Universal York

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York County Had Lots of Snow in 1831

Sleighing party drawn by Lewis Miller
I just sat down to blog about an entirely different subject when it struck me that I had never shared my February 2007 York Sunday News column on the big snowstorm of 1831. At that time, I pointed out that we have been fortunate not to have had any record breaking snowstorms for some years. We can’t say that about 2010.
See below for the original column. I think you will agree that we are still a lot better off and much more able to deal with tons of snow than York County residents of the past. Except for the sleigh rides, it doesn’t sound like much fun.

One Snowy Winter

So far, we have escaped major snowfalls the past few years. Even so, upon sighting the first flake, we flock to the supermarkets for those essentials–bread, milk and toilet paper. Gas pumps work overtime topping off tanks. Those chores completed, most of us can cocoon in our snug houses, watching the Weather Channel and calling our friends to decry the terrible weather. All the while knowing that even if there is a rare accumulation of two or three feet of snow, powerful snowplows will presently be by to restore our mobility.
A look at the blizzard-like storm that stretched over two and a half days in January 1831 might put our winter worries into perspective. The York Gazette, collaborated by the diary of Dr. Alexander Small, paints a vivid picture: Snow started falling shortly before dusk on a very cold Friday the 14th. It didn’t cease until sometime early Sunday morning, the 16th. According to Dr. Small, depth averaged 30 inches, but strong winds piled up drifts to an estimated height of eight feet.
Roads were completely impassable. Not only were there no snow plows, but many roads and lanes then were below grade. They quickly filled from bank to bank. The Gazette reported that farmers, who had brought their teams and wagons to York, loaded with items for Friday market, were stranded until Sunday. Then they tried to get home on horseback, leaving their wagons behind. The paper stated: “Teams of four and six horses with large sleighs were sent out in different directions to break through the embankments which had been formed by the drifted snow.”
Conditions were especially bad for the people in town, who relied on food and wood (necessary for heat and cooking) being brought in from the countryside. The Gazette called for farmers to try their best to get supplies to town and for the townspeople to help the needy.
Small also recounted that the poorer people especially suffered from lack of wood. They were probably not as able to stockpile fuel as their better-off neighbors. He commented that: “Many were obliged to go to bed to avoid the effects of the cold.” Just imagine your own body heat being the only source of heat in your freezing house. According to Small’s records, the temperature dipped into the single digits several times that month.
Another York newspaper, the Republican, reported that the price of wood quickly rose from two to six dollars a cord. They credited the charity of unnamed local citizens with alleviating serious suffering among the poorer families during that cold, cold winter.
Not everyone looked on the unexpected snowfall with gloom. The Gazette predicted good sleighing would be enjoyed, especially by the young, for the next four to six weeks. 26-year-old Alexander Small was more explicit: He notes that on the 24th (a week after the big snow), a group went on “a sleighing excursion to Mr. Vanders.” Vander was evidently an innkeeper. He names 25 other men, besides himself, most of whom piled into John Zeigler’s wood sled. Included in the party of Yorkers was the artist Lewis Miller, who illustrated a similar jaunt in his Chronicles of York. Before a “fine supper” shortly after 12 o’clock, the group had consumed “six gallons of mulled wine, three gallons of apple toddy, two gallons of wine, besides brandy, beer, gin, etc.” No wonder Small relates that “many of them became very merry.” He also reports that they returned home safely around three, so perhaps the driver didn’t indulge.
Sooner or later, we’ll have another storm akin to the one in 1831. We did in 1857 and again in 1888. The 36 inches that fell February 13 and 14, 1899 is reported to be the record hereabouts. Most of us remember, not too fondly, the 31 inches we had to dig out of on January 7 and 8, 1996. Maybe next year…or even later this winter. In 1958, 32 inches accumulated on one day, March 20. Whenever it happens, we too will manage to get the roads open, help our neighbors, and maybe even party a bit. Just have a designated driver for your sleigh.

Imagine having to stay in bed as the only way to try and stay warm. Thank heaven for central heating, electricity and running water. I am not going to complain when those utility bills come in.
Click here for more on the evils of sleighing parties.