The Cold Summer of 1816

In the sweltering heat of early July 2002, I was reminded of accounts of the summer of 1816 when, on July 5th, the citizens of Skaneateles awoke to find everything covered with ice.

It was the summer of “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” Years afterward, historian E. N. Leslie wrote of 1816, “June was the coldest month ever known in this latitude; frost, ice and snow prevailed during the whole month; almost every green thing was killed; the early fruit blossoms were all blasted.”

July and August brought more cold weather. Farmers replanted after each killing frost, and the new crops were killed by the next, until it was September and winter began in earnest. In 1816 and 1817, Skaneateles endured 16 consecutive months of freezing temperatures and frosts.

So it was all across the northeastern United States and in the adjoining Canadian provinces. That summer, birds and newly shorn lambs died from exposure. Corn and garden vegetables were blackened and died. Peach and apple blossoms were destroyed.

Farmers wondered if the change was permanent. A history of Madison County noted, “The alarm and depression so wrought upon the community, that a religious revival ensued… Every resource for sustenance was carefully husbanded; even forest berries and roots were preserved.” One farmer was obliged to dig up the potatoes he had planted, to furnish one meal a day for his family.

In Skaneateles, Leslie wrote:

“The sun’s rays seemed to be destitute of heat throughout the summer; all nature seemed to have been clad in a sable hue, and men exhibited much anxiety concerning the future of this life.”

There was no rational explanation, not until 1913, when William Humphrey, a U.S. Weather Bureau scientist, published a paper on the effect of volcanic dust in the atmosphere.

Skaneateles’ cold summer of 1816 had begun a year earlier, in Indonesia, on the remote island of Sumbawa. On April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano 13,000 feet high, erupted and sent 12 cubic miles of rock into the sky ­ taking 4,000 feet off the top of the mountain, leaving a crater three miles wide. It was the largest explosion in the recorded history of mankind. The plume of volcanic dust rose 25 miles into the atmosphere, and slowly ringed the globe, shrouding and chilling as it went.

In China and Tibet, cold weather killed trees, rice, even water buffalo. In Great Britain and Europe, cold and eight weeks of nonstop rain led to crop failure, famine and an epidemic of typhus.

And in the northeastern U.S., where the seasons “turned backwards,” the residents of Skaneateles ate roots and berries, and prayed for warmer weather. It is a small world after all.

* * *

Skaneateles: History of its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times (1902) Edmund Norman Leslie;  “Blast from the Past” by Robert Evans, Smithsonian, July 2002; The “Year without a Summer” Page, Patrick Hughes; Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death: The Infamous “Year Without A Summer” by Keith C. Heidorn.

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