. See a better image here.

Well, if statehood is a little too “4th Grade History Class” for you, perhaps you’d be more interested in some more recent history.  In late January 1978, Michiganders were already shivering through one of the coldest winters on record. Early in the week of the 22nd, a small storm dropped some snow on the region, routine for this time of year. However, something bigger was brewing for the end of the week. A storm that would soon be known as the Blizzard of ’78.

Actually, two small storms were forming in different parts of the country, both with extremely low pressure. Low pressure arctic air was being pushed down over the northern plains, while another low pressure system was forming in the south. As the latter system moved north on the 25th, temperatures started to warm up and Michigan began to experience everyone’s least favorite weather, freezing rain. However, when the northern system made it over to the Great Lakes, it quickly turned to heavy snow and the temperatures dropped rapidly. In Cleveland on the morning of the 26th, the temperature went from 44 degrees at 4 AM to 7 degrees by 10 AM. This mixing of systems also caused gale force winds across the region, as well as extremely low pressure (apparently, this rapid dropping of pressure is called bombogenesis, which might be my new favorite meteorological term). Many cities, even those far from the center of the storm, reported their lowest pressure in the century since they had been keeping records. Throughout the night of the 26th, many areas were in whiteout conditions. Air and land traffic ground to a halt.

The storm began to die down on the 27th, although digging out from the snow took much longer. Record snowfalls occurred across the state, with 19.2 inches at Grand Rapids, 19.3 inches in Lansing and 30.0 inches in Muskegon. Detroit and SE Michigan had less, due to the rain that started the storm here, only receiving about 8.2 inches.

C.R. Snider, Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Ann Arbor had this to say about the storm:

“The most extensive and very nearly the most severe blizzard in Michigan history raged throughout Thursday January 26, 1978 and into part of Friday January 27. About 20 people died as a direct or indirect result of the storm, most due to heart attacks or traffic accidents. At least one person died of exposure in a stranded automobile. Many were hospitalized for exposure, mostly from homes that lost power and heat. About 100,000 cars were abandoned on Michigan highways, most of them in the southeast part of the state.” (source)

The storm had a huge effect across the state. Schools were closed for at least a week. Many colleges closed for the first time in their history, including the University of Michigan. The National Guard was called up to help those were were trapped in their homes. One rather amusing report even stated that Traverse City was “unofficially closed.”

The Blizzard of ’78 still ranks near the top of list of worst storms to hit Michigan, along with the White Hurricane of 1913. Unlike the 1913, however, 1978 is still within the lifetime of many Michiganders. There are many stories of adventure and misfortune during the storm all over the internet. I’m a bit too young to remember the blizzard, but when I asked my parents about it they told me that none of all the side streets around Detroit were plowed, and only two ruts for cars to drive in for days afterwards. If there were two cars going in opposite directions, one was going to get forced off of the ruts. While heading over to my grandparents’ house, driving in the ruts, they came upon another car, who nicely swerved off into the snow to let them pass. As they drove past the car, they realized it was actually my grandfather, and he was stuck! So they stopped to help push him out of the snow before all heading back to the house.

The blizzard also hit Ohio, where this excellent photo of kids having fun in the snow was taken. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library

The blizzard also hit Ohio, where this excellent photo of kids having fun in the snow was taken. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library

Do you have any great stories from the Blizzard of ’78? I’d love to hear them! Or, tell me how I should celebrate Statehood day next year………..I’m thinking a mitten-shaped cake, but I’m open to suggestions!


The Frostbitten Convention; or, How Michigan Ended the Toledo War and Became a State

177 years ago today, on December 14th, 1836, Michiganders signed a compromise that lost them the city of Toledo, gained them the Upper Peninsula and allowed them to become the 26th state in the union. The compromise was accepted at what became known as the Frostbitten Convention due to both the cold spell sweeping the area and also due to the frosty feelings of many towards the signers  of the questionably legal document – a document that many saw as an acceptance of defeat. Defeat by our enemy to the south, Ohio.

Marker commemorating the event in Ann Arbor (source)

Marker commemorating the convention in Ann Arbor

You may or may not have heard of the Toledo War – a “war” fought between Michigan and Ohio concerning the Toledo Strip, a narrow strip of land at the northern end of Ohio claimed by both states. Toledo and the surrounding area, which included the Maumee river and access to Lake Erie, were considered valuable to both sides due to the existing waterways and potential for canals, a major mode of transportation. The origins of the dual claims root back to the creation of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which stated that if states were eventually formed out of the territory, their border would be drawn by an east-west line extending from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Only trouble was, nobody was sure exactly how far south Lake Michigan went, and in fact thought it was much farther north than it actually was (cartography wasn’t so good in those days).

When Ohio petitioned for statehood in 1803, it assumed it would include the Toledo area, but then discovered that Lake Michigan went further south than they thought, which would cause them to lose Toledo and possibly even their access to Lake Erie. Their solution was to add a provision into their constitution protecting their claim to the land, no matter the boundary of Lake Michigan. Congress accepted the constitution but essentially ignored the provision. Two years later, in 1805, Congress created the Michigan Territory, using the same boundaries designated in the Northwest Ordinance. Although residents of the area pushed for a resolution to the issue for years, it was not resolved until 30 years later when Michigan petitioned for its own statehood – including the Toledo strip.

Michigan asked Congress for statehood, Ohio objected and stalled the measure, and both became determined to stick to their guns. Literally. In 1835, both Ohio and Michigan (led by hot-heated “Boy Governor” Stevens T. Mason) raised militias and sent troops to the Maumee River to basically taunt each other. There were two conflicts of what is now called the Toledo War – although neither  caused any casualties. The first, known as the Battle of Phillips Corner, is a bit of a misnomer. In April 1835, Ohio surveyors out trying to mark their claim of the border were forced to retreat by members of the Michigan militia. Although a few shots were fired into the air, nobody was hurt. The second incident occurred over the summer. Monroe County Sheriff Joseph Wood set out to arrest Toledo Justice of the Peace Benjamin Stickney, but he and his sons resisted. Although all were eventually subdued and arrested, Wood was stabbed in the scuffle by Stickney’s son, Two Stickney (yes, his name was Two. Guess what his older brother’s name was?) with a pen knife. Wood survived the injury, but the incident caused tensions to rise, especially after Ohio refused to extradite Two to Michigan for trial.

It is also remembered in Ohio (source)

It is also remembered in Ohio

Meanwhile, President Andrew Jackson realized that Ohio, with its growing influence in Congress and political position as a swing state (yes, even then), was more valuable to him than Michigan. In an attempt to end the conflict and keep Ohio happy, he urged Congress to propose a compromise in the summer of 1836 – if Michigan would give up Toledo, it would be granted statehood and gain the western Upper Peninsula from Wisconsin (Michigan already had the eastern portion). Because the UP was mostly still Indian territory, Michigan voters saw this as a raw deal and rejected it at a state convention in September in Ann Arbor.

Throughout that fall, Congress and President Jackson continued to pressure Michigan to accept the deal. Additionally, Michigan was in bad financial straits due to high militia expenses and needed the support statehood would give. The United States Treasury was posed at the time to distribute a $400,000 surplus to the states – but not territories. So they called another convention in Ann Arbor in December, which later became known as the Frostbitten Convention, and voted the compromise into law.

The convention was very controversial – it was not approved by legislation (neither the territorial legislature or the U.S. Congress), the delegates were chosen by caucuses rather than elections, and some counties (including Monroe, right on the border with Toledo) refused to participate – all of which caused many to say it was illegal. Many Michiganders rejected the results. Congress, however, agreed that the convention was questionably legal, but chose to accept the results anyway. Michigan officially became a state on January 26th, 1837.

And that is how on a cold, dark day in December, 177 year ago, we realized we had been beaten and gave up the Toledo strip in exchange for statehood. But hey, I think it turned out to be a pretty good deal. Although many wrote off the U.P. as useless wilderness at the time, it turned out to have vast stores of copper and iron that became a major industry in the state. Also, it’s just breathtakingly beautiful and Toledo is…….not. So I’m going to go ahead and call this a win, and celebrate the Frostbitten Convention with a steaming mug of hot chocolate while I watch the snow outside. I hope you do the same!