The Great Freeze refers to the back-to-back freezes of 1894–1895 in Florida, where the brutally cold weather destroyed much of the citrus crop. It may also have been responsible for wiping out natural stands of Royal Palm (Roystonea regia) trees from the lower St. Johns River Valley northeast of Orlando.
Orlando reached an all-time record low of 18 °F (−8 °C) on December 29, 1894. This cold front continued to West Palm Beach, where the all-time record low of 24 °F (−4 °C) is two degrees cooler than their next lowest reading.
In the second cold wave (1895), West Palm Beach recorded a monthly record low of 27 °F (−3 °C) on February 9, 1895, the third-coldest year on record, 26 °F (−3 °C), 1905 was second.
There were two freezes in Florida during this catastrophic season, the first in December 1894 and the second in February 1895. The first did not actually kill many mature trees, but did set the stage for new growth during the warm month that followed. So, when the second, harder freeze came a few months later, the effects were even more devastating. All varieties of fruit (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes) froze on the trees, and bark split from top to bottom. These effects were felt as far south as the Manatee River, below Tampa.
By 1895, Florida's abundant citrus groves had extended into northern Florida, and the state was producing as much as six million boxes of fruit per year. After the Great Freeze, however, production plummeted to just 100,000 boxes and did not break the one million box mark again until 1901. As a result, land values also dropped in the citrus growing areas from $1,000 per acre ($29,416 in 2017 dollars) to as little as $10 ($294 in 2017 dollars) per acre. Many compared the economic impact of the Great Freeze on Florida to the effects of the Great Fire on the city of Chicago.
In the wake of the Great Freeze, many growers simply abandoned their Florida groves to return to the North. A few went to search for frost-free locations in the Caribbean such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Others relocated to California, using a seedless variety of grapefruit discovered by C.M. Marsh near Lakeland. He was able to harvest 10,000 buds before the Great Freeze that were later propagated by west coast growers with great success, although the overall drier climatic conditions in California produce, according to some, less flavorful citrus. The freeze also prompted Julia Tuttle, founder of Miami, persuade railroad magnate Henry Flagler to expand his rail line, the Florida East Coast Railway, southward to the area, but he initially declined. Tuttle wrote to him, asking him to visit the area and to see it for himself. Flagler sent James E. Ingraham to investigate and he returned with a favorable report and a box of orange blossoms to show that the area had escaped the frost. Flagler followed up with his own visit and concluded at the end of his first day that the area was ripe for expansion. He made the decision to extend his railroad to Miami and build a resort hotel.
Since that time, Florida's citrus industry has rebounded greatly, and now is second in the world only to Brazil in the production of oranges. While Florida once again nearly dominates citrus production, there has been new challenge due to two serious citrus diseases as well as urban development. With no serious freezes in the last 25 years, Florida again looks to be one of the major points of citrus production in the world.
- Type Studies from the Geography of the United States by Charles Alexander McMurry, Macmillan & Company, 1908, page 81.
- Cyclopedia of American Horticulture by Liberty Hyde Bailey, Macmillan Company, 1901, page 1154.
- McMurry, page 81.
- Bailey, page 1155.
- McMurry, page 82.
- Southern Agriculture by Franklin Sumner Earle, The Macmillan Company, 1908, page 245.
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- Parks, Arva Moore. Miami, The Magic City. Miami: Community Media, c2008. p. 81.
- Wiggins, Larry. "The Birth of the City of Miami." In Tequesta, number LV (1995), p. 10-12.