The Cold Storm and Great Freeze of 1857 prostrated New England during the winter of 1856-57, one of the worst ever. Thirty-two snowstorms dumped more than six feet of snow on the ground. Fierce winds created drifts as high as 18 feet, and it got so cold the mercury froze in thermometers.
The frigid cold and heavy snow caused tremendous suffering and destruction, both during the winter and afterward. An untold number of people died. Some perished in shipwrecks, fires or floods, while others departed quietly, borne away by cold or starvation. The bitter cold no doubt contributed to an influenza outbreak, called “one of the greatest epidemics,” and death.
The property damage was immense, beginning with church spires blown away and ending with freshets that carried off buildings. High winds dashed dozens of ships against the shore and blew down houses. Commerce came to a halt, as snow paralyzed railroads and ice immobilized coastal navigation.
“That was a tremendous winter,” wrote steamboat historian Henry Whittemore in 1893.
The weather in New England remained mild until mid-December, though plenty of snow had fallen. Then on December 17 the temperature plummeted to 12 below zero in Massachusetts and 16 below in Maine.
The next day was the coldest day New England had suffered in 22 years, with temperatures rising scarcely above zero anywhere in the region.
It would get even colder. And for the rest of the winter, violent wind and snowstorms buffeted New England. A snowstorm on December 23 foretold what was to come.
January opened with a storm on the third, which made the railroads impassable.
Sidney S. Rider, editor of Book Notes, recalled that storm half a century later. He worked as a clerk in the bookstore of George H. Whitney in Westminster Street. It started on Saturday, snowed all night and continued all the next day. Westminster Street was a bed of ice two feet thick for a month or more, he wrote.
A Book Notes reader, W.A. Potter, remembered the next storm. “On Jan. 8, 1857, railroad trains were snowbound all over New England. On that day not a train reached Providence until evening. Pawtucket omnibuses were unable to reach the city, Narragansett Bay was frozen solid to Newport, and a few persons skated to that city. No vessel arrived from outside for 10 days.”
Fire and Ice
On very cold days, New Englanders who lived in densely populated towns grew especially anxious about the threat of fire.
During the Cold Storm and Great Freeze, fire gobbled a box factory in Cambridge, the Claverick House in East Boston, Dr. J.E. Hunt’s house and outbuildings in Thomaston, Maine and John Coe’s dwelling house in Hitchcockville, Conn.
In Laconia, N.H., the railroad shops burned at the end of January. “The temperature was 30 degrees below zero, and the fireman suffered severely,” according to the fire department’s history.
The most spectacular fire that winter burned down Vermont’s granite Statehouse.
For three days starting January 6, temperatures had plunged below zero. At the beginning of that cold snap, a workman was heating the Vermont Statehouse for a meeting the next day. After he closed the vents, the furnace got too hot. Flames then shot up through a floor register in Representatives Hall. The fire soon enveloped the dome. Townspeople helped firefighters by throwing chunks of ice and snow at the building.
The fire seemed under control until the wind whipped up, scattering burning coals throughout the town. Only the heavy snow on nearby roofs prevented it from spreading. In the end, the inferno left only the granite walls standing. Vermont had to build a new Statehouse.
10 Days in January
On Saturday, January 17, an enormous cold weather system settled over a swathe of the United States. By Sunday it was 30 below at Muscatine, Iowa, 40 below in Watertown, N.Y., and 30 below at Woodstock, Vt.
That weekend began the worst 10 days of the worst winter in memory.
People thought it too cold to snow, reported the Cambridge Chronicle. They had it wrong. On Sunday night, a devastating snow hurricane — the Cold Storm — hit New England.
A fierce northwest wind drove the snow. “Doubtless many persons, as they reluctantly crawled out of their warm nests to shiver in the sharp air of Monday morning, looked forth with surprise upon the drifted heaps that blocked their gates and doors,” the Chronicle said.
“Men were floundering through the snow up to their waists,” reported the Chronicle. Women only peeped out at the window and railcars stood still.
In Connecticut, between two and three feet of snow fell, and all travel stopped, according to the Illustrated Commercial Mechanical, Professional and Statistical Gazetteer. On Monday the gale turned into a “perfect tempest” and blew down the Chapel Street Church spire in New Haven, prostrated “two lofty spires” in Waterbury and caused “much other damage.”
The barque Tedesco, headed for Boston, wrecked off Swampscott, Mass., all hands lost. In Provincetown, gale-force winds drove 17 vessels onto the beach. The wind also demolished a house in New Bedford.
Two schooners and a sloop went ashore at Owl’s Head, and the storm blocked the roads in Thomaston, Maine.
After the Cold Storm, drifts on the Cape Cod railroad tracks rose as high as 18 feet.
In Essex, Mass., drifts rose above the windows of William Perkins’ good-sized two-story house, the Pittsfield Sun reported. The Perkins family had to look at the clock to find out whether morning had arrived yet. One of the neighbors shoveled away the snow so Perkins could climb out of the window.
In Providence, Sidney Rider remembered the tremendous amounts of snow. “When I reached Mr. Whitney’s shop that snow drift was 17 feet high; and the boys had pierced it with a hole, though which the boys had led a horse, unhitched from a nearby carting wagon,” he wrote.
That was one of the few businesses that did open after the Cold Storm. Many didn’t. The trains didn’t run and ships froze in harbors all along the coast. People did without the bread, meat and milk ordinarily delivered to their door because draught horses couldn’t make it through the snow.
In the Connecticut River Valley, the cost of food skyrocketed. “The factory had been developed at the expense of the farm. Provisions were coming in from the West and the Connecticut valley was not feeding itself,” wrote Springfield historian Mason Arnold Green.
The poor suffered terribly for the want of food, and many churches took up collections for them, wrote Salem historian Sidney Perley.
The Great Freeze of 1857 continued after the storm. On January 19, the day of the Cold Storm, the mercury froze in the thermometer in Franconia, N.H., and registered 50 below zero in the Vermont towns of Montpelier and St. Johnsbury.
“The air was very thin and peculiarly transparent and light, and the sky therefore remarkably clear,” wrote Perley.
Steamboats had to break the ice on Long Island Sound, which froze for a month. “The harbor at New Haven is frozen as tight as Baffin’s Bay,” reported the Hartford Times on January 27. “Capt. Merrow, of the schooner Daniel Trowbridge, who has been for a week frozen in near Southwest Ledge, at the mouth of New Haven harbor, reports that nothing but ice can be seen from his topmast, with a spyglass.
Narragansett Bay was frozen tight, with ice 14-inch thick on Pawtucket Bar as late as mid-March. The ice blockage lasted so long that the Providence textile mills started to run out of cotton.
“There was plenty at Newport, and the Commercial Steamboat Company resolved to break through the ice and get that cotton,” wrote Whittemore (ck). A captain Williams took charge of the Curlew, a very strong boat. The Curlew broke through the ice and towed the cotton in bales.
In New Hampshire, Portsmouth Harbor froze over for the first time in memory. So did Boston Harbor. On January 26, Henry David Thoreau saw vessels frozen in the ice.
“Saw thousands on the ice,” he wrote in his journal. “[A] stream of men reaching down to Fort Independence where they were cutting a channel toward the city– Ice said to reach 14 miles. Snow untracked on many decks.” The ice didn’t go out until February 15, he noted.
On January 31, it snowed in Mexico City, an extremely rare phenomenon.
Then came a thaw in February and two great rainstorms, which brought another set of problems. Tremendous freshets washed away buildings and bridges from Connecticut to Maine.
In Connecticut, the Housatonic River flooded, carrying off bridges. The floodwaters rose to the top of the Manufacturers’ Bank vault. After the flood subsided, bank officers couldn’t find a dry note of paper in the building.
The Shetucket River in Norwich flooded the waterfront and caused tremendous property damage.
In Castleton, Vt., an avalanche destroyed the barn and wagon shed belonging to Merlin Clark on February 22. Ice and snow filled the Clark’s house and buried a baby in its cradle, but the child survived unhurt.
Flooding came later in Maine. On April 16, for example, a Kennebec River freshet caused damage up and down the river, carrying away the toll bridge at Waterville and a railroad bridge in Skowhegan.
Another Cold Storm
During March and April, the weather seesawed between balmy and fiercely cold. Then on April 21, Connecticut got hit by another great snowstorm. It started as rain, then turned to snow, dumping as much as two feet on Southern Connecticut.
The storm system whitened the streets of Baltimore, but in Bartlett, N.H., heavy rains washed away every bridge.
Then just when everyone thought the winter had ended, ice formed in Litchfield County, Connecticut, on Sunday, May 17.
This story updated in 2022.