Bitter chill descended again this week in what seems like the coldest, darkest winter in many years. But at least we are not at war, as were our ancestors 150 years ago. Plus in some ways we now have one big chimney where once there were many. I was driving west to St. Joseph a few weeks back on a clear, cold, mostly windless day. On the distant horizon to the southwest I could see a plume of smoke or steam. It was discharge from the Iatan Power Plant chimney. Such plumes can be seen from many high ridges on the right days. While doing some conservation work involving peregrine falcon nests, in summer, I’ve stood atop that chimney and looked down upon the Missouri River bluffs. So I guess it’s not surprising steam from such a high place should be so visible. In a winter like this it’s a welcome sight. But feel the cold outside this week and then imagine yourself in a log hut or a wood frame house with no insulation. Think of all the wood you would burn just to keep somewhat warm, or perhaps coal if you could afford it. Yet fuel and money were scarce during the Civil War in a county with an economy bruised and battered. “Temperature 23 degrees below zero,” historian W.M. Paxton wrote for Jan. 1, 1864, in his “Annals of Platte County.” Now, we’ve had some winters in modern times where we might wonder if Mr. Paxton read his thermometer correctly, but not this winter. “Missouri frozen over. Clear and still,” Paxton wrote of the river and perhaps a morning when not even the wind seems to move in the cold. Water releases from upstream reservoirs in the Dakotas keep the Missouri River open now. We get ice in chunks floating down over a relatively deep navigation channel. But a river wide and oft shallow in the 1860s could get even smaller when water runoff from the plains was frozen in place. With a war on, that brought trouble. “Moses Langley robbed by a gang of prowling thieves,” Paxton wrote of late January, 1864. “The Missouri River is hard frozen, and loaded wagons cross in safety. Trespassers from Leavenworth cross into Platte, and take wood with impunity — the owners being afraid to interfere.” The County was split in loyalties during the war, but many residents were pro-slavery and leaned toward the South. Yet the Union held power. Fort Leavenworth was across the river and troops were garrisoned in cities upriver and down. A Pawpaw Militia kept a fragile order in Platte County that winter. Their name referred to Confederates who had hid in the pawpaw trees in the brushy river breaks but were now wearing Union blue as a state-sanctioned Yankee militia. But Union troops and their friends from Kansas were feared. Paxton told us so many interesting things from these days and we are indebted. Yet he did not foresee that, for some references, we today wish he had explained more. A month earlier of the big freeze he wrote, “President Lincoln offers, by proclamation, amnesty for all who will take the oath of allegiance.” In a split Platte County, I doubt the president had takers. “Sixty negroes recruited for the Federal army, at Liberty, go to the front,” Paxton wrote. This would have been news in Platte County on farms where some slaves likely remained in servitude and others had fled to Kansas. Paxton likely learned of this from a newspaper story. I wish he had elaborated on the unit number, what front they went to and what the reaction was from within the County. But he had survived the war likely by showing no allegiance to either side. His writing decades later respected that caution. At least he knew we’d be interested in a bitter cold day with 23 degrees below zero. They shivered then and we do now. Spring sometimes seems so far away. Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area with his family, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.