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Dark, Cold, Courageous and Angry

By Wethersfield Historical Society on January 26, 2011 1:42 PM

 "What was the Ice Storm of 1973 like?" The Hartford Courant reminisced in 1997. (LXXV)

"It was a brilliant, glittering spectacle, one that was as beautiful as it was difficult to endure.

"It began Dec. 16 -- not Nov. 23, as the movie ["The Ice Storm"has it -- and it began as snow. During the evening, however, the snow turned to rain as a high- pressure system from the west pushed atmospheric temperatures to 50 degrees. But because there was a thin layer of very cold air at ground level, brought by a low-pressure system from Canada, the rain froze to everything it came in contact with.

"For 24 hours the rain continued, and the ice built up.

"At one point in the storm, Mel Goldstein, director of the Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University, measured the ice on a twig and found it more than a half-inch thick. The estimated net weight of a foot of twig was 2.3 pounds, far more than trees could bear.

"By the morning of Dec. 17, branches and trees by the thousands were crashing to the ground, often taking power lines down with them, each one accompanied by the roar and tinkling of ice shattering on ice.

top10Dark, Cold, Courageous and Angry_1973IceStorm-watermark-thumb-320x242-218.jpg"The damage was so severe that one-third of the state was without power, during cold weather, at the height of the Christmas shopping season. Many people had no electricity for several days, and some were without power for a week as utility crews worked non-stop to restring wires.

"Whether the storm was a backdrop for a night of wife-swapping, as in the film, is anybody's guess. But just about everyone who lived through it has a story to tell. Many people lived in their homes, without heat or hot water, for as long as they could before giving up and moving in with friends or family." (LXVII)

Unfortunately most of the research material on this ice storm relates to the above-mentioned movie "The Ice Storm".  Ang Lee's 1997 film, based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody, is set in New Canaan, Connecticut and follows the coming apart of two suburban families during their unexpected, iced-in imprisonment.

The Connecticut State Library online archives did however have the following on Thomas Meskill who was the governor of Connecticut during the storm.

"When an ice storm hit the state in December of 1973 Meskill was on vacation with his family in Vermont. Although he issued orders that allowed state agencies to properly handle the crises, his failure to return to Connecticut was used by the press to make him look bad to the voters. Upset at this bias, as well as a failure to receive credit for his accomplishments while in office, Meskill announced in early 1974 that he would not seek reelection. He was the first governor of Connecticut in more than 50 years who voluntarily limited himself to only one term. Shortly after leaving office Meskill was appointed to be a judge on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals and was its chief judge before his retirement in 1993. (LXXVII)

top10_Dark, Cold, Courageous and Angry_top10_meskill.190.1-thumb-320x404-220.jpgLessons learned - five years later then Governor Ella Grasso would earn plaudits from the press and the public for her handling of the Blizzard of 1978, a.k.a. "Ella's Storm".  
Fortunately some historical events are recent enough to have participants available to share their recollections - myself included.
On the morning of December 17, 1973, prior to going to work in downtown Hartford, I was having breakfast by myself in the Rocky Hill apartment where Marsha and I lived at the time with our then four-year old son.  They were sleeping.  I saw a pink flash of light across the street at what turned out to be our neighborhood's electrical transformer.  The lights were out along with our forced air heat.
I went to work.  Since the downtown area in Hartford has underground electrical and telephone wiring rather than exterior poles, all was normal at The Travelers.  Except that is for the guilt that many of us felt when we found out our homebound family members were still shivering in the dark.  An experience we all got to share that evening.
Being renters there was nothing that we needed to, or could do, to protect our residence.  And fortunately for us our complex was located on the same electrical circuit as the State Veteran's Hospital and a private convalescent facility, so our power was returned to us sometime mid-morning of the second day - while I sat comfortably warm at my downtown Hartford desk.
While Marsha and I sat out the big freeze in our Rocky Hill apartment, our future neighbor and current good friend Sandy Hillhouse endured the big chill at her Brimfield Road address with her husband John and son, also named John.  She now lives in West Hartford.
"I think we were out of power for four or five days." She told me between sips of blackberry tea and bites of port wine cheese on crispbread from Ikea.  I had unexpectedly sprung the topic on her during a visit to our house.
Sandy reminded me that the floor plan of her former house up the street was the mirror image of ours.  "We hung a blanket over that doorway." She pointed to the entryway to the living room in which we were sitting.  "And had the fireplace going.  But you know, they don't give off much heat - only right around the fire."
They had at the time two guinea pigs.  "We brought them into the room and kept them there during the entire time.  They survived and lived for many years after.  But my big fish aquarium was lost."

On the morning of December 17th Sandy had driven into Hartford to her hairdresser located in the lower level shops at Bushnell Towers.  The roads were icy.  Later that day she lost power at her house.

We talked about how the power went out gradually, almost house by house, and how several days before her electricity was restored many residences on Bunce Road (the street immediately to the south) had their lights on.

Several tall oak trees surrounded her home. "The worst part was the noise.  You could just the ice cracking in the trees.  And the wind.  It was just awful!"
I showed her the copy of the December 20, 1973 Wethersfield Post I had gotten at the Historical Society.  The headline said, "All Wethersfield Is Paralyzed By Ice Storm.  After four days without power Wethersfield is still dark, cold, courageous and angry." (LXXVIII)

"I didn't even think to keep a copy of this." She said.  "You just don't think of it."   

The Wethersfield Post article began "The worst storm in 20 years hit Wethersfield hard.  What had been almost a lark on Monday and Tuesday, had, by Wednesday, turned into a grim holdout against what seemed to be a very bitter Mother Nature." (LXXIX)
Town Manager Ralph DeSantis and the "town crew" worked around the clock to provide wood to those with usable fireplaces.  A lot of the wood was purchased by the town from commercial sources.   "The governor himself [the above mentioned out-of-state Thomas Meskill] offered some wood - from the Governor's mansion." (LXXX) 

Like the victims of the Earthquake of 1727 and 1787 Tornado, townspeople asked "Why Wethersfield?"  The Post's answers were somewhat less theological than those proffered for these earlier disasters.

"Under the weight of Sunday's ice storm Wethersfield's old trees came crashing down all day Monday...'It's as though we were being prepared for what's ahead' said more than one philosopher, looking forward without pleasure to a New England winter beset by storm and shortages and other long losses of heat and light. Some, less charitably, felt that we should have been prepared for this one, and were not feeling kindly toward the light companies, the mayor, the governor, the president, and God." (LXXXI)

While many, including Sandy and her family and my in-laws, Irene and Bill Steidl, stayed at home - partially at least to tend to potential frozen water pipe problems - many residents, apparently feeling that "the pioneer spirit was no longer necessary" retreated to hotels such as Hartford's Sonesta (where there was electricity) or the Camelot Inn (now Best Western) on the Silas Deane Highway, which had its own generator but a skeleton crew of mostly office workers.
"The refugees expected of the tired, inexperienced crew the usual Camelot.  Things got a little tense; some waitresses burst into tears." (LXXXII)  All the rooms were booked and the hotel allowed people to "come to the Camelot lounge and lobby to keep warm throughout the night." (LXXXIII)

But, as the Post reported, "It seemed a much more rewarding experience for those establishments who continued to provide services without electricity or heat.  In the Friendly Ice Cream at the Wethersfield Shopping Center Tuesday noon approximately 50 customers sat waiting, talking about the storm, good-naturedly as three young people scurried around in the dark serving them." (LXXXIV)
On Tuesday most other shopping center businesses were shut.  Sage Allen's displayed a sign saying they would open "at one p.m. approximately".  The Post says, "They did - Wednesday". (LXXXII)

The Youth Centre was open and doing a good business "especially in warm clothes."  The temperature inside the store was 56 degrees.  Central Hardware, Casual Village and the Mouse Trap were also open to the public.

In Old Wethersfield most of the businesses stayed open, including the reporting newspaper - "Old Wethersfield is used to power outages."  But Village Coiffeurs, with no way to dry hair, shut down their operation - "though one power failure last year they dried their customers heads in the ovens at Richard's bakery."  (LXXXIII)

Traffic lights did not work.  But motorists adapted, just as they did during the recent tornado.
"On a highway where only the suicidal turn left, drivers were courteously waiting for one another, being careful to take only their fair turns...when people know times are tough, they stuck together." (LXXXIV)

The volunteer fired department had been called out 22 times by press time, with six major fires and two of which were total losses.

A small box printed in boldface provided "EMERGENCY ADVICE".
"If, as it was at press time this storm has continued please do the following: if your power is off, turn off all your electric appliances, your furnace etc. because otherwise when the power comes back on it is likely to blow them out

"DRAIN YOUR PIPES.  Telephone the Town Hall 529-8611 to find out how.  Do not leave your house with faucets running - that won't save your heating system which must be drained." (LXXXV)
And in another section the newspaper presented a feature on "travel dreams" of San Juan and Fort Lauderdale - "Though for looks, there is possibly no place in the world that could match the icy beauty of Wethersfield this Tuesday morning." (LXXXVI)
And, as there is with everything, there were exceptions.  I also found this recollection by a Manchester resident posted on that city's "Connecticut Message Board" website.

"The ice storm of '73...what an adventure.  "My main concern was for my parents in Wethersfield during the first day or so of the arctic experience. Then, Ma told me she and Pa were very comfortable, they couldn't figure out why I was bothering them with tips for warmth, etc, and then I asked her if they had power. She said, Of course we do. Well, they were close by the old power plant just beyond the Charter Oak Bridge, and their neighborhood had power without fail.
"It was a scary, yet exciting time." (LXXXVII)
But mostly it was just dark, and cold.

(Please click on the underlined name to go directly to that chapter or the WHS Website Home Page)

1. The 17th and 19th Century Floods
2. The 1727 Earthquake
3. The 1787 Tornado
4. The 1831 and 1834 Fires
5. The 1888 Blizzard
6. The 1936 Flood
7. The 1938 Hurricane

9. The 1978 Blizzard
10. The 2009 Tornado


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