You won’t believe how late it snowed in D.C. in colonial times

April 3, 2014

Snow on March 30, 2014 (Kevin Wolf via Flickr)

If you were wondering whether our Sunday (March 30) flirtation with the snow season was really it, history may provide some answers, although as Ian Livingston, in his 2010 post, and I, in my 2012 post, pointed out: late-season snows aren’t what they used to be.

Snows were much more common  in April and even into May during colonial days according to the late David Ludlum, one of America’s premier weather historians and author of Early American Winters, 1604-1820 and Early American Winters,1821-1870.

Although Ludlum’s archives of late-season (and early-season) snows were primarily for the Northeast, the Midwest, and the deep South, much can still be gleaned from what Ludlum uncovered in the Mid-Atlantic. For example, he reports on May 4, 1774, at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s* diary states:

very cold and spits of snow all day with the wind blowing hard at NoWest.

Other reports (according to Ludlum) described the May 4 snow event as even more prosperous:

A general snowfall of around 4” occurred from northern Virginia to southern New England. Both Philadelphia and New York City reported “a considerable quantity of snow.”

And on May 13, 1803, the local Washington D.C. press reported:

We have experienced for several days an unprecedented coldness of weather; having had the uncommon spectacle of snow in May and ice of considerable thickness having formed for several consecutive nights.

Over the next several decades, a number of anecdotal reports suggest that April snow was not all that uncommon in the District.

Then, in April, 1841, during a very backward spring, at least three major snow events struck from Philadelphia northeastward: in the City of Brotherly Love, the first of these, on the 10th, deposited 6 inches; the second, on the 12th, 10-12 inches; and the third, on the 13-14th (probably the same storm), a few inches more. The latter storm(s) buried New York City with 12-18 inches of snow and ice. Although not verified, one would think that at least a small amount of snow from these events might have brushed through part of northern Maryland, if not the Distract.

During the period just prior to the Civil War, one of the more phenomenal April snowstorms to strike the mid-Atlantic occurred in 1854. It was known as The Great Pacques Storm (origin of the name unknown, but possibly derived from a shipwreck, of which there were many). The Philadelphia press reported that the Easter weekend snowstorm, which lasted from April 14-18, stretched from “Washington to Canada.” David Ludlum called it “one of the great coastal storms of all-time,” one with very high winds lasting through many high tides, resulting in great coastal erosion. Base on news reports at the time, it would seem that the storm, although longer lasting, met many of the criteria of the great Ash Wednesday Storm of March 6-8, 1962, which caused such great devastation from Cape Hatteras all the way to New England.

It’s unclear how much snow fell in Washington from the Pacques storm, but it is known that the worst effects were felt in New Jersey away from the coastline, where more than 2 feet of snow fell. This swath of heavy snow continued northeastward through interior New England.

By the time the Civil War began, the NOAA Public Affairs Office says that there were over 500 weather observers reporting daily observations, first to the Smithsonian Institution, and later to the Washington Evening Star. As the forerunner of today’s National Weather Service would not be created until 1870, such a network would have been extremely useful in completing the (eastern) U.S. weather record from 1861 on, not to mention the details of late-season, and early-season snows, etc. Unfortunately, however, with the onset of hostilities, all weather reporting “was interrupted” [prohibited] for the duration of the war. But as mentioned in previous posts, however, there was one Rev. C. B. Mackee, an ardent 1860s Georgetown resident and diarist, who saved the day.

Rev. Mackee unofficially, but dutifully, recorded temperatures and other weather records for the entire length of the Civil War. It was, and is, the only complete record of Washington, DC weather during the Civil War years. Although Mackee’s readings haven’t been corroborated, there’s little reason to doubt their authenticity, according to Robert K. Krick, author of Civil War Weather in Virginia, where Mackee’s data appears.

Mackee’s records don’t reveal any unusually heavy snowstorms during the heart of any of the Civil War winters, but there was one stand-out April storm, which occurred on April 5, 1863. Mackee recorded 12 inches of snow in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.! From all indications, this was probably the heaviest April snowfall ever recorded here, at least during the last 200 years.

It should be noted that, although not necessarily experienced in the Washington area, many other late-season snow events occurred in the Northeast during the colonial period, far more, it would seem, than occur today. A few of these:

  • The Great April Fools Day Storm of 1807. From the Ohio Valley to the northern mid-Atlantic, anywhere from 1-4 feet of snow accumulated, with the higher amounts, of course, in central Pennsylvania, New York, and New England.
  •  The June, 1816 Year Without A Summer snows, where, in early June, 12-18 inch drifts were observed in parts of Vermont and northward, not to mention that, by some reports, snowflakes were seen all the way down to northern Virginia. New Englanders, with their wry sense of humor, called it “1800-and-froze-to-death.” Due to severe crop failures and the corresponding mistrust of East Coast weather, that summer resulted in the beginning of the “Great Westward Migration.”
  • A June 1842 snowstorm, which resulted in 10-12 inches of snow from northern New York to Vermont.

By the way, for you snowlovers out there, our latest measurable snow was on April 28, 1898, when .5 inches fell. For the snow haters—the average latest snowfall is March 15, almost 3 weeks ago.

*Also mentioned in Thomas Jefferson’s diary

Related reading: Record and Average Dates of Late Season Snowfall in the U.S.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local
Next Story
Jason Samenow · April 3, 2014