True Tales Revisited: Power of Mother Nature

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This story originally appeared in the Canton Citizen on January 20, 2011.

If you live in New England and you do not love the snow, at the very least you have to appreciate the amazing forces of nature that converge upon us and present themselves in the form of a Nor’easter. The recent storm that dumped 18.2 inches of snow as recorded at the Blue Hill Observatory ties for the third largest amount of snow in January ever measured at this renowned meteorological station.

Washington Street, Canton, 1898

Along Washington Street near Messinger and Shepard streets. Photo by George Burt in 1898, courtesy Canton Historical Society

This was an intense snowstorm and it is amazing how quickly we recover from such a storm. Snowplows begin work early on, and our intrepid DPW crews work day and night to ensure that we are hardly interrupted by Mother Nature’s fury. Criticism over snow removal today is echoed in a Canton newspaper commentary of 1898: “If the critics had the handling of the job probably they would be criticized just as harshly.” So while we may complain about the weather, there is little we can do about it. There are, however, several notable snowstorms to look back upon that provide a historical glimpse of the relationship between man and nature.

Most significantly is the Great Snow of 1717. The storm began on February 27 and lasted until March 9. What was thought of as one long storm was actually four storm systems back to back that crippled Boston and our town of what was then Dorchester. Just seven days prior, a storm had already dropped a significant amount of snow, so when the Great Snow bore down, the cart paths and roads were already hampered. The severity of this storm is hard to fathom today. Colonists had little warning, and in their memory there was never an event like this one. The natives who lived alongside the early colonists shared that there had been no snow in over 200 years that equaled this storm.

The damage was severe and brought incredible hardship as a result. Vast numbers of cattle were lost — buried where they stood they died in place. Nearer to the ocean, the wind brought driving rain, snow and sleet, and when combined with the wind-chill actually formed rime over the animals’ eyes such that they wandered blindly into the sea and drowned. Cotton Mather, the politically influential Puritan minister, wrote of the devastation: “One gentleman, on whose farms were now lost above 1100 sheep, which with other cattel, were interred (shall I say) or innived, in the snow, writes me word that there were two sheep very singularly circumstanced. For no less than eight and twenty days after the storm, the people pulling out the ruins of above 100 sheep out of a snow bank, which lay 16 foot high, drifted over them, there was two found alive, which had been there all this time, and kept themselves alive by eating the wool of their dead companions.”

By many accounts the storm wiped out 95 percent of the deer population. Many houses, smaller then for sure, were covered completely over and not even the chimney showed over the drifts more than 25 feet deep. It would take months to recover from this storm. Orchards were destroyed, bird populations were disrupted, and transportation was all but limited to walking.

It would be the advent of modern science that brought a keener study of storms and their affects. The Blue Hill Observatory figures prominently in the annals of atmospheric science. Founded in 1885, it would be the perfect place to record storms as they rolled through the Neponset Valley. The year 1898 was a particularly bad season for winter storms, including two major storms that brought death and destruction to our area.

The first “great storm” recorded at the observatory came in late January 1898 and was classified as a blizzard. This storm caused $82 million in damage. Ships were driven ashore, and in Boston alone more than 200 horses were killed. In Canton, thermometers dropped to 15 degrees below zero on February 4. At the height of the storm, two trains collided head-on at Canton Junction at the terminus of the Stoughton Branch. Several passengers were injured and the cowcatchers in front of the engines were destroyed.

The local paper wrote about the effects of the storm: “Wires succumbed everywhere. The telephone operator sat before a silent switchboard. In the depots the telegraph instruments were mute. Electric light wires gave way and on Sherman Street several poles were down. All over town trees were broken down and windmills suffered severely. The snow clung to the sides of buildings in heavy sheets and made many beautiful pictures and the oldest inhabitant has been busy with reminiscences all week to match this storm with ‘those when we were boys.’” The damage was considerable and the town spent more than $1,000 cleaning up the mess.

That same year, in November, what would become known as the Portland Gale produced a storm surge of about ten feet in Cohasset harbor and hurricane-force winds in Nantucket. The storm killed more than 400 people and sank more than 150 boats and ships. The storm dumped 15 inches of snow, and it took two dozen men 48 hours to dig out Randolph Street by hand. Most notably, this storm destroyed the S.S. Portland, which wrecked off of Stellwagen Bank with 192 passengers on board. Fortunately, no Canton residents were on board, but many locals reported that they “felt a sad familiarity with the scenes that must have occurred” that fateful evening. In a small leather diary, Frederick Endicott takes note of “a snow storm with very high winds.” Continuing on, he writes of “immense drifts,” adding that it “took nearly the whole morning to get shoveled out.” And the final entry that week mentions the “great loss of life at sea in Sunday’s storm. Steamer Portland wrecked off Cape Cod.”

Canton has always “weathered” the various storms much like surrounding towns. The photographs taken by local shutterbugs show classic street scenes with houses covered in snow up to the first floor windows. The views looking down the “Turnpike,” now Route 138 in Ponkapoag, are idyllic scenes of winter. The images of the blanketing of fields across the meadows looking toward Blue Hill are among the most splendid views in the collection of the Canton Historical Society.

An observer of 1898 wrote: “Standing at the turn of the road just beyond the old Fenno house a wide stretch of country is spread out at one’s feet and the effect is the more striking from the steepness of the slopes. The ice covered surface of Ponkapoag Pond and the frowning projections from Blue Hill make this gorge seem far deeper and more picturesque than can be expressed in measurements in feet and inches, while to the west the eye may range for miles without meeting a barrier in the way of overtopping heights. On a clear day the view rivals many famed mountain scenes and the beholder never wonders that here men grow old contentedly and maintain their health and strength and good nature through a green old age.”

And that is why we live in Canton.

For more historic Canton storm photos visit the Canton History Blog at cantonhistory.blogspot.com.

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