Hal Roth: January 2006

Old News from Delmarva
The Blizzard of 1899
Hal Roth

     Is there any truth to the adage “They don’t make winters like they used to?”

     Saturday, February 18, 1899––Denton Journal––THE BLIZZARD OF 1899.
      The recent storm has not had an equal in extent, violence and duration in the eastern section of the country for a century, it is believed, if ever. Fiercer winds there may have been for a day, or heavier fall of snow in a given few hours, but for keeping everlasting at it until the white mantle covered the earth, and for getting down to the bottom of the thermometer and staying there, the week which ended Tuesday night has scarcely a mentionable competitor. The snowfall of [18]’56 was more local and not so heavy, and the blizzards of [18]’85, ’88 and ’93, of such renown heretofore, sink out of sight and comparison. The story of this storm need not be told now to people east of the Mississippi river––it is an occult demonstration. Sadder than anything yet heard, it is feared, will be the story from the sea––suffering and loss of craft and loss of life, the like of which history does not tell. The local conditions have been more in the nature of privation than actual hardship. The missing of a few mails, the cessation of travel, the absence of the milkman are annoyances great enough at ordinary times, but not worth mentioning when the greater task of keeping warm and keeping the gaunt wolf away fill the time completely. They will be fit garnishment for the tale of the blizzard of eighteen hundred and ninety-nine when it has become a memory recounted to our children’s children.

     The four-page, weekly editions of the Denton Journal for February 18 and 25 contain numerous accounts and notes related to the great storm.

     Not in the memory of our oldest citizens has there ever been a snowfall equal to that which now covers the ground. Our venerable inhabitants have an indistinct recollection of one other—that of 1831—which nearly approached it. Then there were great banks, even covering some of the fences entirely, freezing with a heavy crust upon it so that horses were driven over it, and there was little difficulty in traveling. In 1856, also, there was a big snow, but it is not thought that the average depth at either of these was as great as it was last Tuesday morning. Measurements made that day and reported to this office showed about three feet on a level. The embargo probably was more complete in the early days, for the enterprise and the times did not demand so earnestly the general resumption of travel, and so, very likely, many days may have elapsed before our forefathers succeeded in getting their mails, which then came at long intervals. When the blockade of this week came upon us, steps were immediately taken to raise it. In our towns—some of them had no existence in the thirties—shovel brigades cleared the sidewalks quickly on Tuesday, and on Wednesday nearly all the streets were passable for pedestrians and teams. Farmers were on horseback, breaking paths from place to place. They rode to town and made most-needed purchases, and few households were inconvenienced to any great extent. Little work could be done on the farm, however, and the days spent were enjoyed as a holiday. Much the same condition prevailed in the towns. The mercantile business was almost at a standstill, except that there was a trade in groceries. This was stimulated by a fear that many days might elapse before the opening of railroad traffic, and many people bought on that account. They thought a famine possible.
      General Manager Troxel, of the Queen Anne’s Railroad, had many gangs of men at work clearing his tracks on Tuesday, and on Wednesday and Thursday the numbers employed were greatly augmented. This line, running east and west across the path of the blizzard, caught the worst of it, and all the cuts nearly were filled to the top. In many places hundreds of tons of snow had to be excavated with shovels. Every man able to work found ready employment, and there are scores of them still at it, digging out sidings, etc. Thursday afternoon late, an engine and car reached Greenwood from Queenstown. It returned during the night, bringing that portion of the local mails which had accumulated at that point. Yesterday, the entire line was cleared and regular service was established.
      There were scenes of great activity all along the Delaware railroad and its branches. Thousands of men were employed. This route, during a heavy freeze, must be largely depended upon by the whole peninsula, and the company rushed the work with all possible speed. Many engines, with snowplows, assisted in pushing aside the huge drifts. On Wednesday night a southbound mail train made the trip down the Delaware, and the people eagerly sought the post offices to read accounts of the storm, uppermost in all minds. We can more thoroughly appreciate the advantages of good mail service after a time like this. The blockade on the branches of the Delaware road, radiating southwesterly, were not so quickly relieved from the grip of the big banks, and it was some time after the opening of the Delaware road that they were clear. On Thursday morning a snow-train going north reached Cordova, on the Delaware & Chesapeake, after a lively tussle with the drifts. Near this place was one of the worst banks on the road, and 150 men spent several hours there. Shortly after noon on Thursday, three engines to a snow-train passed down the road and met the northbound engine. Regular service was resumed yesterday morning, the northbound train reaching Clayton on time. The mail train came south, bearing the long-delayed pouches. The Cambridge & Seaford road was cleared about the same time, schedule time being made yesterday.

     HELPING THE NEEDY: Nearly a score of charitably disposed citizens of Denton met at the office of the clerk of the court on Monday afternoon last and organized an association for the relief of the poor and destitute who were not prepared for the visitation of the great snow. Mr. Fred R. Owens presided, and Mr. Henry R. Lewis was secretary. Rev. Z. H. Webster stated the object of the meeting, and all present generously responded. A good sum of money was raised in a few minutes. A committee of seven, of which Rev. Mr. Webster was selected chairman and Mr. Z. P. Steele treasurer, was chosen to visit all the homes thought to be needy and render temporary assistance. Other members of the committee were Rev. George S. Fitzhugh, Rev. C. E. Dryden, Messrs. M. B. Stephens, Jonathan Evitts and L. B. Towers. The committee found a few cases of destitution, and these were promptly attended to, the visitors receiving the warmest thanks of the unfortunate ones, some of whom expect to return the amount advanced by the committee. There was some difficulty in supplying wood until a way was opened to Uhler & Hughes’ works, where there was a good pile.
      If there is a compensation in misfortune it is the quick sympathy that reaches out to human, or even to animal suffering. It rises to a higher mark, when the occasion demands, than to look with pity when the work of willing hands is needed. It does not glorify itself by word of mouth, but rather by the quiet deed. This week has given full scope, the country over, for the most active sympathy. It is comforting to note that the local demand for food and fuel, by those unable to get them, has been promptly met, and no actual suffering is expected.

     ECHOES OF THE STORM: On all the Atlantic coast the snowstorm was of remarkable intensity. The city papers publish dispatches from various points, showing that the blockade was general. Even the great cities felt their isolation, and many hours elapsed before they were in communication with other places. As far south as New Orleans the mercury went down very nearly to zero. Taking the whole country at large, great damage must result to fruit trees, particularly in sections where they usually bloom early.
      Telegraphic and telephonic communication was not blocked by the blizzard, and we had electric greetings from the outside world during the snow embargo.
“Where are the people who wanted an old-fashioned winter?” asked one man of another, and the answer was: “They are staying in.”

     A BAD TIME ON BIRDS: Local sportsmen are unanimous in the belief that nearly all the partridges, rabbits and other game will be destroyed by the unprecedented snow. It is said that in former years, when the snow was not nearly so deep, there were few birds left, and many years elapsed before the fields and woods were again stocked. In fact, it was feared by many that the partridge, the most highly prized of all game birds, was thought to be almost extinct in this section of the country. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to fear that a much worse result has followed the blizzard of this week. In a time like this the birds hide themselves in the sedge-grass or under the low growth in the woods, and there remain and are smothered and frozen. There were few places to shield them in the recent pitiless storm. All the likely places, which had heretofore furnished sufficient protection, were wrapped tightly and deeply by the searching drifts, and even the fens and marshlands were buried. The true sportsmen will not, however, readily give up their time-honored pastime, and no doubt will in the spring and summer make efforts to secure from a more favored clime some stock birds. In Virginia and the Carolinas it will be possible to purchase a few live “Bob Whites.”

     The following timely information was reprinted from the “American Cultivator.”

     One of the most important winter works on the farm is to open the paths after each snowfall. Where the path lies across places that usually drift full of snow, much of the work of keeping the path open may be avoided by removing the obstruction to the wind, which causes the drift. Most generally a drifting snow remains several days, so that the path will drift full every night, even though no fresh snow has fallen. In opening roads, a team of steady, stout oxen hitched to a sleigh or sometimes to a stone sled will make a broad path better than horses could do it. We have often seen, when boys, most of the cattle in the neighborhood brought out to follow after an ox team and sled. By the time those had been driven twice over the road it was considered safe for sleigh vehicles drawn by horses. A flock of sheep driven after all else will compact the snow best of all. But if snow drifts into the tracks thus made, it will often be piled nearly as high as the loose snow on either side. It may be all right, so long as the cold weather lasts, but let a thaw come and this solid snow must be abandoned and a new track made in the loose snow on one side of what has been used during the winter.

     Community columns contributed much of the general news of the storm and now and then a little humor.

     Denton: Very little business was transacted in public offices in Denton last Tuesday, and all the officials and clerks enjoyed a holiday. Bank directors living elsewhere were, of course, unable to come to town, and no one from the country arrived. Very little was to be done at any of the stores, except the handling of a few groceries. It was said there was a scarcity of flour, coal oil, and a few other commodities, and for these there was a good demand for a little while, but Denton was perhaps never since its earliest days more quiet than during the past week.
      Coal piles are getting low.
      Now we know something about Klondike weather!
      And drummers have been in town taking orders for straw hats!
      More colds are taken from houses being kept too warm than the reverse.
      If there is a covey of birds on or near your farm you should not fail to feed them.
      Even the amiable efforts of good old St. Valentine were blocked by the snowdrifts.
      One of the blessings of the snow was the havoc it wrought among the English sparrows.
      If hard freezing is followed by a good fishing season, as the saying goes, the Choptank fishermen should be happy.
      Farmers have been complaining that there has not been enough snow for wheat during the winter. The snows the past two weeks, however, ought to fill the bill.
      A number of ladies of Denton, notably Mrs. N. A. Hutson, whose collection was probably the finest in the county, lost many beautiful pot flowers and houseplants.
      The first regular mail from the cities and northern points was received at Denton, via Ridgely, yesterday afternoon. There were many bushels of it, and the post office boxes would not hold it all.
      A party of Dentonians organized a small cavalcade of “rough riders,” and by a tussle of over three hours with the drifts, sometimes in the road and sometimes in the field, made a trail to Ridgely last Thursday. Colonel L. B. Wood Towers and Lieutenant-Colonel George T. Roosevelt Redden had charge of the men, and everybody knew when they started to Ridgely they would not stop short of their destination.

     Ridgely: Our town commissioners opened the streets on Wednesday by making a big V-shaped sled of bridge plank and attaching ten mules to it and driving through the thoroughfares.
      Farmers living near Ridgely have been out in force, clearing the roads so that they might come to town.
      Agent Smith had nearly one hundred men employed in the drifts on the railroad.
      One or two families in town have been suffering and should be looked after.
      Our merchants are well supplied with provisions for the needy.
      The scarcest articles in Ridgely are wood and coal.

     Greensboro: This place used to be known as Greensboro. Its appearance at once should suggest Whitesboro as a more appropriate name. The terrific snowstorm of this week brought the heaviest fall of snow within the recollection of the oldest inhabitant—and that’s no joke this time.
      The Mason and Downes Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company, a troupe of twenty-one performers, white and colored, arrived in town and gave an exhibition on Saturday, and are here yet. Their receipts were small (owing probably to the weather) and they are under a heavy expense for board and cancelled dates elsewhere. They seem disposed to criticize our town commissioners about the condition of our streets, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company for not running trains, and the Weather Bureau for the blizzard. But the atmospheric conditions indicate that they will have a splendid opportunity to cool off. [When the troop finally departed the following week, they left one black woman behind.]
      The large amount of snow caused the roof of T. H. Longfellow’s fertilizer factory to fall in, entailing a loss of several hundred dollars. The roof of Captain Brockway’s warehouse also fell in.
      Our energetic citizens have made the sidewalks passable for pedestrians, and men with teams made the principal streets open.

     Federalsburg: Snow was six or eight feet deep in some cuts on the railroad here, and about thirty men were employed in shoveling it away. To clear the streets, a dozen horses were hooked to a great snowplow and driveways soon made. The team was also sent to the country, and a way opened so that our friends could come to town.
      There is a scarcity of provisions of several kinds, and wood and coal are nearly all gone.

     On March 3 the Journal briefly reported a new problem, while two short clips gave indication that the Blizzard of 1899 would soon be history.

     The rain and melting snow Sunday and Monday caused several bridges to give way, and a number of the roads were made almost impassible. The milldam at Chilton’s, an old pass-way on the Burrsville-Greensboro road, was washed out. There were a number of heavy cuts at various points, and some considerable expense will be incurred in making the repairs.
      Bicyclists are getting their wheels in order.
      The mild weather has set farmers to thinking of spring work.

     You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com