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The Year Without Summer

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, April 1, 1980

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg (Article # 041)


The winter of 1979-80 has now passed into history as one of the driest winters on record with less than 13 inches of snow for the whole period. When more than two inches of snow fell here as early as October 10, many predicted a long, hard, and snowy winter.

But predicting New England weather is risky business. No really appreciable amount of snow fell again until February 16. All winter, sleds remained in the garage, skis remained in their racks, ski-slopes remained bare and dealers who stocked up on snowblowers and snow shovels were decidedly unhappy. It was what New Englanders call an open winter. But other winters, for wholly different reasons, have gone down in history as well.

New Englanders are used to severe fluctuations in temperature. There are times when the thermometer jumps around like a yo-yo. The best recent example was January of 1976 when morning sunrise temperatures here in Burlington went from 20 degrees on January 3 to 2 degrees on the 6th to 32 degrees on the 8th to 0 degrees on the 11th to 43 degrees on the 14th to -4 degrees on the 18th to 25 degrees on the 22nd to -9 degrees the next day with the wind giving it a chill factor of -50 degrees, to be followed by heavy fog and rain on the 27th which brought the temperature up to an even 50 degrees. Three times during that month the afternoon temperatures at 2 o’clock were much lower than it had been at daybreak. Unusual? Not really.

But it is unusual when such fluctuations in temperature last for a whole year as did happen in 1816, known for years thereafter as the year without a summer. For Burlington farmers the fight with the weather that year proved to be a losing battle.

New Years Day opened the bright and sunny with temperatures in the 40’s. By early afternoon the temperature had dropped to 0 degrees and the following morning to 15 degrees below. That day ushered in four months of quickly developing extreme cold waves followed by unseasonably warm weather. It did not warm up enough for spring planting because each brief spell of warm weather was followed by a crippling and killing frost. During the second week in June came one of the biggest snowstorms of the year, covering the coast from Maine to Virginia with up to 19 inches of snow. The following warm weather made roads impassable, turned planted fields into seas of mud and caused brooks and streams to become raging torrents.

But temperatures still rose and fell in great leaps and bounds. The first week in July a freezing ice storm swept the whole area. Huge icicles formed on the eaves of houses, frost covered the openings to barns, trees lost great branches and apple orchards took a beating.

The year was becoming an agrarian disaster. The price of corn, wheat and oats doubled and tripled in price, but the farmer had none to sell. Since farmers had difficulty feeding their livestock, both beef and fowl dropped in value as they tried to sell. August gave some respite but snow returned early in September. Farmers hereabouts salvaged what they could. Trying to find a reason for such weather, the Boston Daily Advertiser suspected sunspots and said the sun had a case of the flares. Another guess blamed the volcanic explosion of Tamboro Island off New Guinea in April of 1815 as the culprit for spewing huge quantities of dust into the atmosphere.

By the way, 1816 was the year that Burlington voters decided to build an outhouse “near the meetinghouse… as soon as may be.” But the weather probably had nothing to do with that decision. However the question arises, “What were the previous facilities – outmoded, too drafty or non-existent?” Severe winters have not been unusual here. Mr. Marrett, the minister of the Burlington church, mentions in his diary for January 1780, “Great snows – went on Rackets till February no roads broken out.” The Burlington records for 1846 show that Nathan Skelton was paid ten dollars “for breaking paths in the snow last winter.” Skelton probably did this with two horses pulling a wooden plow which moved just enough snow so that farmers could use their pungs or sleighs if need be. In 1857 the weather in February got so cold that Boston harbor froze over and people walked from the shore to some of the islands in the chill air just for the novelty and fun of it.

Here in Burlington during one of the Depression years the temperature at Barnum’s on the upper end of Mill Street reached 27 below in February and stayed there for several days. Typical of Federal make-work grants at the time, one of the ERA projects was the clearing of silt from the brook in Winnmere. The men spent their time chopping ice and keeping a fire going to prevent frozen hands and feet.

The snow and ice account for the year 1935 showed a deficit even though it was almost half again as much more than the previous year’s appropriation. Early in the year the whole town was tied up in snow drifts so deep that plows could not move it and every able-bodied man in town was asked to come out and shovel. Tom Murray was Superintendent of Highways at that time and the highway’s most powerful machine was a four-wheel drive Brockway.

Down on Wyman Street where the snow was in places some four to six feet deep Tom decided to show how snow could be moved. He backed that big truck up several hundred feet, stepped on the gas, and as men jumped into the snow to get out of the way, that plow surged forward, hit the snow doing maybe 30 or 40 mph. Snow flew 50 feet in all directions including straight up. But the Brockway came to a shuddering halt in less than 10 feet. Tom tried several more times and then gave up. Tom was a little on the wild side in his early days but he was a good Supt. of Highways and held that position during the years 1934 to 37, 1941 to 44, 1954 to 57 and 1964.

As the blizzard of two years ago proved to many, such a northeaster can be a most vicious storm and not to be taken lightly. That storm in February of 1978 stalled a thousand cars on Route 128 alone and the damage done to the shore communities was astronomical. Such a storm in the winter of 1905-6 stalled a trolley car on the Burlington line half way up Center Street hill from which position it did not move for a week or more. The next summer the tracks were taken up and relaid on Winn Street thus bypassing the hill and the center of town entirely.

The blizzard in November 1898 has gone down in history as one of the worst ever. The steamer Portland of the Boston and Portland Steam Packet Co. left Boston for Portland, Me. as the storm began and was wrecked the next morning, not off the Maine coast, but off Highland Light at Truro on Cape Cod. All 150 persons aboard perished. Here, back in 1814, the 18-year-old son of Jacob Winn on his way home from visiting friends lost his way when he wandered from the road. The record simply says, “Perished in ye night in a snow storm.”

Besides blizzards, floods, draughts and hurricanes have left their mark as well. New England weather? Not entirely predictable even now.