WELCOME TO THE FREEZE-TERN SHORE – PART 1

As cold as it is it could be worse.

Slip on your long-johns and flannels, your warm boots and favorite gloves, grab your coat and that hat with the funny looking earflaps, and let’s take a wintery walk through a couple centuries of Eastern Shore weather history.

 The Colonial Era through 1940

Official records weren’t kept until the late 1800’s, so reliable climate data for our country’s formative years is hard to come by. There were, however, several documented blizzards and deep-freezes during this time that had significant impact on our early Chesapeake Bay ancestors.

January 27-28, 1772. Two to three feet of snow fell in two days. A half century had passed since any of the early colonists recorded a storm of such power, and back in 1717 it was New England that got clobbered. Around here, no non-native had ever seen anything like it. Because the storm was recorded in two future presidents diaries, it’s known as The Washington-Jefferson Snowstorm. George Washington wrote, “The same snow continued all last night and all this day with equal violence…”

The Winters of 1779-1784 were especially cruel. Twenty-foot glaciers were sighted off the Delmarva Coast, and in 1781 ice in the bay was six inches thick. People walked across the Chesapeake from Kent Island to Annapolis; and for weeks at a time horse carriage over ice was the preferred method for travel between places like Queenstown to Rock Hall and Tilghman Island to Oxford. “The Long Winter” of 1783 -1784 started with a Christmas snow and ended with a thaw that didn’t even begin until late March. Thomas Jefferson was in Annapolis, and at one point he recorded four zero-degree days in a row. Eventually temperatures dipped lower than his thermometer was able to measure.

In 1888, the small villages and isolated farmhouses across the Shore were struck with what came to be known as the White Hurricane. Snow started on March 11th and by the morning of the twelfth most locations were covered in up to a foot and a half of the white stuff. Strong northwest winds, gusting up to 75 M.P.H. blew the water right out of rivers and created snowdrifts that buried buildings. Dozens of watermen were killed when their oyster-dredging boats capsized or were slammed violently aground.

Nor’easters bring some of our area’s most ferocious winter blasts. Certain climatic conditions have to be in place before one of these monster weather patterns can develop, but once they do, it’s usually already too late to batten down the hatches.

Mother Nature delivered a brutal one-two punch in February, 1899 with The Great Eastern Blizzard and the Arctic Outbreak that followed. Back to back massive snowstorms were worsened by a nor’easter’s gale force winds and crippling temperatures that plummeted to twenty below in parts of Maryland.

A spring nor’easter on April 3, 1915 brought to our area the biggest late season snow on record. For a section of the country that, according to the National Weather Service, typically gets less than a foot or so per year, the fifteen inch deep swath this shocker laid down across Delmarva must have seemed like a particularly unfunny April Fool’s joke.

The Knickerbocker Storm of January 27th, 1922 was named for the theater in D.C. whose snow-burdened roof collapsed, killing 98 people. Hitting the region exactly a century and a half after the Washington-Jefferson Snowstorm, The Knickerbocker’s considered the storm of record for the state.

Though no snow had been predicted, a light dusting began just after dark on Christmas night, 1935. Within a few short hours, a raging blizzard had developed. Caught without warning, and in the middle of holiday travel, dozens of people found themselves stranded. Compassionate strangers took in whole families. A second storm exploded on the 28th. Then the mercury dropped. Two days later there were freighters frozen motionless in the Chesapeake Bay. When ice at Kent Narrows was finally cut through, watermen had their first work in three weeks. One hundred thirty men caught 4500 bushels of oysters in two days.

1940 – Weird weather affected the entire continent. People were ice skating in Louisiana, while Northern Canadians experienced a warm spell. Icebreakers were sent up the Miles and Tred Avon Rivers to cut a path for struggling watermen, but the cold was so intense the water refroze quickly and the few boats that made it out found themselves marooned.

Part2 will be posted Monday

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