Snows of Yesteryear
by Eugene Scheel
Additional weather history: Virginia Winters: Snow, wind, ice, and cold, The Greatest Storms of the Century in the Greater Washington-Baltimore Region
So how do past winters measure up to the 80-plus inches of snow we've had so far in 2010? From recollections and newspaper gleanings, here are some reminiscences of a past age:
The Rev. John Walker Woodville, an Episcopal priest and diarist who preached from Loudoun County south to Albemarle, wrote of eight days of snow between Jan. 8 and 28, 1831. Writing from Culpeper, midway in the Virginia Piedmont, he recorded "knee-deep" snow accumulation at minimum and six-foot drifts.
Several chroniclers described 1859 as a year without a summer. A June 4 killing frost is the most recent on record. Through mid-month, snow could be seen in the south furrow of Ashby's Gap, where today's Route 50 crosses the Blue Ridge. Ice, packed in stone and brick ice houses and usually spent by July, lasted the entire year.
Extended cold accompanied the appearances of Halley's Comet from December 1835 through May 1836 and in April and May 1910. Farmers harvesting the fall wheat crop wore gloves and overcoats in fall 1835. A late-April frost in 1836 killed the apple crop in Fauquier and Loudoun counties, and the Blue Ridge Mountains wore a mantle of snow through early June.
Sawing ice from ponds and placid streams was a common late-winter task until electrified ice plants took over the job in the first decades of the 20th century. The Loudoun Telephone, a Hamilton newspaper, admonished readers in late January 1888 to store ice properly:
"It should be piled up as carefully as a stone wall, filling in every little hole, making the whole mass a solid pile of solid ice. If carelessly placed, the air will get through and the ice will melt."
When ice depths on major rivers reached eight inches, wagons and coaches bypassed the toll bridges. In January 1879, the Leesburg Mirror noted: "The mail coach between Winchester and Round Hill crossed the Shenandoah on the ice, and all along the Potomac communication is kept up by means of a similar bridge of nature . . . ten to twelve inches in thickness."
The same arctic wave brought "fearfully high winds," the Mirror noted, and "the mercury fell to three degrees below zero and for three or four days successfully danced attendance around that frigid monarch."
In December 1874, with "howling winds, the frozen ground, the crusts of ice, and the snow . . . the dread monarch," the Mirror urged readers to donate not only articles of "unfashionable everything in the garment line," but "a load of wood, a barrel of flour, a piece of bacon, a few vegetables from the plentiful stores of those who have." The largess "would also serve to cheer many poor families that may be in actual want of the necessities of life."
January 1886, the Telephone reported four days of continuous falling snow with "wind blowing a furious gale." Temperatures had dropped to six and seven below zero on two days, with the whole week "hovering about zero, occasionally getting a majority of six degrees." Because of "genial zephyrs" gathering snow from fields and depositing it on roads, the travelways north of Waterford, editor Yardley Taylor Brown wrote, "give a good representation of the Sierra Navadas."
When that blizzard abated, Brown wrote, "a Council of War" in Lovettsville determined that crews "armed with saws and shovels" would open two drifted-over roads: two miles of the Berlin Turnpike to the Potomac River, so people could get mail carried by the railroad, and one mile of the same turnpike south to New Jerusalem Lutheran Church.
Clearing snow was strictly a neighborhood affair until the mid-1930s, when the fledgling state Department of Highways began to plow main roads. Snow fences were thought the cure for drifting unpaved roads -- three-quarters of the Piedmont's thoroughfares.
Placed about 50 feet from the north or west sides of roads to blunt prevailing winds, the four-foot-high slats, linked by wire, were anchored into the ground by posts. Through the mid-1970s, from November into April, they were rural fixtures.
You see them today, recycled to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where they blunt shifting sands.
Horse-drawn sleighs carried the fortunate to short destinations. Ida Lee Rust Follett, speaking of the 1880s era, wrote in her reminiscences that it took the family's sleigh an hour to an hour and a half to navigate four miles of an unplowed Point of Rocks Road (today's U.S. 15) from their farm at Rockland to Leesburg.
Often, foot warmers, which used coals placed within a cast-iron container, kept passengers' lower extremities from numbness. One similar try in January 1879 came to grief, noted the Mirror. After their wedding in The Plains, the couple set out in their finery on the Halfway Road. One mile out of town, they saw that their sleigh was on fire. They dismounted and unhooked the horse. "Those who have sleighs should not allow hot bricks to be put in them," editor Benjamin Sheetz warned.
In the wealthy Jefferson magisterial districts of upper Loudoun, the brothers Jennings and Thurston Potts told me years ago that in 1911, when the snows started in late November, they exchanged tires for skis on the horse-drawn school buses that transported children to Locust Grove Academy (now the Hillsboro Community Center). The skis came off in March. The procedure lasted until 1925, when the county introduced motorized conveyances.
The Washingtonian, a Leesburg newspaper, wrote of escapees from the blizzards racking the nation during mid-January 1888. Editor William Lynch reprinted this prescient squib from the Jacksonville Times-Union: "If the increase in travel continues as it has for several weeks past, it won't be long before Jacksonville and all Florida are full of tourists."
For the rural Piedmont poor, hunting was a livelihood. Bears, beavers, deer, foxes and otters could be skinned for pelts, to be woven into coats. If sold, they could bring in a few dollars.
Beans, beef broth and bread were welcome fare during the snows of 1899, which began Feb. 7 and lasted through the month. The staples came to Fauquier and Culpeper on a relief train dispatched by the Southern Railway. Warrenton and Leesburg reported drifts of 15 feet and average depths of three feet.
Some local antiwar activists blamed President William McKinley for the storm, stating that he never should have sent troops to squelch Philippine insurgents, fighting to get the United States out of their country.
During the winter of 1917-18, the first snow fell Nov. 27, and the Piedmont was blanketed through February. Drifts, and temperatures dipping to seven and eight degrees below zero, hampered doctors from seeing influenza victims. In the counties between Albemarle and the Potomac River, more than 500 people died that late fall and winter.
Most hard winters of the past were accompanied by frigid temperatures. During the mid-February blizzard of 1895, thermometers in Loudoun and upper Fauquier reported readings of 16 degrees below zero, with two other days at 10 and 11 degrees below zero.
Of more recent vintage is a Middleburg gauge recording minus-14 on Jan. 18, 1987. The U.S. Weather Bureau station in Culpeper reported a minus-14 on Jan. 29, 1975.
February 1972 stays in my memory. For four days, the Old Wheatland Road had drifted in and the electricity was out. We were running low on diapers and baby food for our 6-month-old daughter, Kristin. We shared our distress with our daughter's uncle, and he notified the Winchester National Guard. Late at night, three Guard members knocked on the door with supplies. They had hiked the two miles from Route 9. Our neighbor placed a red blanket on the snow; he had a heart ailment and had to be helicoptered out.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, the Guard plowed the road out, and, like other western Loudouners, we gravitated to Purcellville's White Palace Restaurant, where George and Maria Kakouras had the wood stove going and served up hot country fare.