Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Had Enough Snow? You're not Alone . . .

Randall Stephens

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. . . Arghhh!!

Does it give us any comfort to know that Americans have been trudging through snow drifts, swearing at Jack Frost, and sinking into a dark cold night of the soul/seasonal depression for decades, even centuries? Probably not. But, if you think that blizzards have a way of shutting things down today . . . imagine what it would have been like before the second industrial revolution and before some clever person attached a shovel to the front of a car. By the 19th century, telegraph lines could report storms in the West before folks felt those in the east. (In 1861 Western Union completed the first transcontinental line, from San Francisco to the East Coast.) But, things were much more messy. What was the world like before Doppler Radar?

The Long Storm of 1798, which stretched from Maryland to Maine, dumped about 18 inches on New York City. In Historic Storms of New England (1891), Sidney Perley wrote of that memorable November wintry blast:

The great quantity of snow that fell was unprecedented so early in the winter, and in but few instances had the settlers experienced such a snow storm during any part of the year. The mail carriers, or postboys, as they were called, were obliged to ride through fields for miles at a time, the roads being impassable in all parts of the country. The snow was so deep that in some places where the highways had been shoveled out the banks of snow on both sides of the road were so high that men on horseback could not look over them. Many houses were so deeply buried in the snow that the families which lived in them found it very difficult to make an egress without tunneling through the drifts.

Ninety years later Americans looked out their windows, wide-eyed and anxious about the whiteout that the Blizzard of '88 produced. Temperatures fell well below zero, winds gusted, and cities across the country were brought to a standstill. A reporter at the New Hampshire Sentinel could hardly believe it. "The oldest inhabitants can recollect no such storm as the present," he observed. "It probably never snowed faster in this part of the country than it did from Monday morning until Tuesday morning, almost without interruption. In addition to this the wind blew a gale continuously, and the snow was packed into deep, solid drifts on all sides. . . . Telegraphic communication with Boston was cut off during the afternoon. All wires between Washington and New York were down in the morning, and by noon the wires between New York and Boston were all down."

Then there was the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. From November 11 to 12 temperatures dove in some parts of the country from the 60s to single digits. The storm stretched from Kansas to Michigan and caused nearly 150 deaths. "In Texas sub-freezing temperature nipped fruit crops," reported Life magazine. The thermometer dipped to 20 degrees below in Belgrade, Montana. "The storms did not spare the great cities of the Midwest. More than 16 inches of snow fell in Minneapolis and piled up in great wind drifts which halted transportation and buried stranded cars. Buildings were unroofed, chimneys toppled and trees uprooted be winds of tornadic force."

The Blizzard of 1978? Some folks have still not warmed up from that one.

So, as you sit through hours of snow snarled traffic jams, put those chains back onto your tires again, and bundle up your kids like Randy in Christmas Story . . . remember that others have gone before you, a great snow-filled cloud of frostbitten witnesses.


hcr said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, Randall! This winter is killing me!

On the history front, though, I believe it was the blizzard of 1888 that killed Roscoe Conkling, wasn't it? I have some memory that he tried to walk to his office in New York City, fell into a snowbank, got soaked, came home, contracted pneumonia, and died.

I've always remembered that story, and the blizzard of '88, because one of my dearest friends-- who was born in 1902-- was married to a man born nine months after that blizzard. She joked about it. She might have even been the one to tell me about Conkling, come to think of it. She's long gone, of course, but when she mentioned her husband's birth it always struck me that talking to her put me only one generation away from the Civil War generation.

Eric B. Schultz said...

Great post! Worth noting, however, that for most of history, "cool" has been the luxury, not heat. Before air conditioning, NYC lost far more work days to the heat than the cold. . .Gail Cooper's "Air-Conditioning America" is a superb source.