Winters to Remember

The North Shore certainly has seen its share of “winters to remember.” Many locals can recall the infamous Blizzard of ’78, and the series of storms that crippled the area in 1969. But there have been worse, and many of these were chronicled by historian Sidney Perley in his “Historic Storms of New England” (1891).

One of the most devastating snowstorms in local history occurred in a few-month period beginning in December of 1716 and ending in late February the following year. A series of December snowstorms left five feet of snow on the ground, and by mid-February a base of three feet still blanketed the area. But the worst was yet to come.

On Feb. 18, a heavy snowstorm enveloped New England and lasted for four days. It abated briefly on the 22nd and 23rd, but resumed on the 24th with a vengeance. By the end of the storm, the North Shore lay under 10 to 15 feet of snow

Many single-story homes were covered. Residents dug tunnels beneath the snow between their homes and their barns or neighbors’ houses. Those wishing to walk on top of the snow needed snowshoes to do so.

The impact of the storm on livestock and wild animals in the area was devastating. Flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and horses were buried under the deep snow and suffocated. Miraculously, nearly a month after the storm ended, two sheep were found alive under 16 feet of snow. They had survived by eating the wool of their dead companions.

Starving bears, foxes and wolves hunted down equally hungry deer and ate them. Perley notes that 19 out of every 20 deer in the region were killed in this period.

Snowstorms of this magnitude, of course, also take a toll on human life. In his book Sidney Perley recounts the plight of two Marblehead men, Thomas Hooper and Valentine Tidder Jr., during a blizzard that hit New England in early December 1876. The men left Salem on foot for home after dark on a Saturday night despite the fact that it had been snowing heavily for nearly 24 hours. The two became disoriented and eventually got separated from each other. Their bodies were found in open fields far from the Salem-Marblehead road.

Two other area men fared better during that same storm. Samuel Pulsifer and Samuel Elwell were trapped near Hog Island in Ipswich and took refuge in the middle of a haystack. The hay kept them warm and dry for a time but eventually the haystack was carried away by rising waters. The terrified pair floated for hours atop the pile and for a time were headed out to sea. Eventually, though, they were able to summon enough strength and courage to jump onto a passing cake of ice which eventually took them to an island very close to shore. There they were rescued by Maj. Charles Smith of Ipswich.

Snowstorms were equally treacherous to mariners. In a terrible blizzard in February 1802, three Salem ships — the Brutus, the Ulysses, and the Volusia — went aground in the shallow waters off Cape Cod. The crew members of the latter two vessels were fortunate enough to be rescued by local inhabitants. The seamen on the Brutus were not so lucky as nine of the 14 crew members perished.

One of the survivors was Benjamin Ober of Manchester. Ober came to buried up to his neck in sand and snow. He was too weak to dig his way out and his voice way was too hoarse to yell to potential rescuers. Finally, after 36 agonizing hours, he was rescued. Sadly, he expired shortly thereafter.

Jim McAllister
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