The Great Arctic Outbreak of 1963 Remembered

“In Winter 1963 it felt like the world would freeze

with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles”

That song lyric, taken from the 1980s hit song “Life in a Northern Town” by the Dream Academy, hits it right on the money with the kind of numbing cold so much of the country felt 50 years ago this week.  The cold air currently gripping the area does not even hold a candle to the unbelievably frigid air mass that overtook South-Central KY on January 23, 1963.  The numbers from that day – along with the days that followed – are absolutely staggering! 


Our area had a preview of sorts with this arctic outbreak before it struck.  In mid-December 1962, Bowling Green residents awoke to three straight mornings of record low temperatures at or below 0°.  After a White Christmas, Old Man Winter relaxed his grip somewhat.  Fast-forward to the morning of January 23, 1963.  The day started mild, with temperatures in Bowling Green running in the mid 40s during the wee hours of the morning.  But just before daybreak, a sharp arctic front swept through the region, sending temperatures tumbling some 30-40 degrees within just three hours.  Some 3-5″ of snow accompanied the front’s passage across the area.  However, it was the bitter cold that would become the major issue.  By late that night, the mercury in Bowling Green had plummeted to -21°, the second coldest reading all-time for the city (and coldest since 1886).  The next day’s high was a mere 9°, still the lowest high temperature ever recorded for the 1/24.  That day’s record low would match that of the previous day (-21°).  The week that followed didn’t feature much of a warmup.  Just when it looked as if the Siberian Express had been derailed with a touch of moderation by the 26th, 2″ of snow fell which was followed by yet another shot of brutally cold air.  Record lows of -9° and -18° were registered in Bowling Green on the 27th and 28th respectively.  Now THAT is cold!  Finally as the calendar rolled over into February, a welcome thaw arrived, with a high of 55° on Feb. 1st. 

Recently, I asked folks that were around 50 years ago what they recall about that winter’s chill.  Here are some of the responses: 

“I remember that winter very well.  We lived in an old house without indoor plumbing.  The kitchen was so cold that my sisters would turn on the oven and all four burners and still be able to see their breath!  We had a fireplace in the living room and a coal stove in my parents’ bedroom.  They would put our water bucket on top of the coal stove to keep it from freezing” – Janelle JbFinn McGee

“My dad says one winter the pipes froze at their school (Rochester) and they were out a whole month.  Not sure but this was probably the year” – Shanina Belle Hammers

“I remember those days, hard times.  I used to push a wheel with a stick down a dirt road.  That dirt road is now in Tompkinsville, KY.  That was before the Great Blizzard of 78, when the family and I had to hunker down for three weeks straight due to the extreme cold and 30 feet of snow that covered our log cabin” – Joshua Cosgrove

“I had graduated from Spencerian College in Louisville and was working at Louisville Area Mental Health Center.  I absolutely had to go back home to Burkesville every weekend!  My mom and dad told me, “no way…do not drive home in this”!  Well, I had chains but had no idea how to put them on.  The man at the first toll booth on I-65 put them on for me.  I made it home! – Brenda McCoy Harvey

Great stories! 

If you were around in January 1963, what do YOU remember about it?



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