Historical Phenomena from the Papers of George L.Wright
Transcribed by Amy Gilgis
About the time of the coming of the Pilgrims to New England the country was visited by a severe pestilence which raged among the Indians. The period of the greatest sickness and mortality was in 1618 two years before the arrival of the white man, and it continued at intervals for several years afterwards. This disease seemed very much like the plague; it raged in the winter time only; and was confined to the Indians alone. In 1618, occurred a remarkable comet at which time the plague was raging in many parts of the world. So fatal was the disease which prevailed among the Indians of New England that their number was greatly reduced. There had been some question as to what the disease really was. Governor Hutchinson, in his history of Massachusetts, says it was supposed to have been the small pox, but the Indians who were perfectly acquainted with that disease after the English came, gave a different account of it. They described it as a pestilential ***** fever, but from later researches it now seems probable that it was the blue American plague or yellow fever.
In 1622, two years after Plymouth Colony was settled there was a drought when no rain fell from the third week in May until the middle of August. This drought was accompanied with excessively hot weather. After the rain came, showers continued at frequent intervals so that the harvest was bountiful.
On the first of June 1638, there was an earthquake which continued about four minutes and left the earth in an unquiet condition for twenty days afterwards. According to Governor Winthrop’s diary, the spring of that year was very cold and the farmers were compelled to plant their corn two or three times. Nevertheless there was an abundant harvest. The same year was also characterized by tempestuous weather and violent hurricanes along the Atlantic coast; and on the twentieth of September came the severest storm thus far known in America, and snow fell in October.
The spring of 1639 was very dry and vast swarms of small flies came from the southward and covered the sea, but did not invade the land. In the month of March there was a freshet during which the Connecticut River rose twenty feet above the meadows. The summer of 1641 was cold and much of the corn did not come to maturity. The spring of 1642 was very wet and much of the corn did not sprout in the ground. In 1643, great flocks of pigeons made their appearance and did much damage to the fruit trees. A multitude of mice also did much damage to the fruit trees. In 1647 there was an epidemic which if not the same disease at least resembled the la grippe of the present time. In 1658 occurred what was known as the Great Earthquake in New England. In 1664 there was another earthquake which dried up small streams and leveled an immense ridge of mountains in Canada to a plain.
In 1668 a comet appeared attended by a very hot summer and was followed by an epidemic of a malignant disease. During the summer of 1703, there was uncommon mortality in
New York City. It was styled the year of the "Great Sickness". The disease was thought to have been the yellow fever brought from the West Indians. In 1709 a body of troops sent out for the reduction of Canada were attacked in Northern New York by such a distemper that they were forced to turn back and many died. On the twenty-third and twenty-fourth 1717 occurred the greatest snowstorm known in the history of New England. Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather in a letter to a friend in England has preserved a full account of this storm.
In this letter Dr. Mather said there had been a heavy body of snow covering the ground through the winter. A terrific snow storm came on the twentieth of February which was so violent that all communication was stopped and people for some hours could not cross from one side of a street to the other. On the twenty-fourth day of the month came another storm which buried the memory of the former. This storm came on a Sunday and no religious assemblies were held throughout the country. Indians there nearly 100 years old, affirmed that their fathers had never told them of any stories that equaled it. Vast numbers of a cattle, sheep, and swine perished; some of them were found standing at the bottom of snowdrifts weeks after the storm. One farmer who lost above 1100 sheep found two of them still alive twenty-eight days after the storm at the bottom of a snow bank sixteen feet high having sustained themselves by eating the wool of their dead companions. Hogs were found alive after twenty-seven days burial, hens after seven days, and turkeys after twenty-five days, in positions where they were utterly unable to obtain any food. Great damage was done to the orchards; the snow freezing to a crust as high as the branches broke and split them, and the cattle walking upon the crust greatly damaged them by browsing. Houses were completely covered with snow, not even the tops of chimneys being seen. During the preceding year of 1716 we have the first recorded notice of a "Dark Day" which happened on October 21. The people were compelled to cease their work, and were forced to eat their dinners by candlelight. On October 24, 1727 occurred an earthquake known as the severest in New England up to that time. Gov. Hutchinson in his History said the noise and rumble which accompanied it could only be compared to the roar of a chimney when afire or the jar of coaches on a pavement. It seemed to proceed from the west or northwest and to go off to the south or southeast. Along the Merrimac River the shock was greater than in other parts of Massachusetts, and in the southern colony it was hardly perceptible. More gentle shocks were frequently felt in most parts of New England for several months afterwards.
On the 23rd of April 1737 seven inches of snow fell throughout the valley of the Nashua River. In the ancient book of records of the Shrews North Precinct church now Boylston, there appears at the beginning of the volume, in the handwriting of Rev. Ebenezer Morse, the first minister, a memorandum which says, "June 23, 1743 appeared herein most parts of New England vast armies of insects resembling caterpillars which devoured both corn and grass in a wonderful manner. They did not continue long but in the space of about (illegible) days gradually disappeared."
In 1746 there were thirty-seven deaths of children in Harvard, Mass. Barber in his History and Antiquities of New England says, "In 1752, a fever raged in Albany, N.Y. which carried away about forty-five people. It began in August and raged until it checked by the frosts
of autumn; it was called by some physicians a nervous fever, by others the yellow fever. The bodies of some of the patients turned yellow. The crisis of the disease came about the ninth day and if the sick survived that day they had a good chance of recovery. The disease left the patients in a state of imbecility of mind, approaching children of idiocy.
November 18, 1755, seventeen days after the great earthquake and destruction of Lisbon occurred the famous New England earthquake, the tremors of which were so marked as to pro consternation among the inhabitants of this vicinity. Benjamin F. Keyes in his History Memorandum of West Boylston said,"The effects of the earthquake of Nov 18, 1755 produced much alarm; dwelling houses were shaken so severely as to cause kettles and other things to rattle and make an unusual noise. Dishes, plates, too fell from the shelves, and beds upon which people were sleeping rocked like a cradle. In the westerly part of the town a small piece of ground settled down several feet, evidently in consequence of this occurrence, traces of it still being visible." The chasms and upheavals of the rocks at Purgatory in Sutton are attributed by some scientists to the same cause. The following year there was an epidemic of dysentery in this section. In Sterling it was so fatal that one in every twenty of the inhabitants died within eight weeks. Thirty-five children died in Harvard, twenty-six of them during the months of September and October. An epidemic of a similar nature prevailed in 1791-92 and 94.
A remarkable cyclone visited the town of Leicester on the afternoon of July 10, 175?. It struck the house of Samuel Synde and lifted it a considerable distance from its foundations and in the space of two minutes tore it to pieces. A little girl who was close to the door was carried up and into the air for forty rods, and one arm was broken by her fall to the ground. Several people in the house were severely injured. Four women were afterwards found in a the cellar but could not remember how they got there. Articles from the house were found in Holden ten miles away. A watch was picked up a mile distant and a horse was killed. Trees were torn up by the roots and fences were blown down. A Negro servant standing in the doorway of the house was blown ten rods into the air and died from the effects of his injuries. Nearly 7000 feet of boards near the house were shivered to splinters so there was not enough pieces large enough to make a coffin for the Negro.
In 1760 a disease broke out in the small village of Bethelem, Connecticut. It prevailed during the month of November, and thirty-four persons died. It was a kind of fever, and usually terminated on the third or fourth day. During the time of this sickness a flock of quails eleven in number flew over the chimney of a house where several persons lay sick of the disease. They all dropped in the garden*; three of them arose and flew into the bushes; the others were picked up dead.
In 1762, a comet appeared and the summer was the hottest ever known in America. There was scarcely any rain from June until the latter part of September and the following winter was extremely cold. The summer of 1763 was wet and there was great mortality among the Indians. February 7, 1764 a violent subterranean explosion occurred at Derby, Connecticut. A breach twenty feet deep and one hundred and thirteen feet long was made in a hill. The gravel
and sand thrown high in the air, and dropping back to the earth, covered an area of about sixty square rods.
The winter of 1779-80 was long remembered as the "Hard Winter." A snow of some depth fell in November before the ground was frozen and remained through the winter and the cold was intense. Towards the last of December a snow storm occurred of several days duration and left the ground with five or six feet of snow upon a level. The fences, walls and rocks were entirely covered and the roads were wholly impassable. Oxen and horses could not be used for a long time. Wood for the fires was cut from day to day in the lots and drawn to the houses upon hand sleds by men and boys on snow shoes. In the same way grain and meal was transported to and from the mills for family use. The harbors and bays along the Atlantic coast as far south as Virginia were frozen over, and loaded sleds were driven from New York to Staten Island. Boston Harbor was frozen over as far out as the Boston Light and loaded teams driven over the frozen waters. There was no rain after the ground was covered with snow in November until it disappeared late in April; a period of four or five months.
The snow had but just disappeared and the earth taken on the appearance of spring when on the 19th of May, 1780 came the famous "Dark Day". It was remarkable on account of the extraordinary appearance of the atmosphere, and filled the minds of the people with wonder, terror and consternation. The record of it has been carefully preserved. The darkness came on between ten and eleven o’clock in the forenoon and continued until the middle of the next night. It was occasioned by a thick vapor or cloud of dust tinged with yellow or faint red. The wind was in the southwest and the darkness seemed to come from that direction. It became so intense that the people were unable to read commonprint, dine or perform their ordinary labor without lanterns or candles. The birds sang their evening songs; the fowls went to their roosts and the darkness and gloom of high pervaded the whole country. The legislation of Connecticut was in session at the time and some of the members, alarmed, exclaimed, "It is the Lord’s Great Day, let us adjourn!" When Col. Abraham Davenport arose amidst the intolerable hush and said, "It may be the Day of Judgement, and if so let us be found faithful at our posts of duty," and demanded that candles be brought and the work of legislation go on. Whittier has immortalized the scene in his well known poem.
In 1794, there was a severe frost in May and ice formed half an inch thick during the night throughout the valley of the Nashua River. The spring had been unusually early. The farmers had large quantities of winter rye growing which at that time looked remarkably well and betokened an abundant crop. The fields of rye had attained free growth and were in bloom but were so severely frozen that upon the following morning on being thawed by the rays of sun withered and fell to the earth. A second growth came on but did not amount to anything. The corn had been planted early and was up and growing well and although badly nipped** was not materially injured. The fruit on the apple trees in some localities was at the time as large as cranberries and was so frost bitten that it was nearly all destroyed. Nearly all the other kinds of fruit shared the same fate.
March 1, 1802, at the time of the annual town meeting in Boylston there came a severe snow storm, and the records of the town say, "There was much snow and the roads were in bad condition and a few persons were present at the opening of the meeting." The moderator was chosen and the meeting adjourned for an hour, at the end of which time it assembled and elected the town clerk, selectmen, assessors, collector and constable, and then adjourned until the first Monday in April. The annual town meeting was opened and the moderator chosen and then adjourned until noon, when it reassembled and the town clerk and selectmen were chosen and then adjourned to the first Monday in April.
Rev. Dr. Joseph Sumner of Shrewsbury recorded in his diary under date of March 4, 18??, "Sunday, no meeting; not one person came to the meeting-house. Such a Sabbath as I saw in this town before. Those on the great road engaged in breaking it out so **** might go on." Under date of Friday March 2, he says, "Snowed all day, filled up the **** and Saturday March 3rd, "No travelers **** windy." At the end of the month he wrote, "The month of March has been since the **** day, pleasant sun in general, cool and very little fallen in snow or rain since ********* 30 Th. The snow deep near or quite a *** a level the forepart of the month, and very little ground appears at ye end of ye month and some large drifts remain." In January 1805, he records "The snow is four feet deep on a ***** and the weather has been severe through the entire months."
In 1805 occurred a severe drought. On the **June, rain fell in torrents and produced a freshet. No more rain fell until the last day July following, when there was a light rain of not more than a half-hour’s duration. No more rain fell until September. During this time the grasslands turned brown and the pastures yielded but scanty feed for the cattle. In some sections vast multitudes of grasshoppers appeared so numerous as to destroy every kind of vegetation that came in their way, and causing much damage to grain, fruit, and other products.
A total eclipse of the sun occurred June 1*, 1806. It happened in the forenoon the great obscuration being between eleven and twelve o’clock, when everything had the appearance of night. The fowls hastened to their roosts; the chill of evening came on; and the stars were visible.
Great Gale of 1815, compare with Hurricane of Sept 1938.
On the second of September 1815, the "Great Gale" took place, the effects of which were felt throughout a large part of New England. Many buildings were blown down and trees uprooted and destroyed. There are entries on the Boylston records where money was appropriated by the town to repair the damage caused to the meeting house belfry, caused by the "Great Blow," and the sum of six dollars was also granted to repair the house of one of the poorer inhabitants.
Keyes in his history of West Boylston says that town was one of the severest sufferers from this gale in this vicinity. Wood and timber were blown down, buildings destroyed, fruit
trees uprooted and the ground covered with the fruit blown from the trees.
From Worcester Gazette May 22 1939, "Hartford Conn, May 22 (A.P.). If weather history repeats itself New England faces an unpleasant summer. Persons concerned with the cold and dry spring experienced hereabouts have turned to "Sidney Perley’s Historic Storms of New England." To learn what the weather was like following the hurricane of Sept 15, 1815, comparable in violence to the storm that swept New England in Sept 1938, Perley recorded the spring of 1816 was cold and very wet during April followed by a prolonged dry spell in May, parallel to the conditions that have prevailed here this year. Furthermore "there was frost and snow in all the summer months (of 1816) and in the N.E. section of New England a severe drought prevailed that added to the disastrous effects of the season. Prof. S.E. Wilkinson of the ***** State College said recently that the cold and dry weather this spring has so affected the crops that the vegetable growers would face a serious loss if the drought was not broken soon.
In the town of Harvard it was estimated that the orchard and forest trees laid prostrate would furnish fire wood sufficiently for its inhabitants for eight or ten years. The following year 1816 was characterized as the year without any summer and frosts occurred during every month of the year.
In a terrible gale which raged along the Atlantic coast on the 19th of September 1846, sixty-five men and boys from Marblehead, Mass, seamen in the fisher’s trade were lost on the Grand Banks of New Foundland. Forty-three of them were the heads of families and left one hundred fatherless children.
In 1859 a memorandum was made upon the Boylston town records by ***, Henry H. Brigham then town clerk, to the effect that at the time appointed for the annual town meeting in March of that year occurred the most severe snowstorm that had ever been known for years; the snow fell to the depth of four feet r more on a level and the roads were much drifted and some of them impassable for several days.
In 1874 or 1875, a cyclone or whirlwind visited this section starting in the southwest part of the county and swept through this region with great force, cutting a path only a few feet in width, tearing up, hoisting and breaking the trees in its course, but fortunately not doing any great damage to buildings. It seemed to have done the most damage in West Boylston and spent its force there, but traces of its effect were visible for eight or ten miles further to the northwest.
In March 1888, occurred another great snow storm which continued with unabated fury for several days, filling the roads and almost entirely covering the walls and fences. The snow was piled in drifts of ten or fifteen feet in height, but the sun came out warm after the storm and the snow soon settled away.
During the winter of 1912-13, the weather was very mild with hardly any snow, and the farmers in this section were able to plough their lands every month during the winter and the
ensuing spring was very early.
April 3, 1915 there was a very heavy snowstorm.
The first week in August 1917 was very hot and the thermometer stood at 100 degrees in the shade most of the time. In October 1918 an epidemic raged throughout the county which was called the Spanish influenza or La Grippe. Church services, public schools, and assemblies were stopped by official proclamation throughout Massachusetts. The disease was universal, hospitals were crowded and many people died. The public library in Boylston was not opened for circulation of books for five consecutive library days.
In 1920 a heavy snowstorm came which closed public travel upon the highways, and the steam and electric railroads. The last car on the electric railway from Clinton to Worcester ran through Boylston on the morning of Thursday February Th. Service was not returned until Thursday March 18th, a period of just seven weeks, and then only from Worcester to Boylston. The line was not opened between Boylston and Clinton and no cars ran over that section of the road until Friday March 26th. There was not any mail received or carried from the Boylston post office for a period of six days following February Th, and then until the resumption of the electric railway service there was only one mail a day carried by private conveyance from Boylston to Worcester. Church services, public schools and gatherings were closed. This was the greatest snowstorm and the longest period when the town was shut off from public communication ever known in history.
A heavy snowstorm happened on March 11 and 12, 1924, and the snow fell to a foot in depth on the following May 10. The weather was stormy and cold, and the mercury stood at only forty-three degrees above zero throughout the day.
There were heavy snowstorms on the 10th of October 1925, February 10, 1927, March 20, 192?* and April 7 of the same year, the last one turning to rain. January 27, 1927 there was much ice making travel dangerous for several days. May 28 of that year, the weather was as cold as the latter part of October usually is, and the following February 5, 1928 it was fifty degrees above zero. There was snow on the following 25th and 26th of April and a heavy frost on the 10th of May. Nov. 20, 1928 the mercury stood at twenty-two degrees above zero all day, and the 23rd of that month was recorded as the coldest November day known for fifty years. The following December 11th it was only eight degrees above zero throughout this section. July 31, 1930 occurred what was recorded as the severest electrical storm in central Massachusetts for many years. August 14, there was a severe thunderstorm and cloud burst; the rain flooded the Worcester streets to the depths of a foot or eighteen inches doing much damage.
The fall of the year was characterized by a long continued drought; but on the 25th of November there was a remarkable variety of weather changes, with rain, thunder, lightning, hail and snow followed by a brilliant display of the Aurora borealis or Northern lights during the evening and night.
The New England weather for the last two or three years previous to 1930, has been characterized by much continued cloudiness and very little sunshine, high winds and scanty rain or snowfalls.
The people in general are apt to criticize the weather conditions and to exclaim on any important or unusual changes, "Did you ever see such weather?" Yet a review of New England weather conditions for three hundred years, based on histories, diaries and reliable newspaper accounts, show that the present weather conditions are not any worse, but probably less severe than early conditions, or at least with the modern facilities and conveniences for heating and encountering their severities the New England winters are more endurable and less dreary than they were to the early settlers. We do not hear present day writers as they sit in their comfortable and well heated studies and homes complain as did Dr. Cotton Mather that "the weather is very cold and the ink congeals in the bottle," as he worked upon his famous Magnolia* by the roaring fireplace of his Boston study. New England has ever been noted for its climatic changes and great extremes of weather.
Rainfall for the year 1930 was according to the records kept in the water department of Worcester, the lightest in 36 years, and the third lightest in 56 years. The amount of rainfall recorded in 1930 compared with an average fall for over 56 years of 43.25 inches per year, was 32.47 inches. In 1929 the figures were 41 inches, but the greater part of this fell in the early spring, the summer and fall marking the beginning of the long drought period. In 1894 there was only 31.38 inches. In 1883 the figure was 30.58 inches.