The Snows of History

Pedestrians and autos, big snow storm in BostonPedestrians and autos, big snow storm in Boston. Leslie Jones, 1936 (Photo: Boston Public Library)

The greater Boston area has just experienced the snowiest February in its recorded history, and we are only a few inches shy of setting a record for the snowiest winter of all time. By now, even many beleaguered residents are hoping that the existing record (107 inches for an entire season) will indeed be broken before the spring comes. Why not? Though this winter has been particularly harsh, the inhabitants of New England have been coping with the snow since the earliest settlements.

We know little (though we can imagine much) of how Native Americans dealt with the snow, but from the first arrival of European colonists at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the cold and wet winters attracted their attention. William Bradford, leader of the Plymouth colony that landed on these shores in November of 1620, just as the harsh weather was setting in, noted in his journal how “sad and lamentable” the first few months in their new home had been. Some of the settlers built rudimentary shelters on shore while others stayed aboard the Mayflower, moored in the harbor, but the toll was fierce. Of the 102 passengers who had made that first Atlantic crossing, fully fifty were dead by the following summer. “Some times,” Bradford wrote, the dying numbered “two or three of a day.” He happily noted that half a dozen of their fellow passengers, “to their great commendations,…spared no pains” in attending to the sick and dying, but the impact of the winter was sobering nonetheless.

In the following decade, fifty miles to the north, the first colonists in Boston experienced similar difficulties. John Winthrop, the leader of that colony, noted in his journal that the winter of 1638 was one that seemed endless. There was still a foot and a half of snow on the ground at the end of March, and another storm in April buried the crops that had been hopefully (but, as it turned out, unwisely) planted. And it got worse: an earthquake hit the region at the beginning of June, when “the earth was unquiet twenty days,” Winthrop said. Divine judgment may have been involved in all this. The colony had banished the religious dissenter Anne Hutchinson that March, and she had predicted God’s retribution on Winthrop and his colleagues as she departed. Was the hard winter some Job-like punishment?

As the centuries advanced, Bostonians learned to cope with the winter snows and even to find a way to enjoy them. Streets in the Back Bay neighborhood – some of the only streets in the city that were actually straight – were the scene of ad hoc snow races in the 1880s and 1890s, before the coming of the automobile. Horse-drawn sleighs carried the contestants over the thoroughfares, the snow having first been smoothed by large rollers that evened out the surface. Snow proved more of a challenge once the automobile became common, never more so than during the great blizzard of February 1978, a three-day, largely unpredicted storm that closed the eastern half of the state for almost two weeks. Dozens of automobiles were stranded on the highways, and rescues were needed nearly everywhere. That blizzard even had political implications, helping to boost the career of Governor Michael Dukakis, who appeared reassuringly on television (in a succession of sweaters) to describe efforts to deal with the storm. (This wasn’t a complete success: Dukakis lost his bid for reelection that fall.)

We can complain about the snow all we want, but it is an integral part of our history, our character, and, inevitably, our future. Even in the worst of meteorological times, we have to remember that it does have to melt eventually – it really does.

Snowstorm keeps people from getting to work - tie up at Uphams Corner, Dorchester

Snowstorm keeps people from getting to work – tie up at Uphams Corner, Dorchester

Horse plowing snow, Boston Common

Horse plowing snow, Boston Common

Digging out auto

Digging out auto

Girls try snow shoes on Boston Common

Girls try snow shoes on Boston Common

More historical Boston snow photos via BPL Flickr.

About the Author

James M. O'Toole

James M. O'Toole is the Clough Professor of History at Boston College. He is the author of Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002).

Author Archive Page

1 Comment

Leave a Reply