by Jim Meehan
Introduction: A Tornado, Here in Wethersfield?“
“A great thunderstorm; an extensive flood; a desolating hurricane; a sudden and intense frost; an overwhelming snowstorm; a sultry day – each of these different scenes exhibits singular beauties in spite of the damage they cause. Often while the heart laments the loss of the citizen, the enlightened mind, seeking for natural causes, and astonished by the effects, awakes itself to surprise and wonder” (St. John De Crevecoeur quoted in Early American Winters, II 1821-1870)
At 4:45 p.m. on Friday June 26, 2009 a category EF1 tornado struck my hometown of Wethersfield, Connecticut.
Along with most of our town’s residents both my wife Marsha and I were caught in the ferocious weather. Still neither of us thought that what we had experienced was anything more than unusually heavy winds and rain – and certainly not a tornado.
Nor did we know that this was not the first time our town had been struck by such a violently rotating destructive vortex. Or of the other life-changing attacks of nature that had visited Connecticut’s “most auncient town” since shortly after its incorporation in 1634.
All attempts to rate the importance of anything are, by their very nature, extremely subjective. And so it is with the following. Each of these events that I am about to recount had, at the time it happened, a significant impact on the town of Wethersfield – as did many others in our village’s long history.
Working with Melissa Josefiak, former Assistant Director of the Wethersfield Historical Society, I have tried to come up with a cross-section of the types of natural disasters that have befallen our berg since its inception. There may well be other more worthy candidates.
Nonetheless, following is my take on “Wethersfield’s Top Ten Natural Disasters”.
Rivers Will Swell
My name is Eliza I live by the river It’s beginning to feel Like the water will never Surrender the field (I)
Wethersfield Connecticut sits on the west side of the Connecticut River. And like all river towns – the waters giveth maritime trade and fertile farming land. And sometimes the waters taketh away.
The first flood occurred in March of 1638 – four years after the town’s birth. The storm that caused it began on March 5 and went on until the 18th of that month. Four days later the water crested.
Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts wrote “There came such a rain withal, as raised the waters at Connecticut some twenty feet above their meadows, etc.” (II)
At the time many of the townspeople were likely still living in dugout homes and just beginning to learn how to farm these flooded meadows in order to raise their crops. The waters stayed low for the next forty-five years.
The flood of 1683 was actually two inundations that occurred slightly less than one month apart.
The Reverend Cotton Mather described it as follows.
“Some remarkable land floods have likewise happened in New England. Nor is that which came to pass this present year to be here wholly passed over in silence. In the spring time, the great river at Connecticut useth to overflow, but this year it did so after midsummer, and that twice; for, July 20, 1683, a considerable flood unexpectedly arose, which proved detrimental to many in that colony. But on August 13, a second and more dreadful flood came; the waters
were then observed to rise twenty-six feet above their usual boundaries; the grass in the meadows, also the English grain, was carried away before it; the Indian corn by the long continuance of the waters is spoiled so that the four river towns, viz: Windsor, Hartford, Weathersfield, Middle-Town, are extream [sic] sufferers. They write from thence, that some who had hundreds of bushels of corn in the morning, at night had not one peck for their families to live upon. (III)
And why did all of this happen?
There is an awful intimation of Divine displeasure remarkable in this matter, inasmuch as August 8, a day of public humiliation, with fasting and prayer was attended in that colony, partly on the account of God’s hand against them in the former flood, the next week after which the hand of God was stretched out over them again in the same way, after a more terrible manner than at first.” (IV)
Mather also noted that a hurricane took place in Virginia at the same time as the flooding.
The spring floods became an annual occurrence. Stiles quotes the following notable high-water heights. Flood stage is 16 feet.
1692 26 feet, 2 inches
1801 27 feet, 3 inches
1839 23 feet
1840 25 feet, 6 inches
1843 26 feet, 3 inches
1852 23 feet
1853 28 feet, 101/2 inches
Every new flood forged a straighter course for the Connecticut River. In 1692the river shifted to create the Wethersfield Cove in the process destroying at least five of the warehouses that had been located near the waters. The building now called the “Cove Warehouse” is maintained as a museum by the Wethersfield Historical Society and is representative of a sea merchant’s storage building of the late 17th century. Its likeness appears on the town seal.
“‘Every spring since, you can see the river trying to put itself back in its old channel,’ said Eleanor Wolfe. ‘It doesn’t like the curve.’” (V)
Over time the serpentine path of the moving waters evolved into a nearly straight channel John Warber Barber published a map in “Connecticut Historical Collections” (1838) that showed the old and new routes of the river.
The tract A contains a number of hundred acres of good land, over which the river has gradually passed to its present course, from the old channel seen in the diagram, which is now obliterated. The town of Wethersfield maintaining its old bounds, it will be perceived that tract A, although on the east side of the river, is within the bounds of Wethersfield…and it will be perceived that tract B is within the limits of Glastonbury.” (VI)
Even in its early stages the reconfiguration of the waterway effected, among other things, the distribution of the estate of Samuel Welles. He died without a will and thus his assets were subject to the legal division of one third to his widow Hannah (the “dower” share), and shares to his children (Samuell, Thomas, Sarah, Mary, Ann and Elizabeth). The distribution of the estate, originally inventoried in 1675 at around 110 lbs, was delayed by the shift of the river in the late 17th century causing land to be lost in Hoccanum. This reduced Elizabeth’s share to about 42 lbs.
Spring floods are still pretty much an annual occurrence in Wethersfield – sometimes, as in 1936, causing considerable damage and hardship. (Please see Chapter 6).
According to Connecticut television meteorologist Dr. Mel Goldstein:
“A year hardly passes without some flooding in Connecticut. Even though many flood-control projects have been put into operation over the years, water has a way of getting around these, especially when it falls in excessive quantities. There is really no specific season. River flooding occurs during colder months with melting snow and northeaster, but hurricanes add their impact during the late summer and fall. Then, the severe thunderstorm season can bring its squalls and flash flooding during the summer. Huge variability occurs from year to year in the intensity of the flooding. Some years pass relatively quietly, but other years are unforgettable.” (VII)
Extraordinary Displays of the DIVINE MAJESTY and POWER
In colonial New England the work of documenting, describing and explaining the events of the day often fell to the clergy – who, along with lawyers and their clerks, scholars, physicians, and business men were among the privileged people able to write. Many of these clerics expressed themselves in the style of 18th Century apocalyptic preaching, foreseeing a day of judgment and calamity coming upon the land – a style of writing that they used in both their sermons and other writings. And since most of their audience was illiterate, many of their accounts of natural events were communicated orally, in their sermons
“OCTOBER 29th. Being the SABBATH DAY, in the night immediately following, between the Hours of Ten and Eleven, there was an EARTHQUAKE in and Probably through New-England, and other parts of Northern America. It came on with a Grave and Heavy Sound (some apprehended the Sound as the Burning of a Chimney, others as Remote thunder) which might possibly be attended with a small Trembling, towards the ending of which Great Sound, there seemed a very strong Shock, and then such Shakings that wrack’d very Strong Buildings so sensibly, as it seemed scarcely life to be tithing them, awakened Person outs of their Sleep, filling many with CONSTERNATION. (VIII)
The Reverend Stephen Mix was the tenth pastor of First Ecclesiastical Church of Wethersfield. Mix had graduated from Harvard University in 1690 and was called to the pulpit in Wethersfield in 1693. He was the grandfather of Stephen Mix Mitchell (after whom a former Wethersfield elementary school, now housing unit, is named) who represented Connecticut in the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate and was Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court. Reverend Mix died on August 28, 1738.
Weather historian Sidney Perley looking back on the event with 20th century eyes and sensibilities provides a less emotional description. “The greatest earthquake that New England has probably experienced since its settlement by the English occurred October 29, 1727.” (IX)
[N.B. Although the earthquake occurred on November 10, 1727 it is generally reported to have happened on October 29 due the change from the Julian to Gregorian in 1752.]
“The people had suffered much in various ways through the summer and early autumn. A drought continued from the middle of June to the middle of September, the month of July and the first week of August being exceedingly hot. No rain fell in April after the first week, and but twice in May, only one of two slight showers occurring during the sultry, parching heat of the summer. The earth dried to a great depth, and many wells and springs, which had never failed before were now dry. There was much lightning and thunder, but very little rain. On the evening of August 1, at the close of a scorching day, the heavens burst out into a blaze of flame and a roar of thunder, the terrific display continuing for two or three hours. The flashes occurred so frequently that the sky was continually light with them and a writer of that time said it seemed ‘as if the heavens being on fire were dissolving and passing away with a great noise, and the earth also with its works was to be burned up.’ (X)
And then it got even worse.
“After the drought was broken a violent northeast storm came on, doing much damage among the vessels along the coast, and the trees on shore. This occurred September 16. It caused a high tide which carried away about two hundred loads of hay from the marshes at Newbury, Mass., and drove eight or nine vessels ashore at Salem and thirty-five at Marblehead. (XI)
And still worse.
“After the lightning, thunder, and tempest the country was visited by a tremendous earthquake. October 24, 1727, the weather was very cold; three days later, snow fell, and on the 28th the temperature was still exceedingly low for the season. Sunday, the 29th, was fair and pleasant, and in the evening the moon shone brightly, the air was calm, and no noise disturbed the peacefulness of nature. People retired at their usual hour, and were fast asleep, when at twenty minutes before eleven o’clock a terrible noise followed by a roar and a rush suddenly woke them, and in about half a minute, before they had time to become conscious of what was taking place around them, there came a pounce as if gigantic cannons had rolled against each other from opposite directions. Latches leaped up and doors flew open, houses rocked and trembled as though they would collapse, timber worked in and out of mortises, hearth-stones grated against each other, windows rattled, tops of chimneys pitched and tumbled down, cellar walls fell in, beds shook, pewter fell off shelves, lids of warming pans jumped up and fell back with a clang, and all movable things, especially in the upper rooms, tossed about.
“Most people got up in a moment, and many of them ran out of doors in their night clothes, being so frightened that they knew not what to do. The earth shook so much that they could not stand, and were compelled to sit or recline on the ground.
“People that were awake when the earthquake came said that a flash of light preceded it. It was seen as it passed the windows, and a blaze seemed to run along the ground, dogs that saw it giving a sudden bark as if frightened. Before they had time to consider the source or cause of the light a sound like a gentle murmur floated to them on the still evening air, followed by a slight ruffling wind. Then came a rumbling as of distant thunder, which approached nearer and nearer and grew louder and louder till it sounded as if innumerable heavy carriages were being rapidly driven over pavements, or like the roaring of a great furnace, but incomparably fiercer and more terrible, having a hollow sound as if it came from under the earth. Then the shock came suddenly and severely and the houses were felt to totter and reel with the trembling and heaving of the ground. (XII)
The disturbance lasted about two minutes and moved from the northwest to the southeast.
“At eleven o’clock another shock came, less effective and quieter than the first, but heavy enough to keep the people in a state of fear. At a quarter before twelve another came, and many of the people would not return to their beds, but dressed, and prepared to stay up the remainder of the night, being uncertain as to what might occur before morning came, and apprehending destruction. At Londonderry, N.H., when the pastor of the town, Rev. Mr. MacGregor, became aware of what was occurring around him, his Scottish heart being full of sympathy for the people of his charge, he at once arose, dressed, and started out. He was met by some one with the reminder that this family would need his presence. ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘I have a still greater family which I must care for.’ He hastened toward their houses, b
ut had not gone far before he met large numbers of them flocking to his own dwelling, seeking advice and comfort in the trying and dreadful hour. At Salem, Mass., the people sat up nearly all night; and at Rowley they flocked to the house of Rev. Edward Payson, the minister of the town, as if he were able to succor them from pending harm; but the house being too small to hold so large a number, the meeting house was opened at that midnight hour, and there the remainder of the night was spent in prayer and supplication. Rev. Benjamin Colman of Boston wrote the next day that he and his family arose, and did not retire until two o’clock in the morning, spending the time in humble cries to God for themselves and their neighbors and in fervent praises to him for their preservation.
“The shocks were repeated at three and five o’clock, but with abated force, and in due time the sun slowly rose in the eastern sky, greeting with a complacent face the disconsolate and fearful inhabitants. It was a night never to be forgotten by those who experienced it.” (XIII)
“On Newcastle Island New Hampshire at twelve midnight the church bell pealed forth from the belfry. This heightened the feelings of the people, and to the ignorant it seemed to be a knell rung forth by mystic hands. To the more phlegmatic citizens it was but the result of the shaking of the church by natural means; yet the surroundings, the time, and the dreadful commotion could not fail to impress them with a solemn dread.
“The people of New England were affected by this earthquake as they had never been before, being fearful of divine judgments for their sins and lax responsiveness to the call to religious duties. The clergy taught them that it was ‘a loud call to the whole land to repent and fear and give glory to God.’
“Shocks of the earthquake continued at intervals through the following week, and from time to time during November and December, growing less and less in force. The great one was felt in New York and Pennsylvania, and it extended all along the coast to the Gulf of Mexico, doing considerable damage in the West India islands.” (XIV)
Amazingly no one in New England died in this earthquake. So what caused this seismic activity?
“It would be naïve to search in the literature of the 1727 earthquake for a fully developed scientific analysis of the phenomenon; while almost all the published sermons address themselves in varying ways to issues of causation, such concern is uniformly subordinate to theological interest and the practical demands of deriving applicable religious lessons from the earthquake. Throughout the early years of the eighteenth century apologist maneuvered to mesh the new science with the orthodoxies of revealed religion, conventionally viewing natural philosophy as the ‘handmaiden’ of religion. Although Puritan interest in science was always high, it must be recalled in the following discussion that scientific analysis was always secondary to the religious.” (XV)
The causes of this earthquake were not to be found in the natural world. In fact, the tremors themselves were “the cause of several sermons, wherein it was duly ‘improved’ to the religious sense of the community.” (XVI)
Reverend Mix says it all right up front. “ALL Second Causes being disposed, Influenced, Moved and managed by the First Cause as Instruments by the Principal Efficient: Though EARTHQUAKES (some of them) have their Natural Causes, yet are they Superior Effects and Displays of His Mighty Power, who at His Pleasure Shaketh the Earth out of her Place and maketh its Pillars Tremble.” (XVII)
Within the sermons he went on to present doctrines that both explained why the earthquake occurred, and how his parishioners should have reacted.
“The Extraordinary Displays of the majesty and Power of God are sometimes for the proving [of] men, and the working [of] such fear of God in them, as should be a lasting Restraint upon them from Sin….They prove Good men…They try Evil men…The terrible Displays of Divine Power serve to work the fear of God, that prevents Sinning against him…As they serve to Convince Sinners of the Being and Glory of God.” (XVIII)
As mentioned earlier, the natural conditions in 1727 had already been horrendous – drought, violent storms, thunder and lightning.
“God visiting us this Summer (as it seems) Eminently with Thunder & Lightning, the effects of which on Men, Cattle, Buildings, and Trees, I suppose something unusually multiplied; our Sins and Sinfulness, on account of which the Threatnings [sic] of fore Judgment may be applied. The late EARTHQUAKE here being as it were Conjoined…”
“This Extraordinary Display of Divine Power in the shaking of the Earth may be improved to advantage. If it should be considered as a warning, then it tends to that fear that puts Sinners on Reforming & Amending their ways…When God makes Glorious & Terrible Displays of his Majesty and Power, then is a time for Persons to try themselves and their ways, and to try others in…God tries men hereby, not that he might better know them but that men might better know themselves.
“His Power is such, That man may be Destroyed without a whole Train of Second Causes suited to his Destruction… Man my be destroyed Suddenly ad Intirely [sic]…The Hand of God is so Extensive, and the Effects of his Power so sudden, that there is no escaping the same.
“What did you think of his Glorious Majesty, his dreadful Wrath, the late Terrible EARTHQUAKE? Might not some Heads of Families, have looked back on their ways with sorrow and fear, that they might not have walked in a perfect Way in their own Houses; that they might have failed in Teaching their the Fear of the Lord; in Warning them against Evil…Checking and Restraining Licentiousness, their Night Assemblings…
“You have in this earthquake seen the mighty powers of that God whom you are naturally Ignorant of, apt to forget, and whose fear you cast out of your Hearts. Let the fear of him, be before your faces always.
“Put on a spirit of Solidity, Sobriety, Temperance, Chastity & Piety that will give [you] boldness at the Appearance of GOD the mighty…” (XIX)
Did the people of Wethersfield get the message?
Before you give your answer remember – this is just the second of Wethersfield’s Top Ten Natural Disasters.
A Black Column from the Earth to the Clouds
“The question as to what constitutes a tornado presents itself at the outset. Many types of storms have been so designated by untrained observers which technically did not qualify. The exact nature of a tornado-type storm, of course, was a subject of acrimonious debate throughout our entire period and later. The determination as to whether a local storm was a tornado or not was greatly complicated by loose terminology employed by both scientists and the public. The words ‘whirlwind’ and ‘tempest’ were employed in the English translations of the Bible, and these terms were used by early settlers to describe storms of local extent possessing a circulatory system of winds. The term ‘hurricane’ was also frequently applied to land storms, and employed by meteorologist as late as the 1830’s…It was not until the 1840’s that the Spanish ‘tornado’ was narrowed in meaning to designate a local rotary storm.” (XX)
Something meteorologically malevolent happened in Wethersfield on August 15, 1787. And, in spite of it classification at that time as a “tremendous hurricane”, weather historian David M. Ludlum sees it as a tornado.
“A series of tornadoes on a mid-August day in 1787 – commencing in central Connecticut, touching down in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and ending in southern New Hampshire – represented the most extensive tornado outbreak in early New England history.
“The storm seemed to resemble a tornado, but a very large one…Huge trees were twisted and destroyed along with crops” (XXI)
“The first occurrence took place between one and two o’clock on 15 August 1787 at New Britain, south-southwest of Hartford. Next in line was Wethersfield immediately to the northeast. A good eyewitness account of the event and a follow-up survey the next day was composed by J. Lewis of Wethersfield. This was published in the Connecticut Courant at Hartford ‘An Account of the late Hurricane at Wethersfield’.” (XXIII)
The storm covered an area about 30 miles wide and 145 miles in length. Because the funnels did not strike any large villages of groups of buildings damage was minimal and few lives were lost.
John Lewis was the pastor of Stepney Parish.
“WHEN any extraordinary event attended with dreadful effects occurs, the curiosity of the public is excited, and it is proper it should be gratified; such an event occurred on Wednesday the 15th instant in the tremendous hurricane which passed near the north line of the parish of Stepney in this town.
“I was myself an eye witness of but a small part of the hurricane, and that near the time of its disappearance, and at a distance of almost two miles from the line of passage – I was, however, as soon as possible, on the ground and spent most of the next day, in traversing for some miles the scene of defoliation, making observations, and collecting the best possible information from those who were near or saved from its fury. ” (XXIII)
Among the information collected and reported by Lewis was:
“…the wind was very much from the southward…at about twelve at noon an unusually black cloud appeared to be ranged from the western to somewhat past the northern point…At about three o’clock P.M. the hurricane was seen to approach near the western boundary of Stepney parish….but now from a rising ground it displayed itself in its full extent, replete with undescribale horror – A black column from the earth to the cloud, of about thirty rods diameter, so thick the eye could not pervade it, whirled with amazing velocity and a most tremendous roar…and was charged with broken pieces offences, and huge limbs of trees, which were continually crashing against each other in the air or tumbling to the ground.
“…it arrived at the house of Mr. Wait Robbins, who was himself absent as were two of his children…” (XXIV)
On the morning of the storm Mr. Robbins had left on horseback on a trip to Vermont. He became uneasy, stopped for the night short of his destination, and returned the next day. A messenger who had been sent to recall him home met him ten miles above Hartford.
“…his wife, four children, an infant of five months old, a labourer and a female negro servant, made up what of the family were at home. [They] attempted their escape from the buildings…the labourer, past her a few paces, and was overtaken by the hurricane, thrown over a fence into a garden and escaped with little hurt. – Near the place where the labourer past them, amidst the rubbish of the demolished buildings – the oldest, about ten years of age, lifeless – the other it is feared mortally wounded – Mrs. Robbins, with her babe still in her arms, is supposed to be hurled by the violence of the hurricane more than twenty yards back towards the house, for there she was found dead, with her babe lying a few paces distant, wounded but not badly – the servant with the two children fled a different course; they were all wounded but likely to recover.” (XXV)
As to property destruction on the Robbins’ farm:
“The house unroofed – the garret floor gone – chimney thrown down below the garret and what is left standing of the house – cyder mill house – a building for pressing hay and a large barn stored with green hay and flax, all leveled with the ground…-every tree either torn up by the roots, or twisted off near the ground, one only excepted which is strip of its branches.” (XXVI)
The storm now proceeded through the meadows and across the river to Glastonbury where among other damage it “unroofed a large brick house of Mr. Theodore Hale” and “demolished a barn of Mr. Wm Mosely.” (XXVII)
The storm took with it several objects from the town of Wethersfield including “two of Mrs. Robbins gowns.” Stiles and Adams “The History of Ancient Wethersfield” reports, “A dress of Mrs. Robbins was carried to Glastonbury and lodged in a barn on the place where a sister of hers was then living.” (XXVIII)
The destroyed house was at the north end of Stepney Parish, in what is now Wethersfield. Mr. Robbins built a new house on the site. In 1890 (the publication date of “The History of Ancient Wethersfield”) it was “occupied by Wm. Griswold, a descendent in the female line, and stand just south of the mattress factory, near the north end of Brook Street.” (XXIX)
It is difficult, if not impossible, to look back over two hundred years and determine with certainty what it was that struck Wethersfield on that mid-August day in 1787. Even then it was uncertain.
“The Philosopher will undoubtedly take notice that this hurricane is of a sort s
omewhat singular, partaking
in both the nature of the Typho [typhoon?] and the Prester [A meteor or exhalation formerly supposed to be thrown from the clouds with such violence that by collision it is set on fire], both of neither wholly, nor of a uniform mixture of both.” (XXX)
The exact causes of specific tornadoes are still today a scientifically uncertain area. It is speculated that the 2009 Wethersfield tornado was caused by a “super cell” – a thunderstorm containing a deep, continuously rotating updraft.
In 1787 “super cell” wasn’t even a scientific concept. But the event, once again, did not go unexplained. “The man of seriousness will consider that the voice of such providence is the voice of God awfully denouncing his anger, and calling to consideration.” (XXX)
Recovery from the Fires was Slow
Technically not all fires are natural disasters – certainly not those that are the result of arson, or perhaps not even some instances of “spontaneous combustion”. Nevertheless, one of the very first things that I learned about Wethersfield was its strong history of volunteerism, as exemplified by our volunteer fire department that for over one hundred years has provided protection to our town from conflagrations large and small.
In 1803 The First Church Society (then known as the First Ecclesiastical Society) initiated the political activity of applying for a state charter for a volunteer fire department.
“RESOLVE ESTABLISHING A FIRE COMPANY IN WETHERSFIELD, PASSED, MAY 1803.
“Upon petition of the First Society in Wethersfield, shewing that they have procured two fire engines.
“Resolved by this Assembly, That full power and authority be, and is hereby granted unto the Honorable Stephen M. Mitchell, Esq. and the other civil authority, and the committee of the said society for the time being, to raise by voluntary enlistment ‘ A Fire Company,’ within the limits of said society, to consist of not more than sixteen men for the purpose of working said engine, and to organize said company with proper officers, and also to form regulations and by-laws for the same, which regulations and bylaws shall be enforced by the officers of said company by penalties not exceeding ten dollars.
“Provided, however, that said by-laws are not contrary to any laws of this State, and said civil authority and society’s committee are impowered to exempt the poll of each and every person that shall enlist into said company, after it shall be organized and furnished with fire engine and apparatus therefor, from the highway tax, so long as they shall actually serve in said company.” (XXXI)
Despite the existence of the oldest volunteer fire company in continuous existence in Connecticut, and the oldest in New England, there were two major conflagrations in Wethersfield during the 1830’s – both of which caused noteworthy changes to the town. There was a miniature recreation of the two fires at a Wethersfield Historical Society exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of the town’s volunteer department.
“The first fire began in the John Williams barn north of the meetinghouse [next to the First Church] on the east side of Main Street in 1831, and resulted in the destruction of several barns and six homes, one of which didn’t burn but was pulled down by volunteers to halt the fire from spreading further.” (XXXII)
“A very disastrous fire occurred at Wethersfield on Monday last. It broke out between twelve and one o’clock, in a barn belonging to John Williams, Esq. contiguous to his dwelling-house. The conflagration soon extended to the adjacent buildings, and continued its ravages until five dwelling-houses, and two barns, attached, were entirely consumed.
“The buildings destroyed, were, the house owned and occupied by John Williams, Esq.; Mrs. Tryon’s house; Dr. Samuel B. Woodward’s house; a large building owned by John Williams, Esq., and formerly occupied as a Tavern; and the house owned and occupied by Miss Brigden.
“So soon as intelligence of the calamity reached this city, our Fire Companies, with their engines, hooks, ladders, hose, &c. repaired to Wethersfield, and were instrumental in preventing a still greater extension of the fire. The meetinghouse was several times in imminent danger.
“The only insurance effected upon the property destroyed, were $4,300 on the dwelling of Mr. Williams. The fire was communicated to the barn, it is believed, by an incendiary–an Irishman–who had long harbored revenge for a fancied injury, and had often, as we understand, threatened to perform the base deed which there can be little doubt he has at last committed. We learn, also, from a New Haven journal that the Bake-house occupied by Messrs. Flagg and Lego, at the head of the long wharf in that town, was destroyed by fire on Saturday evening last.” (XXXIII)
“The History of Ancient Wethersfield” says “The fire was of an incendiary nature, by a servant girl of Mr. Williams.” (XXXIV)
Three years later the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department was legally incorporated…
“RESOLVE INCORPORATING THE WETHERSFIELD FIRE COMPANY, PASSED, HAY 1834.
“Resolved by this Assembly, That James Smith, Abraham Skaats, George Stillman, Junior, Charles Shepard, and others, who are or may be associated with them, not exceeding at any one time, twenty-five in number, be, and hereby are made and constituted a corporation, by the name of ‘ T/it Wetherffield Fire Company (XXXV)
…and the second major fire of the 1830’s occurred. “The second fire, which occurred in August 1834 on the west side of Main Street, destroyed James Belden’s barn and seed houses, three other houses and barns, and a cobbler’s shop.” (XXXVI)
This conflagration began at 2 a.m. in an outbuilding located about 200 feet behind the premises of Lockwood Belden (now Comstock, Ferre & Co.). Seven or eight of Belden’s barns and side houses were destroyed as well as the barns and houses of Roswell Clapp, Dr. Cooke, Levi Goodrich and the shoe shop of O. Harrison. The cause was attributed to spontaneous combustion of some laboratory material that was stored in the building occupied by Dr. Cooke.
Wethersfield did not have a fire engine at the time – but one from Hartford arrived in time to be of some assistance. Shortly thereafter that engine was purchased by Wethersfield for $400.
Three or four other incendiary fires occurred at a later date resulting in the loss of buildings belong to Dr. Tenney, James Smith and others – as well as Mr. Crane’s tavern. As a result a night patrol was organized resulting in the capture of the arsonists.
“Recovery from the fires was slow. Between 1836 and 1850, the use of fireproof brick or stone construction was introduced. Replacement buildings were erected in place of burned structures, including a stately, “Southern-style” brick dwelling built by John Williams next to the meetinghouse. This house was perhaps the first example of a Greek Revival house in town. Construction of this house between 1832 and 1836 also introduced building setbacks in the central village streetscape. Wethersfield’s fire company was incorporated in 1834, but fire protection did not improve substantially until it bought its first pumper engine from Hartford in 1858.” (XXXVII)
At a public hearing of the Wethersfield Historic District Commission on March 23, 2004 to discuss improvements to the Osmund Harrison House at 271 Main Street (across the street from the 1831 fire) Anne Kuckro reported on the fires and the subsequent changes to Wethersfield.
“She said that fortunately the house that James Belden’s father built in 1767 was saved. Mr. Belden was determined to rebuild his seed business and according to local tradition he moved and reused the old Robertson store which is the wooden section behind the brick front of Comstock Ferre.
She said that if one looks at the south side of the Harrison house the window pattern of an 18th century house; a pair of windows on either side of the side porch entrance and a center chimney. She thinks that Mr. Harrison salvaged the chimney and frame from one of the burned houses and turned it 90′ and rebuilt the facade with three windows on each floor and a decorative rectangular window on the gable end. He retained the colonial interior layout with the main door in the center along the side of the house even though he turned it around. (XXXVIII)
The Connecticut State Library has a copy of the original Wethersfield Fire Company Charter, which was passed in 1803 with the signatures of Colonel John Chester and Ezekiel Belden.
Fred and I Made Some Snow Shoes. Their Wasn’t School.
To some it was the most famous winter storm in our nation’s history – the “Storm of the Century”. To others it was just another snow day.
“Writing in the Monday, March 12, 1888 issue of the New Haven Evening Register, a reporter used the alliterative adjectives ‘bewildering, belligerent, blinding’ to describe the late-season snowstorm that had been pounding Connecticut since Sunday evening. By the time the storm ended on March 14, 1888, the reporter could have added two more adjectives to his description: historic and deadly.”(XXXIX)
Meanwhile Walter E. Crittenden, age 10 years 11 months, recorded this in his 1888 diary.
“Tuesday March 13 – The storm crept on with all its fury. Fred and I made some snow shoes. Their wasn’t school.” (XL)
They called it “the Great White Hurricane” and “The Great Blizzard” and it generated up to fifty inches of snow in the Middletown, Connecticut area. Most of the state had at least twenty inches. The winds of up to sixty miles per hour winds moved the fallen snow into twenty to forty foot tall drifts. Temperatures, which had been close to seventy degrees during the previous week, plummeted to ten above zero. The entire northeast was at a standstill. Over four hundred people died of storm related causes.
Sunday March 11 was spring-like. Crocuses had begun to appear in some places. Then snow began that evening and continued unabated into Wednesday. Land transportation, mostly horse-cars & stagecoaches at that time, came to a halt. Trains were stranded, and several were derailed.
In those times only the wealthy had telephones. Telegraph lines were down “All people could do is wait for the storm to end while wondering and worrying about what was happening in the rest of the world”. (XLI)
Many were injured or killed trying to get to/from work. The New York Times reported “hardy men have died from the exposure. Horses and cattle have perished. Dwellings and barns have broken down.” (XLII)
The snow cleanup relied upon plows/rollers drawn by horses or oxen, or digging out by shovel. People were trapped in houses by drifts that blocked doors. In Hartford, residents showed their displeasure with the storm by hanging an effigy of writer John Whitaker Watson, author of “Beautiful Snow”, and pelting it with hundreds of densely-packed white orbs constructed of the white precipitation.
O the snow, the beautiful snow!
How the flakes gather and laugh as they go!
Whirling about in its maddening fun,
It plays in its glee with every one.
Chasing, Laughing, Hurrying by,
It lights up the face and it sparkles the eye;
And even the dogs, with a bark and a bound,
Snap at the crystals that eddy around.
The town is alive, and its heart in a glow,
To welcome the coming of beautiful snow.
But eleven year-old Walter E. Crittenden of Wethersfield, reflected a slightly different perspective in his daily diary.
“Friday, March 9 – Spring day. Plad ball with the boys.
Saturday, March 10 – A very pleasant day. Went downtown and bought a suit of clothes.
Sunday, March 11 – A cloudy day. Snod all night.
Monday, March 12 _ A very stormey day, wind began to blow hard early in the morning. Children were sent home from school at half past 9. Pappa came home looking like a snow man, books in the pocket.
Tuesday, March 13 – The storm crept on with all its fury. Fred and I made some snow shoes. Their wasn’t school.
Wednesday, March 14 – Storm ended today. School let out at half past 9. Badly drifted.
Thursday, March 15 – A pleasant day. Travil is resumed through this street and many others. Papa was the first to open this street. Went to school as usual.
Friday, March 16 – A pleasant day. Made some forts and had a snowball battle, a number of boys and myself.
Saturday, March 17 – A pleasant day. Went to Mr. Ives shop with Fred. My clothes came that I orded last satterday. (XLIII)
Eighty years later on March 13, 1968 Walter E. Crittenden recalled the storm for his family. Eunie Crittenden Wells, his granddaughter, created a transcript of his reminiscences.
On Sunday night the family had decided “it maybe a good-sized storm and we had better do everything we can tonight before we go to bed to be ready.” (XLIV)
They made sure that the pair of horses and the wagon were all “snug in the barn ready for tomorrow’s work” (XLV), and Walter found the cat that lived in their barn and ensured he was fed and safely ensconced in that outbuilding.
The next day the teamsters came to get the horses for delivering grain and “went on about their work” (XLVI) in spite of the heavy snow. By mid-morning Walter’s father decided that the delivery schedule should be accelerated. That afternoon deliveries were halted and the horses put safely away in the barn.
Tuesday the horses and wagon were kept in the barn and school was cancelled – “the signal consisting of factory whistles had blown… [and] a bell that rang to tell the children to stay home.” (XLVII) Sledding were taken out and sliding began. Snow covered the windows.
Walter found “some of the card boards which had been used on the freight cars to hold the grain in” (XLVIII) and made himself some snowshoes. However when he went out the snow was deeper than he expected. He sank and ended up crawling to the horse’s hitching post where he pulled himself upright. The horses were afraid of the snow and would not leave the barn, so they hitched them up to a mule that led the way out.
“During the first day after the storm the sidewalks were cleared in order to let the milk wagons deliver milk, for they could not get down the street the way they usually did. The people who had horses and wagons added to the effort. The snow was carried for several days to the New Haven Green where the pile grew higher and higher until it was like a mountain….In spite of the early spring sun’s warmth, this huge pile of snow on the New Haven Green did not melt away for quite a few weeks.” (XLIX)
Diaries are not intended to be historical texts. But some events are just so large that they are best explained by a simple account by the people who were there. Even when, or maybe especially if, the historical scribe is an eleven year old boy just doing his chores on the farm and enjoying a day off from school because of some unusually heavy snow.
I’ve Decided Not To Move To Venice
As mentioned earlier sometimes a short piece of personal correspondence can tell you more history than even the longest newspaper article or academic treatise. The following note, from Clifford Lawrence of Wethersfield to his sister Helen Van der Veer in New Jersey, was written on “March something or other ”
“Take good care of Anne and stop worrying about us.
“Old Noah! The Ark and Mt. Ararat have eventually emerged from the flood but what a job cleaning up. Things look worse now than they did when your telegram arrived Sunday evening by motorboat.
“The green had about six feet of water over it and I’ve decided not to move to Venice.” (L)
On the morning of Sunday March 22, 1936, according to the U.S. Weather Bureau, the water level was thirty-seven feet and six inches – the worst flood in town history.
Merrick Carpenter verified that number “by setting up a transit at the end of North Main Street. The last house had a grandfather clock on the stairway and we took the water level from there and translated it on the warehouse.” (LI) And Edward Willard, a Broad Street resident, took a canoe with some family members down Elm Street where they “drove a spike into the telephone pole at water level, just level with the street light.” (LII)
In 1936 the town’s population was 8,300 having nearly doubled in the five previous years. The flood covered seventy-five percent of the village with water. More than 30 buildings were pushed off their foundations, and over 250 houses were damaged by the mixture of floodwaters, river mud, and oil from riverfront storage tanks (LIII).
“On March 12, 1936, rain began falling across Connecticut, as well as all of New England, and poured down for the next nine days. Fourteen inches of rain, coupled with melting snows from the area’s mountains, unleashed on Connecticut the greatest floods in its history to that date. The Connecticut and Farmington Rivers and all of their tributaries became raging torrents. Water and ice flows tore out bridges, highways, roads, and railways.
“The dam at New Hartford burst, and homes and buildings were washed away or destroyed. The waters at Hartford rose to a level of 8.6 feet higher than any previous flood level on record, flooding most of the downtown commercial area. Fourteen thousand people were left homeless, several were dead or missing, and epidemic disease threatened the population.
“The National Guard was called to action as the ravaging floods paralyzed business, traffic, communication, and home life, as the cities and towns along the rivers became the principal centers of destruction. While loss of life was small, damages exceeded $100 million, making it the costliest New England weather event to that time.” (LIV)
Martial Law was declared in Wethersfield and residents or businesspeople in the flood zone were issued entry passes “Good only in daylight hours and to the neighborhood specified.” (LV)
The southern end of town and the Wethersfield green became lakes. “East from Harris Hill the waters covered every inch of land from the river bank west, beyond and including the Silas Deane highway…not even were the tops of the white posts, which mark the highway discernible. The Southern New England Ice Plant was as island of shingles.
“[The Wethersfield Green] became a murky lake whose waters pushed out into the Garden Street area.” (LVI) An entire section of the two hundred homes built by A.G. Hubbard over the previous ten years were flooded.
But one of our village landmarks was unscathed – in spite of its location on the Wethersfield Town Green. The “Old Elm” tree, with a trunk circumference of twenty-eight feet, had been recognized in 1924 as the largest of its species in the United States. “Standing majestically looking on the disaster being caused by the angry river the ancient Wethersfield Elm, symbol of the town’s history, remained untouched by the waters which flowed by it within a few feet.” (LVII) The tree, however, would not fare as well in the hurricane of 1938.
All the homes on Marsh Street, Middletown Avenue and Elm Street had to be vacated. The waters on Elm Street reached above the second story windows, washed away cars, trucks, farm implements and barns, and trapped farmers as well as their livestock. “The home of Francis Gilde on River Road, the first house affected each year by the flood, was lost to sight and many believe it washed away.” (LVIII)
But, to a town with a strong sense of history such as Wethersfield, not all of the flood damage was bad news – and some was even architecturally enlightening.
“The Sergeant John Latimer Homestead (private), 580 main St., a steep, narrow, gambrel-roofed house, which was later enlarged into a rather awkward salt-box, has been in the Latimer family since its erection in 1690. Like those around it, this house suffered greatly in the flood of 1936, which revealed that the outer walls were built of rough vertical planking, two inches thick, but finished with a feather-edge on the inside, a unique piece of 17th-century workmanship” (LVIX)
From the onset of the emergency the Russell K. Bourne Post of the American Legion took on the work of rescuing, housing, and feeding the refugees. Some of those involved were William J. Miller, Warren S. Chapin, J.T. McCarthy, Alec Stronach, Myron Baldwin, Winthrop Buck, Rev. Percy Rex, Alfred Hanmer, Dr. E.G.Fox, Howard Boynton, Mrs. George Francis, Rev. George Grady, Rev. Eugene Bushong, Raymond Scery, Mrs. A.L. Roos and Miss Marguerite Boet. About two hundred persons were fed daily at the Legion Hall and all but fifteen refugees found temporary housing with friends.
On Friday March 20 Martial Law was rescinded and the National Guard was recalled. Only one break-in had occurred – the attempted theft of gasoline by two New Britain men from the station belonging to Frank Brigeman.
The immediate impact of the 1936 flood were short-lived, but there were significant long-term effects that extended well beyond the immediate Wethersfield area. “WPA programs worked to build dikes that separated the City of Hartford from the Connecticut River (Cunningham 124)…. Also, the flood of 1936 inundated the District, prompting many people to move away from the Cove, but unlike Hartford, Wethersfield farmers chose not to dike our meadows.” (LX)
While our town agriculturalists opted not to reshape the landscape in order to prevent future deluges, the federal government moved in the opposite direction. “There was no such thing as a fede
ral flood-control dam before
spring floods swept the Northeast in 1936. The devastation, including $66 million in property damage and 11 dead, turned the political tide in favor of granting the federal government the right to seize land in one state to build a dam intended to prevent flooding in another state.” (LXI)
The resulting “Flood Control Act” called for over thirty dams to be constructed in northern New England to prevent flood damage in Connecticut and Massachusetts. As the flood of 1936 became a more distant memory that number shrank to twelve and then nine. And an agreement for compensation was reached among the New England states.
“As the land in Weathersfield, Vt., was seized in the late 1950s, a payment in lieu of taxes was set for the 1,219 acres occupied by the reservoir. The Connecticut River Valley Flood Control Commission determined the payment would be $10,092 a year. Fifty percent of the payment would come from Connecticut, 40 percent from Massachusetts, and 10 percent from Vermont. The amount was apportioned by each state’s flood-control benefit.
“The Village of Perkinsville has an additional property tax, on top of the Weathersfield town tax. To compensate the village, the tax loss from the 40 houses, including six farms, seized for the dam was determined to be $10.
“Some 40 homes and farms are just a dim memory now in Lower Perkinsville Village [Vermont]. For the sacrifice, Connecticut says thank you each year with a $10 check.” (LXII)
One interesting side story to the flood was the role of prisoners housed in the State Correction Facility located, at the time, in Wethersfield. Inmates from the state prison (“no shackles, just the watchful eye of a shotgun…everyone behaved”) were used to help raise the roadbed on Jordan Lane in order to allow traffic carrying supplies to continue flowing. Convicts worked in the pouring rain with W.P.A. workers, American Legionnaires, and town highway department employees to build up the road and prevent flooding.
I also found the following perhaps (sub)urban myth on the internet.
“While at the historic Cove Warehouse, we learned that after the flood of 1936, the prisoners used brute strength to move the warehouse back away from the Connecticut River. I’m sure there are hundreds of interesting stories about the prison and its former occupants. But all that stands today is a very modest in-ground marker denoting the existence of the prison cemetery.
“In the great Connecticut River flood of 1936, the warehouse was picked up and moved from its foundation – only to be picked up and moved back by a massive swarm of criminals from the old state prison next door.” (LXIII)
I had never heard this story nor did I come across it in any newspaper accounts – which kind of surprised me since it is a good story. I emailed my friend John Oblak – avid amateur historian, historical society member, and a docent at the Cove Warehouse – to ask what he knew about the story. And, as frequently happens when you ask someone a question on a subject they are enthusiastic about, I learned a lot more than I expected.
“It is true that the 1936 Flood lifted the Cove Warehouse off its foundation and floated it away. Obviously, it was moved back; but I do not know how that was done.
“That prisoners did it is quite plausible. The actual warehouses were not on raised stone foundations, as is now the case. (It’s possible that the original warehouses stood on low-rise stone foundations.) A warehouse would be located modestly above water level (at pier level) for ease of loading and unloading vessels. When a flood came, a merchant would move his goods to the warehouse second floor; open the doors of the lower floor; and let the floodwaters slosh through. If a very high flood was expected, the goods might be moved to an even safer location on Main Street. Main Street then was called High Street because it is located above flood level.
“Anyway, it would not do for a wooden structure to be flooded every spring, or more, if the intent was to preserve it as a historic building. In the early 1930’s, the inmates at the state prison were employed to construct the current high stone foundation upon which the Cove Warehouse was then raised. Since prisoners did this work, it is quite likely that only a couple years later the inmates would again be called upon to move the flood-displaced warehouse back to its original location.”
As I said at the beginning of this chapter, sometimes a short piece of personal correspondence can tell you more history than even the longest newspaper article or academic treatise.
Wethersfield’s Pride and Joy is Gone
“Wind, Rain Nearly Tear Town Apart – Two Hurt, Trees Down, Roads Blocked, Power Crippled, Houses Damaged, Boats Upset” (LXIV)
According to Dr. Mel Goldstein, television weatherman and author,
“The [September 21] 1938 hurricane was truly the ‘perfect storm.’
“Most of Connecticut was on the dangerous right-hand sector where the storm’s circulation combines with the storm’s northward motion to enhance the force of the wind. The storm was moving at nearly 60 miles per hour, so that flow from the south combined with the strong south wind…to deliver winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour.” (LXV)
All of this was exacerbated by the surprise with which it struck. At that time it was generally believed that storms of this magnitude just DID NOT happen in New England, and as a result meteorological clues were ignored. This was truly “the storm of the century”.
The 1938 hurricane was the third most intense tropical cyclone to ever strike north of Florida – only Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Hazel (1954) – were fiercer. In total more than 75,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 688 people were killed (4 of them in Hartford), and 4,500 were injured (3 in Wethersfield). (LXVI)
“Deluged by torrential rain squalls for the past six days, Wethersfield was literally torn asunder Wednesday afternoon by a wind and rain storm of hurricane proportions.” (LXVII)
As reported in the headline, two persons were injured. Samuel Pollock of Hartford was hospitalized when a large tree fell on the fruit truck that he was driving near Hart’s Tourist Camp on the Berlin Turnpike. Daniel Bond of Nott Street hurt his left arm when he fell from a Connecticut Company repair truck. Five days later, on September 26, a tree that was being cut down by workmen in front of Legion Hall struck Joseph Nogas, also of Nott Street.
Hundreds of trees were uprooted or broken and “virtually every street was rapidly transformed into a mess of tangled foliage, electric and telephone wires, and fallen poles.” (LXVIII)
A set of five electric light and telephone poles on Wolcott Hill Road between Nott Street and Jordan Lane were brought to the ground, halting traffic. Some telephone service was restored by the evening of the storm but “electric service was badly crippled while workers labored to repair lines and furnish power from the new substation of the Hartford Electric Light Company on Nott Street.” (LXVIX)
Trolley service was almost completely shut down due to trees that had fallen onto the cable lines. Roofs were ripped of several houses including those of Joseph on Hart Street, Arthur Jaquith of Garden Street and John E. Rust on Marsh Street.
“Wethersfield Cove became a raging sea under impetus of the wind which at times lifted quantities of water from the surface and swept it in dense white mist across the cove.” (LXX)
Legion Hall, which had a joint installation ceremony of the Russell K. Bourne Post and Auxiliary scheduled for that evening instead became the town’s emergency relief headquarters
Even with all of the above damage, the most serious casualty however may have been a single tree that had lived in the town for over three hundred years.
In his novel, “Lady”, Wethersfield native Thomas Tryon wrote:
“In my youth, the Green was populated not only with strollers and game-players and children and dogs, but with the ancient elms that were the pride of Connecticut, one of them being the largest in America. Visitors would go out of their way to drive by and take pictures of it, and of Lady’s house. The Great Elm – what a tree was that. It grew halfway between our house and hers, one hundred feet high, the trunk almost forty feet in circumference, and must have been something short of two centuries old when it died of the Dutch blight. But while it lived, how grand it was.” (LXXI)
The story of The Great Elm began in the middle of the Eighteenth century.
“John Smith was a great uncle of mine. He went to his pasture 3 miles south west of where the tree stands now after cattle and got off from his horse to get a stick to drive the cattle and pulled this tree up. It was in a wet place, and brought it home horseback and set it out. The Smiths were among the first settlers of Wethersfield and this property has always been in the family.” (LXXII)
The pasture was at what is now the border of Rocky Hill and Wethersfield – off Maple Street – known at that time as “Hangdog Hill”. John Smith was 12 years old when the tree was planted in 1745.
One hundred thirty-eight years later (1883) the four largest branches were measured at 16’8″, 11’6″, 10’3″ and 8’7″ in circumference according to another James T. Smith document. In 1905 it was reported as having a girth of 26’4″ at three feet from the ground, a North-to-South spread of 130′, East to West spread of 137′, a circumference spread of 450′, and a height of about 125′.
By 1924 it was considered the largest elm in the United States with a trunk that measured 28 feet around. “On the morning after the hurricane of 1938, only four of its six magnificent branches, one of them fortunately the largest, seventeen feet in girth, were left standing.” (LXXIII)
The Great Elm had been materially damaged. It survived another fifteen years in this weakened condition. Then, after a three-day struggle to remove the thirty-five ton stump, it was taken down on May 29, 1953 by Tree Surgeon William George and workers of the town Park Department – a victim of Dutch Elm disease, and the hurricane of 1938.
The Hartford times reported, “Wethersfield’s pride and joy is gone.” (LXXIV)
Dark, Cold, Courageous and Angry
“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.
“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)
Lessons 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. Wh at 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.
It was Monday February 6, 1978.
Paris Cinemas 2, on the corner of Silas Deane Highway and Welles Road advertised a 99 cents admission special until 5:30 p.m. Sunday for the movies “Oh God” and “Looking for Mister Goodbar”. (LXXXVIII)
“The first flakes fell just before noon. By nightfall, gale-force winds were sculpting massive snowdrifts.
“Long Island Sound bucked and surged against the shoreline. Hundreds of cars were stranded along the state’s highways, and thousands of people sought refuge in emergency shelters.
“When the skies finally cleared 30 hours later, parts of Connecticut were cloaked in nearly 2 feet of snow.
“The Blizzard of ’78 wasn’t the biggest snowstorm to strike southern New England. That distinction belongs to a ferocious, late-winter storm that brought as much as 50 inches of snow to the state in 1888.
“But the harrowing nor’easter that blew into the region 20 years ago Friday remains etched in the memories of many New Englanders.
“Statistics tell part of the story: More than $25 million in damage, hundreds evacuated from coastal areas, and four men dead of heart attacks while shoveling snow.
“Life’s daily rhythms veered wildly off course. Mail delivery ceased for the first time in 40 years. Office buildings darkened, and roads became ghostly still. Even criminals hunkered down: Hartford police reported that major crime fell by one- third.
“For some, the storm was nothing but a hassle. It left mountains of snow to shovel and turned even the simplest of tasks, such as a jaunt to the corner store, into an adventure. (Remember, this was the late 1970s, when sports utility vehicles were rare and four-wheel-drive was an anomaly.)
“Many people grew stir-crazy after spending three days indoors. But for children, and adults who share a child’s sense of wonder, it was an enchanted time. Instead of sitting in school, children spent the days sledding, sipping hot chocolate and climbing atop enormous snowdrifts.”(LXXXIX)
There was however no significant damage as a result of the storm because of the fluffy, light nature of the snow – a meteorological result of the temperature dropping into the twenties during the heaviest snowfall. The major impact of the storm was on travel.
Unlike former Governor Thomas Meskill, whose career in elective office was at least partially ended by his out-of-state absence during the ice storm of 1973 (Please see chapter 8), Governor Ella Grasso, was right in the middle of the action.
“Gov. Grasso’s car got stuck as she tried to make her way from the governor’s mansion in Hartford’s West End to the state’s storm command center in the State Armory. She walked several blocks through the snow.
“Once Grasso arrived at the command center, there was no question who was in charge. ‘She was a fountain of strength,’ said James F. Shugrue, who was state Department of Transportation commissioner at the time.
“Grasso quickly seized on an offhand comment made by one of her staff workers. ‘Someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if the roads were closed?’ And the governor made her decision before the 11 o’clock news,’ Shugrue said. Grasso’s ruling meant that DOT crews could get out and clear the roads without having to worry about traffic snarls.” (XC)
The governor shut down the state for three days and President Carter declared the state, along with Massachusetts and Rhode Island, federal disaster areas. A contingent of 547 soldiers was sent from Fort Hood, Texas to help with the cleanup. Because of her actions this weather event became known popularly as “Ella’s Storm”.
Marsha, Bram (our son) and I had moved to Brimfield Road in Wethersfield in the spring of 1977. Marsha was a stay-at-home mom and I worked at the Travelers in downtown Hartford. I commuted to and from my job on the “T2 to Rose Hill” bus that traversed Wolcott Hill Road/Franklin Avenue to Main Street in Hartford two or three times an hour.
Those of us at work could see the heavy accumulation of snow. And as the afternoon wore on several commuters from our capitol city’s more outer suburbs became convinced that their trip home was not going to happen and made arrangements to stay in downtown hotels.
I think we were allowed to leave work early – two or three in the afternoon – because my recollections of the trip home begin in daylight and end in the dark. I called Marsha from my office phone (no cells in 1978) and told her that I was leaving. I had not worn any boots.
The bus schedule was totally obliterated by the un-plowed conditions of the local roads and the untimely outflow of mass transit passengers. I waited at least an hour – probably longer. Then, failing to see any semblance of my normal bus and having a not-totally-full “T1 to Jordan Lane” motor coach in front of me, I opted to ride to our town’s northern border and hoof it home from there.
Other commuters were not as successful. Routes I-84, I-91 and I-95 were converted into parking lots as stuck motorist hunkered down in their cars. Television station WVIT opened its Corbin’s Corner studios on Route 84 as a shelter for people stranded on that highway to come in and get warm. Snow accumulations were from one to three feet – but the real problem was the fifty-plus mile-per-hour winds that created roof-reaching, car-burying snowdrifts.
The next day we shoveled out – something that took the three of us at least the morning. (This was the last snowstorm we would weather without mechanical assistance. Shortly thereafter we went halves with a neighbor on a Toro snowblower. Marsha and I still use it.) Located within easy walking distance of Bliss Market and Leo’s Pizza we had no need to venture onto the plowed but still snowy roads.
The weather became calm and sunny. Now matter how old you get you never outgrow the joy of an unexpected “snow day”. Three of them were even better.
It’s an Ugly Scene Out There
Unlike the probable tornado of 1787 (please see chapter 2), the storm that struck Wethersfield on June 26, 2009 was both officially proclaimed and well documented.
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TAUNTON MA, 730 PM EDT SAT JUN 27 2009
…PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT…
…EF 1 TORNADO CONFIRMED IN WETHERSFIELD ON FRIDAY JUNE 26…
A REPRESENTATIVE FROM THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE OFFICE IN TAUNTON MASSACHUSETTS CONDUCTED A STORM SURVEY IN FARMINGTON AND WETHERSFIELD CONNECTICUT TODAY DUE TO THE MAJOR DAMAGE WHICH OCCURRED IN THESE TOWNS ON FRIDAY. IN ADDITION…A SURVEY TEAM FROM THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FORECAST OFFICE IN UPTON NEW YORK CONDUCTED AN AERIAL SURVEY OF THE SAME AREA. THESE SURVEYS CONCLUDED THAT…WHILE MOST OF THE DAMAGE THAT OCCURRED ACROSS SOUTHERN HARTFORD COUNTY WAS DUE TO STRAIGHT LINE WINDS…A NARROW TORNADO OCCURRED IN WETHERSFIELD CONNECTICUT. THIS TORNADO WAS RATED AN EF 1 ON THE ENHANCED FUJITA SCALE…INDICATING WIND SPEEDS BETWEEN 85 AND 100 MPH.
An article in Wethersfield Life described the path and summarized the damage.
“Wethersfield’s first tornado in nearly 300 years (since 1729) raced through town at 90 miles an hour in three minutes uprooting hundreds of really big and dangerous trees, damaging 70 buildings, six of them totally destroyed, leaving a path of destruction from Nott Street through Timber Village, devastating Church Street, rampaging along Wolcott Hill, the Silas Deane Highway and through the Broad Street Green. Seven thousand eight hundred households lost power, some overnight, some for four days.
“Hail the size of quarters and of golf balls banged on the rooftops and cars; rain came down in blinding sheets.” (XCI)
It happened at about 4:45 p.m. and lasted only three or four minutes. No one was injured and there was basically no crime from the time of the storm through the immediately following weekend. “[Police Chief James Cetran reported] ‘Two arrests were made during this period of time, one DWI, and one harassment-type arrest, neither storm related. We did get a lot of domestic-related calls for service because people were without power and had nothing better to do than to argue. However, no violence was reported therefore no arrests were made.” (XCII)
The Pitkin Community Center was opened up as an emergency shelter. A few residents stayed there overnight and many more dropped in to take showers, charge cell phones or amuse their children with DVDs.
Claire O’Toole Cashman was leaving the D’Esopo funeral home at the height of the storm; “As I was turning from Nott, coming out of D’Esopo’s I took the right onto Ridge Road, like a transition from a perfectly okay place to this madhouse. Trees were falling in front of me and in back of me. I just missed getting killed. I was saying oh my God. If I die on the way home from a funeral, that would make a funny obituary. (XCIII)
Dana Spicer, owner of the Heart of the Country gift shop, lost her front porch.
“She had to take a day off, planning to work in her garden, but the weather didn’t look good. ‘I was very close to the front door when this 75 to 100-foot pine tree was sheered off and came down and scared me to death. A few branches on another tree came down on our side porch. It happened so quickly I was not prepared. The hail and the rain were so loud that it obscured the sound of the tornado. There was this gentle rain and distant thunder and all of a sudden torrential rain and the hail. We have interior damage and there are holes in the roof but we are able to live here. The porch collapse broke a couple of our storm windows. (XCIV)
Like most of our town’s residents, Marsha and I were immersed in the storm without realizing what we were in the middle of.
She was in Glastonbury when the tornado hit, and drove home in the after-effects. The Putnam Bridge across the Connecticut River (normally two lanes each way) had its available space cut in half by falling trees. She was impressed that, without police guidance or traffic signals (no electricity), the drivers regulated themselves in order to kept the traffic flowing – albeit quite slowly. Her normally five-minute trip home took just over thirty minutes.
I was at home when the rain poured down, the wind blew, the power went out, and the three-way intersection in front of our house flooded due to the storm sewers becoming clogged by storm strewn branches and leaves. I went outside to clean out the catch basins and was surprised by the unusually high volume of traffic trying to pass through our side street.
As I stood ankle-deep and hands-plunged in the rapidly rising water, I wondered — did I really want to leave this life as a result of being welded to a municipal catch basin by an errant bolt of lightning? On the other hand it would make a pretty entertaining story for someone else to tell. But, since I did not get fused in place and the passageway did get cleared, I guess I and my other neighbors who came out did the right thing.
After the storm, all around town, people took advantage of the comfortable temperatures and lack of cable television to walk around their neighborhoods. Trees were uprooted and rested on houses or blocked roads. Most of us out there looked totally surprised.
Wethersfield’s small farming community was affected.
“Farmer Chris Anderson said: ‘We did have damage but there are probably 8 to 10 acres where we might get 50 percent of.
/>“‘We are hoping that the c
orn that just come up will also be okay. I suppose you could say we are very lucky. A lot of the small vegetables got damaged, string beans, peas. It finished the strawberries for a year. But we have Anderson corn on the stand right now.’</br
“But there has been destruction. ‘In some of the fields, big trees have fallen that we had to remove. In the meadows there are trees that came down, as you can imagine.’
And on Broad Street so many fallen trees, Mr. Anderson said, ‘Every time I go by the Green it blows my mind.’ “(XCV)
Probably the most visible and most troubling impact of the tornado was seen at the Wethersfield Town Green on Broad Street in Old Wethersfield.
“[Former Town Tree Warden] John Lepper didn’t need the National Weather Service to tell him a tornado had ripped up trees that could have been standing since Colonial times as he toured the old town green Saturday morning.
“‘I’m still just totally shocked at what I saw,” Lepper, the town’s former tree warden, said. “To have so much devastation in one area is almost unimaginable.’
“Lepper said he believes the green in Old Wethersfield was right in the tornado’s path. Among the trees destroyed there was a copper beech that had been damaged in previous storms ‘but was doing OK until now.’
“But the tallest and fourth-tallest pin oaks in the state, both on the green, survived virtually unscathed, Lepper said.
“‘The trees on the green are very well maintained. I think it was the right combination of the ground being soft because it was saturated with water and the strong winds,’ Lepper said.
“The green and the surrounding area are Wethersfield’s heart, giving the town much of its historic identity. It’s home to concerts and community gatherings, a place for dog-walkers and picnickers, and it’s where prom-goers pose for pre-party pictures. (XCVI)
“‘It’s an ugly scene out there,’ [Governor M. Jodi Rell] said. (XCVII)
With the assistance of the Physical Services Departments of surrounding towns, workers from out of state electric companies, various arborists and a large number of in-town volunteers order was restored to the town. (“Fifty calls were received, several of which were from groups or teams of people willing to be assigned wherever we needed them.” (XCVIII))
Some things still do not look right, and to some of us probably never will – the lower horizon at the intersection of Church Street and Wolcott Hill Road, our favorite trees gone from the Town Green – but “The storm was over; the sun came out; the work went on.” (XCVIX)
Something to Talk About
Hartford’s own Mark Twain famously said, “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
A former Philosophy teacher of mine however disagreed with Twain’s humorously intended remark. His view was that “Everybody talks about the weather precisely because they cannot do anything about it.” People like to complain. And we particularly like to grumble about things that we have absolutely no control over.
Either way, I have spent a good amount of time, space, and words chattering on the meteorological history of Wethersfield. Why?
Again Mark Twain:
“I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather. I don’t know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerk’s factory who experiment and learn how, in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don’t get it.
“There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours.” (C)
136/24 seems like obvious hyperbole.
But then again, what are the odds or having, over a 275 year period of time: several floods, an earthquake, two fires, a pair of blizzards, an ice storm, a hurricane, and two tornadoes – all within a thirteen square mile area? And those are just the ones that made this list.
Now that is something to talk about.
- I. “Money for Floods” by Richard Shindell
- II. Stiles “The History of Ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut”
III. Cotton Mather “Remarkable Providences”
V. Yankee Magazine, 09/2008
VI. Connecticut Historical Collections
VII. Goldstein, Mel, Dr. Mel’s Climate Book
VIII. Rev. Stephen Mix, “The Substance of Two Sermons Occasioned by a Terrible Earthquake in New England and othe parts of North America”.
IX. Sidney Perley, “Historic Storms of New England”
XV. William D. Andrews, “The Literature of the 1727 Earthquake”
XVI. Stiles, op cit
XVII. Mix, op cit
XX. Early American Tornadoes, 1586-1870
XXI. Goldstein, op cit
XXII. Early American Tornadoes, op cit
XXIII. J.L. Lewis in the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, 8/20/1787
XXXI. Special acts and resolutions of the state of Connecticut, Volume 1 –
XXXIII. Connecticut Mirror, 8/6/1831 (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014094/)
XXXIV. Stiles, op cit
XXXV. Special acts and resolutions of the state of Connecticut, Volume 1 –
XXXIX. Diana Ross McCain “It Happened in Connecticut”, Morris Book Publishing, 2008
XL. Wethersfield Historical Society Archives
XLI. McCain, op cit
XLII. New York Times
XLIII. Wethersfield Historical Society Archives
LIII. Old Wethersfield Master Plan
LIV. Connecticut: a guide to its roads, lore, and people Federal Writers’ Project
LV. Htfd Daily times 3/25/36
LIX. Connecticut: a guide to its roads, lore, and people.” By Federal Writers’ Project
LXI. Vermont Be Dammed, Courant.com
LXIV. Hartford Courant 9/22/1938
LXV. Goldstein, op cit
LXVII. Hartford Courant, 9/2/1938
LXXI. Tryon Thomas, “Lady”
LXXII. Wethersfield Historical Society: Letter from James T. Smith, 10/26/1883
LXXIII. Lamb, Frank H., “Bood of Broadleaf Trees, 1939
LXXIV. Hartford Times, 5/29/1953
LXXV. Hartford Courant, 10/31/1997
LXXVIII. Wethersfield Post, 12/20/1973
LXXXVIII. Boxoffice Magazine 02/06/78
LXXXIX. Hartford Courant 2/7/1978
XCI. Wethersfield Life, July, 2009
XCVII. Hartford Courant, 6/28/2009
XCVIII. Wethersfield Life, op cit
C. Twain, Mark, “Speech on the Weather”
About the Author: Jim Meehan