06 July 2012

Ancestors weathering the storm



Blizzard of 1978: House on the North Shore, Massachusetts.
Credit: Mass.gov

If you read old journals or account books, it sounds like the people of yesteryear were obsessed with recording the weather. But if you think about it, the weather still is a big conversation topic and its effects can have a huge impact on our lives today.
If you lived through the Blizzard of 1978, you remember how cars were abandoned on the snowy streets, how jobs and schools and services were shut down, how the electricity was off, stores were closed. To our forebears, there were no local forecasters, a national Weather Channel, or weather apps on smartphones. They had to rely on atmospheric pressures, cloud formations, sea change, the Old Farmer’s Almanac, and maybe an arthritic knee to predict the weather.
Here in New England, our weather is different from say, England, so imagine coming to this wild, untamed land only to experience the Great Storm of 1635, the earthquakes of 1638 and 1663, the Great Snow of 1717, the Dark Day of 1780, the Snow Hurricane of 1804, the Year Without a Summer (1816), the Great Blizzard of 1888, the September Surprise hurricane of 1938, or the Blizzard of 1978.
To find out what our ancestors experienced, read Sidney Perley’s Historic Storms of New England (Salem, MA: Salem Press, 1891). Like many books of this era, the subtitle encapsulates the plot quite nicely: “Its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, Aurora-Borealis, phonomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast—with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic.”
Imagine what it must have been like to experience the Great Snow of 1717, when Cotton Mather talked about not being able to hold religious services for a few weeks. These folks were barricaded in their houses by snowdrifts. Without knowing the storm was coming—or that it would last 10 days—people ran out of food, water, firewood for heating homes, and everyday supplies. Some starved to death, others froze to death. Farm animals perished and orchards were destroyed.
Were any of your ancestors in Massachusetts during any of these catastrophic weather events? Put together a timeline to find out.
Predicting the Weather
In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant established the Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service. It wasn’t until 1885, however, when the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory was privately founded by Abbott Lawrence Roach, that we had “the oldest continuous weather record in North America.” Located at the summit of Great Blue Hill, the observatory is 10 miles south-southwest of Boston in Milton, Massachusetts, with an elevation 635 feet above sea level (which made it an ideal vantage point during the Revolutionary War). Using “traditional methods and instruments,” the center also pioneered the use of kites and balloons for weather observation.
It wasn’t until the media got involved in weather forecasting that everyday people could prepare for heat waves, blizzards, floods, hurricanes, and the like. And for that, we should be grateful.
Links of Interest


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