Massachusetts

Henry David Thoreau and the Coldest Winter Ever in New England

To Henry David Thoreau, the Cold Friday of 1810 was a well-known phenomenon that came to mind in January 1857. That New England winter was the severest of the 19th century, with heavy snow, brutal cold and violent winds from mid-December until late April.snow henry david thoreau

Thoreau was 39 years old, and his mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, was old enough to remember that Cold Friday of Jan. 19, 1810. The weather had been warm on the preceding day, but then a snow squall came up and the temperature fell as much as 55 degrees in 24 hours. The piercing wind made the cold unbearable.

About a month into the severe winter, on Jan. 11, 1857, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:

Began snowing yesterday afternoon–& it is still snowing this forenoon–

Mother remembers the Cold Friday–very well–She lived in the house where I was born–The people in the kitchen Jack Garrison–Ester–& a Hardy girl drew up close to the fire–but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires.

Henry David Thoreau had as good an eye for the telling weather detail as his mother. During the coldest 10 days in January, he recorded in his journal what it was like.

32 Snowstorms

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

The weather in New England wasn’t too bad until mid-December, though plenty of snow had fallen. Then on December 17 the temperature plummeted to 12 below zero in Massachusetts, 16 below in Maine. For the rest of the winter, New England was buffeted by violent wind and 32 snowstorms. Railroad tracks were blocked, ships were wrecked and poor people suffered because food and fuel were so expensive.

January 17 and 18 were the two coldest days recorded in New England, and the period from the 17th to the 26th was the coldest week ever. On the night of Jan. 17, it was 20° below zero in Salem, Mass., with a cutting northeast wind. The cold didn’t let up much, and the next day, a Sunday, snow began to fall.

On Jan. 18, Thoreau wrote in his journal:

A very cold day– Thermometer at 7 1/2 Am 14° (Smith’s hanging on same nail 20°) at 1 1/4 Pm 3° 2 1/4 Pm 4° 3 3/4 Pm 0°. It is cloudy & no sun all day–& considerable wind also. There was no sabbath school on account of the cold–could not warm the room… 3 little pigs were frozen to death in an Irishmans pen last night at the Green Store–

Began to snow in the evening–the thermometer at 0°.

On Jan. 19, the snow was intolerable:

A snow storm with very high wind all last night & today– Though not much snow (perhaps 7 or 8 inches) falls it is exceedingly drifted–so that the first train gets down about noon & none gets up till about 6 Pm! There is no vehicle passing the house before 2 Pm– A fine dry snow–intolerable to face

The next day, Jan. 20, he wrote the roads were blocked and Boston Harbor frozen:

There probably is not more than 12 to 18 inches of snow on a level–yet the drifts are very large– Neither milkman nor butcher got here yesterday–& to-day the milkman came with oxen partly through the fields. Though the snow is nowhere deep in the middle of the main street–the drifts are very large especially on the N side–so that as you look down the street it appears as uneven as a rolling prairie…I hear that Boston harbor froze over on the 18th down to Fort Independence–

The river has been frozen everywhere except at the very few swiftest places since about Dec 18–& everywhere since about 29 Jan 1st….

On Jan. 21st:

Pm up river to W. Wheeler’s bridge & back by road–

The roads are perhaps more blocked up than last winter–yet with hardly more than 1/2 as much snow–

The river is now so concealed that a common eye would not suspect its existence– It is drifted on it exactly as on the meadow–i.e. successive low drifts with a bluff head toward the wind.

It is remarkable how many tracks of foxes you will see quite near the village–where they have been in the night– & yet a regular walker will not glimpse one oftener than once in 8 or 10 years. The overflow, under the snow, is generally at the bends, where the river is narrower–& swifter—

It snowed the next day, Jan. 22

Snows all day–clearing up at night—a remarkably fine & dry snow, which looking out you might suspect to be blowing snow merely–yet thus it snows all day—driving almost horizontally—but it does not amount to much…

I asked M. about the cold Friday– he said “It was plaguey cold–it stung like a wasp”– He remembers seeing them toss up water in a shoemaker’s 3 shop–usually a very warm place–& when it struck the floor, it was frozen & rattled like so many shot…

Jan. 23 was the coldest day Thoreau could remember as he checked the temperature on his neighbors’ thermometers:

Ink froze–had to break the ice in my pail with a hammer

The coldest day that I remember recording–clear & bright–but very high wind–blowing the snow– Thermometer at 6 3/4 Am 18°…Walking this Pm I notice that the face inclines to stiffen–& the hands & feet get cold soon– On first coming out in very cold weather I find that I breathe fast, though without walking faster or exerting myself any more than usual.

Jan. 25

Still another very cold morning– Smith’s thermometer over ours at 29°- ours in bulb–but about 7 ours was at 18°- & Smith’s at 24- ours therefore at first about 23°–

Jan. 26

Another cold morning– None looked early–but about 8 it was 14°

Saw Boston Harbor frozen over (for some time). Reminded me of, I think, Parry’s Winter Harbor–with vessels frozen in. Saw thousands on the ice–a stream of men reaching down to Fort Independence where they were cutting a channel toward the city– Ice said to reach 14 miles. Snow untracked on many decks. Snow At 10 Pm 14 plus. Ice did not finally go out till about Feb 15th

Finally, on Jan. 27, it started to warm up. On Jan. 27, Thoreau wrote:

Thawing a little at last Thermometer 35 degrees plus.

With thanks to Historic Storms of New England: Its Gales, Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Showers with Thunder and Lightning… by Sidney Perley.

31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Mike Paul MacKillop

    January 11, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    What we are living with this first 3 weeks of winter is nothing compared to what Thoreau shared with us in his journal I just posted.

  2. Beatrice Paul

    January 12, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Sharing

  3. Tricia Allicon Gordon

    January 12, 2015 at 10:06 am

    Amazing account! Plaguey cold!

  4. Sandy Milo

    January 12, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I remember those days

  5. Jacqueline Award

    January 12, 2015 at 10:41 am

    And we can complain?

  6. Bonnie Burton Plummer

    January 12, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Sharing

  7. Pam Templeton

    January 12, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Thank you for this article. Could someone tell me or that is a Currier and Ives painting? There is a similar framed print in my home. I think it may be a knock off of the original… There are some differences, it is signed by A. Luna 1943 Google search inconclusive… It belonged to my parents. Thanks for any help!

  8. Debbie Ewing Lyons

    January 13, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for posting this story. To think of the things that people did to get through their hardships back then amazes me.

  9. Joan Sinatra

    January 15, 2015 at 12:09 am

    Yep… I was Born in April 1957 during a snowstorm.

  10. Pj Gimino

    January 15, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Sandy, you remember the days of 1857?

  11. Molly

    January 19, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    I’ll stop complaining until summer!

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