The Washington Post

The snows of yesteryear; major winter storms of the 1700 and 1800s


The cover of the first volume of Early American Winters (1604 to 1820) by David Ludlum

David M. Ludlum, one of America’s foremost weather historians and founder of Weatherwise magazine, is the primary source. Some, but not all, were brutal storms, in terms of both snowfall and extreme cold, causing severe hardship to all affected So, snow-lovers: be careful what you wish for.

Ludlum compiled two volumes about early American winters, the first covering the period from 1604 to 1820, the second for the period 1821 to 1870.

He divided his winter anthology primarily into three groupings: the Northeast (the Atlantic coastal plain north of the Potomac and east of the Appalachians); the Old South (Virginia and all territory south and southwestward to Florida and Louisiana); and the Northwest (including all territory from the crest of the Appalachians roughly to the Mississippi).

Therein lies the problem, at least for recalling early storm accounts for our nation’s capital. Most, but not all, of the vivid and striking descriptions of the winter storms are from politicians, scientists, farmers, and others who lived in one of those three regions, but not necessarily the greater D.C. area.

Nevertheless, many local residents did manage to partially preserve the winter weather record for future generations. The following storms and other winter events represent some of the more noteworthy (December and January) ones which either directly or indirectly affected our area.

January 27-28, 1772. Known as the Washington-Jefferson Storm (because both had mentioned “a great storm” of nearly 3 feet on the level in their diaries), this storm occurred exactly 150 years prior to the storied “Knickerbocker Storm.” The latter, as many know, deposited 28 inches of snow in Washington and collapsed the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater, killing over 100 movie-goers. Modern day experts consider both storms similar in track, duration, and intensity.

December 25, 1776. Our history books teach us that Washington crossed the Delaware that stormy Christmas night and successfully stormed the British at Trenton. This storm is said to have dumped about 2 feet of snow from central Virginia to central Maryland, probably including the DC area, but that is unclear. (Ironically, snow totals were far less toward the northeast, as a changeover to sleet and freezing rain occurred in New Jersey.)

December 24, 1811. Mentioned here, as with others, because Washington was on the almost-dry western and southern periphery of what turned out to be one of the worst blizzards to strike Long Island and southern New England in decades. Were it not for the near-zero temperatures and hurricane-like winds reported during the heart of the storm, it might not have been so vividly remembered, because snowfall averages of around 12 inches, while significant, were not extreme.

December 22, 23, 1839. A storm that was said to be the “worst in decades,” dropped a moderate 10 inches in DC but far more through central and northeast Maryland, where Frederick reported two feet and Baltimore 16 inches.

January 18-19, 1857. Know as “The Cold Storm,” it was one of historic proportions for the entire region from central Virginia to southeastern Massachusetts, where one to two feet of wind-driven, powdery snow—and near-zero temperatures prevailed during the heart of the storm—even in the DC area. As David Ludlum put it, in order for snow to envelop this entire region, the storm center undoubtedly stayed far enough offshore (for the cold air to hold in place) as it rounded the Virginia Capes on its way to New England.

Although estimates varied, the Washington-Baltimore area saw about 18 inches of snow*, with some drifts reaching 10 feet. North and west of the heaviest snow belt, western Maryland, western Virginia, New York, and northern New England saw less, as might be expected, but even there, 10-15 inches fell. While the storm was considered “the great storm of mid-century” in New England, in Virginia, the combination of high winds, heavy snow, and near-zero temperatures, put this storm in a class of its own. Two examples of conditions recorded on January 18-19, during the heart of the storm:

Smithfield, VA: near Norfolk- temps varied between 8 and 14 degrees above zero F, with winds ranging from 17-46 mph. Total snow on level:15 inches.

Alexandria, VA: temps varied between 4 and 10 degrees above zero F. Wind speeds and snow depth unknown.

January 21-23, 1857. Just a few days after “The Cold Storm,” amazingly, an even more frigid air mass descended on the Northeast and well into the mid Atlantic—what we might call today a “reinforcing shot” of cold air. Except that this was more than a reinforcing shot. It was one of the coldest Arctic air masses ever to invade the eastern part of the country since our ancestors arrived on these shores. Although no records are available for the D.C. area, other temperature readings were as follows:

Northern New York and New England: -40 degrees (colder readings have since been seen here, but it was further south that the most striking temperatures were seen;

Charleston, in (present-day) West Virginia: -24 degrees;

Fort Monroe, on the Chesapeake: -0.5 degrees;

Portsmouth, VA: -5 degrees;

Petersburg, VA: -22 degrees, a reading thought to be atypical due to the thermometer’s sheltered, partially snow-covered location, away from the water, under ideal radiational cooling conditions. Nevertheless, another nearby thermometer supposedly registered -20 degrees. These observations were taken under the auspices of either the Smithsonian Institution or the Surgeon General’s Office and are now stored in the National Archives.

For those interested, accounts of many others who describe storms in the Old South and the Northeast (many of which probably affected our area), may be found in Ludlum’s two-volume winter anthology.**

*Although this is unclear. When the author is discussing “Northeast Winters” of the period, this is the figure he uses, but when he is discussing “Southern Winters,” lower amounrs are used.

**Early American Winters I and II, American Meteorological Society, Lancaster Press, 1968

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