Blizzards: By Any Tally, 1888 Is First

Carting snow to the dump in the Park River after the Blizzard of 1888. (Courant File Photo)

Snow in Connecticut is as common as the head cold.

Amid our sizable inventory of snowstorms, however, there are a shovelful that stand out for reasons as diverse as their intensity, size, duration, timing, early or late arrival, even their political implications.

Any discussion of snowstorms and Connecticut, of course, begins with the the Great White Hurricane, or as it is better known, the Blizzard of 1888.

That monster arrived on the night of March 11, and did not depart until March 14, thanks to two blocking low pressure systems that caused the moisture-laden fury to stall near New York City.

The heavy snow, arctic temperatures, and winds that gusted to 70 mph inland and 90 mph over the ocean caused an estimated 400 deaths, although precise records are lacking.

Along the East Coast, from the Chesapeake Bay to Nantucket, more than 200 ships were sunk, and 100 seamen were said to have lost their lives. Inland, many victims' bodies were not found until the snow had melted.

Connecticut was buried beneath feet of snow. New Haven recorded 44.7 inches, Wallingford and Waterbury had 42 inches, Hartford 36 inches. Middletown took top honors, where the accumulation measured 50 inches, a record that still stands.

The strong, sustained winds blew the snow into mountainous drifts, and it was not uncommon for people to have to leave their homes through second-story windows. In Cheshire, a drift measuring 38 feet high was created, and near Bridgeport a 10-foot-tall drift extended for more than a mile.

How did the state recover? How did people clear the roads and tracks? How did people cope, survive? We'll get to that.

New World, Deep Snow

The early European settlers were familiar with snow.

But as any New Englander will attest, there is snow, and then there is our snow. And there is no way the first arrivals were prepared for what they would encounter here.

To make matters worse, they were arriving during the middle of what has been dubbed the Little Ice Age, a period that ran roughly from 1550 to 1750, and was marked by a temporary cooling of the Earth's temperatures.

Although no official records were kept at this time, diary and journal accounts offer insights as to what the weather was like.

In his often-referenced book, "Early American Winters 1604 — 1820," author David Ludlum cites the winters of 1641-42, 1680-81 and 1697-98 as being landmarks. Snowstorms often made travel impossible and temperatures were so cold they caused inland water courses and ocean bays to freeze solid.

The winter of The Great Snow in 1717 had been so mild that in February people were planting beans and "comforting themselves with having gotten through the winter." Then, between Feb. 18 and 24, perhaps the greatest series of snowstorms in New England history struck, depositing 5 to 10 feet of snow.

The winter of 1740-41 began early with biting cold and snow in mid November. This was followed by a 13-day rainy spell that caused major flooding. A long cold wave followed, causing rivers to freeze so solidly they supported teams of oxen pulling sleds.

The hard winter of 1780 began with snow on Nov. 2 and 17 followed by cold. Then, near the turn of the year, three massive nor'easters raged within a 10-day period, producing snow depths of 42-48 inches, in the woods, while gale force winds along the coast produced high tides and flooding. A period of extreme cold set in next with temperatures as cold as minus 20.

Another legendary cold snap in the winter of 1786 caused the Connecticut River in Middletown to freeze over so quickly that horses and sleighs were seen on it just 24 hours after boats had passed through.

January 1821 saw New Haven Harbor covered with ice that was said to have extended 6 miles into Long Island Sound.