So Cold, the Rich Had to Beg


by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, December 1999)

We sometimes hear how the weather is the hottest it has been in the history of the world. That sounds like a long time, yet worldwide temperatures have only been recorded for the last 90 years.

During the last million years, a series of glaciers occurring at 100,000-year intervals has covered New England. Each glacial cycle piled ice miles deep in its first 50,000 years, causing sea levels to drop and creating places like New York City, Boston and Cape Cod. In the following 50,000 years global warming would melt the ice, raising sea levels and flooding coastlines until places like Bolton became seafront property. The last ice age ended just 15,000 years ago. Bolton is still closer to the ice age than to becoming a beach resort.

Bolton Town Clerk John Bissell gave one of the earliest weather reports in 1741. It was published for the first time in the Hartford Times on February 18, 1899. The winter of 1740–1741 arrived early, with October "as cold as ordinarily November is," wrote our town clerk John Bissell, and a substantial snowfall hit in mid-November. Then two solid weeks of rain in early December severely damaged "bridges, fences, hay" and ruined "the Indian corn chambers, cribs …."

"Extreme cold" followed and "traveling was almost wholly suspended by reason of the extreme cold and deep snow, and God had sealed up the hand of every man. We had a very sensible consideration of … Who can stand before His cold!!!" By January, drifting snow soon brought an end to regular travel by highway in New England and the Middle Colonies, and the penetrating cold closed all the rivers and waterways with solid ice. One man made a 200-mile trip by sleigh over the frozen sound from Cape Cod to New York City. The extreme cold was not confined to the Northeast; that year the York River in Virginia froze solid enough to cross. "Notwithstanding the settling of the snow, the snow on the sixth day of March was three foot deep," wrote Bissell. "The weather continued cold and the snow wasted but slowly, so that there was considerable quantity of snow the middle of April." The Connecticut River was still frozen solid enough to be crossed on the first of April.

This unparalleled cold weather produced a story of extraordinary survival. "At Guilford, a Sheep was in the winter buried in a storm of snow and lay there ten weeks and three days and came out alive," reported Bissell.

Shortages arose, "by reason of which scarcity a great number of cattle and horses died, and near half the sheep, and about two thirds of the goats," Bissell wrote. "Exceeding scarcity followed, partly by reason of abundance of Indian corn being ruined by the long rains in December, and partly by people giving their corn to their creatures to save their lives. We suppose the ensuing summer was the greatest scarcity as ever the English felt since the first settlement of this government. Indian corn rose in the price from ten to twenty shillings, and what was commonly sold for twenty shillings, till at last all buying and selling utterly ceased. Money was no temptation, and men of good estates who had money was [sic] found to put themselves into the quality of beggars, and beg sometimes two quarts at a place, to relieve the distresses of their poor families."

As dreadful as the winter of 1740–1741 had been, the winter of 1779–1780 was the worst ever recorded from Maine to Georgia. It was the infamous winter of Valley Forge where the Continental Army left bloody footprints in the snow. The next summer the French army arrived to support the American Revolution and the Duc de Lauzun, a colonel whose legion of Hussars was assigned to winter in Lebanon, compared it to being sent to Siberia.

Although snow first fell in the Northeast in early November 1779, winter did not begin in earnest until the middle of December, when a series of invading Arctic air masses dominated the weather scene for the next 13 weeks. Farther south it was possible to walk across the firmly frozen Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. Harbors froze in Virginia. Sleighs traveled the ice from Staten Island to Manhattan Island, and for a time people traversed the sound from Connecticut to Long Island.

The frigid air was soon accompanied by an unprecedented series of three major northeasters that ravaged the entire coastal plain from Virginia northward and lasted until the winter breakup in mid-March.

Accounts varied, but by mid-January the standing snow was reportedly four feet deep in Connecticut, with massive drifts. Frozen ports and snow-clogged roads paralyzed daily activity. Forced to winter in New London when his ship stuck in the ice of the Thames River, Captain Jean-Francois Landolphe recorded in his diary that "so much snow fell over a three-day period that it rose above the windows of the second story, in such manner that daylight could not penetrate. I had never seen anything like it."

But then the weather worsened and the temperature plunged. The Connecticut Courant reported that readings of a new device called a "thermometer" were below zero on 11 days, including a low of 22 degrees below zero in Hartford on January 29, 1780. "To set up communications with my neighbors across the street I had a vaulted passage dug beneath the snow," Landolphe continued. "The cold set in again with an extraordinary harshness. It made us all numb…."

Newspapers found themselves in a news blackout as the stagecoaches stopped running. On January 11 the Connecticut Courant informed its readers, "The late violent Snow Storms have prevented the Posts from performing their usual stages; in consequence of which we have received no papers from the Eastward or Westward later than the 23d of December." Three major snowstorms closed all main roads in New England for the duration of the winter with the exception of the Boston Post route through Bolton, which was broken out and became passable by January 20. Side roads generally were impassable until the March thaw. In New London, Captain Landolphe’s men used saws to cut a path in the frozen river to open water. After two days their ship was finally freed—on May 10, 1780.

The forecast for the new millennium? Thirty-five thousand years of global warming followed by the start of the next ice age.