By December, five feet of snow blanketed the ground. Although temperatures were not bitterly cold, the snow kept falling, with several storms in January. By early February, some drifts rose 25 feet. On February 18, the snow began falling again, continuing for four days, then ended, then began again, “being repeated so violently on February 24 that all communication between houses and farms ceased.”
Sound familiar? Welcome to coastal New England and the winter of 1716-17*.
Did snow really bury the coast in 1716-17? We have no “official” weather records from that winter, as the National Weather Service wasn’t born until 1870. But even though government data is lacking, plenty of New Englanders were documenting and writing about the snows of 1716-1717. Sidney Perley’s classic 1891 book, Historic Storms of New England, does not fully cite sources, but he liberally quotes Puritan writers like Cotton Mather as well as 19th century town histories based on recollections and the oral tradition.
Then and now, people were fascinated by the weather, and it isn’t difficult to measure snow, albeit in 1717, weather nerds probably didn’t measure snowfall with the same precision and accuracy that scientists later developed. I know from other reading that 17th and 18th century writers often misjudged distance and height. For example, Darby Field, an otherwise obscure guy recognized for being the first person to climb Mount Washington, reported that the sloping mountain stood 12 to 14 miles high. Similar miscalculations and exaggerations might have been true for the snow report.
But northern winters definitely were colder in the 18th century. Scientists know that for about 400 years, from approximately 1450-1850, the northern hemisphere went through a cooling period, when overall temperatures were cooler by one degree Celsius (or just under 2 degrees F). The so-called “Little Ice Age” was not a global phenomenon (as today’s warming is) but a regional one. Scientist aren’t exactly sure what caused it, but posit that increased volcanic activity, a decrease in sun spot activity, and a greater frequency of the El Nino current – or some combination of the three – may have caused the prolonged period of cooling.
Thus, in 1716-17, the snow piled up. Then, as now, many roofs needed constant raking to prevent ice dams from collecting pools of water that would eventually flood the house. The shoveling was endless, a daily chore of carving a new path to the outhouse and the barn. Nervous homeowners eyed their once abundant piles of firewood, hoping and praying that it would last through the winter as they constantly tended the fire in the not-very-efficient fireplace. Everyone stayed close to the fire, because the rest of the house was icy cold.
After the week-long February storm, which Perley reports as dropping 10 to 15 feet of snow, the snow was so deep that it buried houses. In Medford, Massachusetts, a widow’s house disappeared beneath the snow, and was spotted only by a trail of smoke rising up from a drift. The trapped family had depleted its wood supply and the desperate mother was burning the furniture to keep them warm.
I began writing this piece as a four-day storm was wrapping up. Since then, I’ve lost track of the storms: how many, how extensive, how much snow. In 50+ years of New England living, I have never seen so much snow.
At first, the snow was exciting (and in a way, it is still is): who doesn’t love the occasional snow day? Wandering in the silent white forest on snowshoes as the snow falls is a magical experience. The sledding and cross-country skiing will be great for at least another month. I don’t even mind the shoveling too much, as it provides an opportunity to exercise when the roads are too icy for walking and jogging.
But I can do without the snow piled on the roof that presents a constant chore for my husband, on a ladder, in bitterly cold temperatures. I’d say that as chores go, roof-raking is probably the most unpleasant. But not so unpleasant as water pouring through the roof due to an untended ice dam.
However, I’m so very grateful that I don’t have to shovel a path the outhouse after each storm, as homeowners had to do in the winter of 1716-17. Or use the outhouse when temperatures are many degrees below freezing.
I’m also grateful that my woodstove is a cozy and warm supplemental source of heat, and not THE source of heat that requires constant tending to prevent the house from becoming an icebox.
I’m grateful that no matter how much snow falls, I can turn on the faucet and water – cold or HOT – flows freely. I don’t have to break a coating of ice in a pail, or struggle through snow drifts to pump water or pull buckets from a well.
Also, thank you, Thomas Edison, for inventing the electric light bulb and starting a revolution, so that I can read, cook, socialize, and watch movies as the snow falls, rather than stumble around in a shadowy darkness lit by oil lamps and candles.
Thank-you, also, to whoever invented the snow plow, and to George Whitney, who plows our long driveway many a late night and in the wee hours of the morning.
I’m also grateful for all the snowy activities that make winter more than an annual feat of endurance, as it generally was back in 1717 (although I’m guessing kids still enjoyed a few rides on sled-like devices back then). I’m also grateful for technological improvements upon ancient ideas: snowshoes with snug plastic bindings that stay on my feet; toe and hand warmers that keep my digits toasty for hours; and Neoprene and Sorrell boots, these latter a vast improvement upon the leather boots worn by New Englanders as they trudged through the snows of 1717.
Finally, even though I like winter, I’m grateful for the day in March – probably a little later than usual this year – when on a small patch of bare earth, surrounded by decaying piles of snow, a blue-white crocus will improbably push up through the soil.
Maybe then (but just maybe, because we know it can snow in April), we’ll be able to put away the shovels until it all begins again next year.
*Perley’s book does not explain if he was working with the dates of the old Julian Style Calendar, or the 11-days-forward dates of the Gregorian Calendar adopted by the British Parliament in 1751. For more on the calendar, see my entry on Another Kind of Groundhog Day: the Candlemas Massacre.
Sources and Resources
“Little Ice Age.” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Good basic overview of the Little Ice Age.
For more on the Little Ice Age, see this New York Times Op-Ed piece by Geoffrey Parker, “Lessons From the Little Ice Age.”
Sidney Perley writes about New England’s worst weather and other natural calamities in Historic Storms of New England, first published in 1891, reprinted in 2001 by Commonwealth Editions. For more tales of grim winters, see his chapters on the storm of Februrary 24, 1722-23, and the winters of 1740-41 and 1747-48.
Oddly, the Great Blizzard of 1888 does not make the list, perhaps because it was so recent that it didn’t seem dramatic enough to write about. Ironically, in this winter of 2015 when the Boston subway system has come to a screeching halt at times, the Great Blizzard of 1888 spurred on the initial development of the city’s first subway system, which went on to provide vital transportation services in the wake of the famous Blizzard of 1978.
For a detailed account of Darby Field’s remarkable 1642 ascent up Mount Washington, see Laura and Guy Waterman’s Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the White Mountains. Boston, MA: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1989. Field did not write about his adventures, but reported on them to Maine deputy governor Thomas Gorges, who wrote about the ascent in a letter to Massachusetts governor John Winthrop.