Category Archives: Weather History

New England’s Yellow Day of 1881: A Saffron Curtain Descends

This engraving from Wikimedia Commons shows the assassination of President James A. Garfield, with Secretary of State James G. Blaine standing at right. (Engraving originally published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” on July 11, 1881.)

In summer’s waning days in 1881, New Englanders read about hope for President Garfield‘s recovery from a gunshot wound suffered two months earlier, an imminent rising of the Apache Nation in the West, and a baseball game between the “Bostons” and the “Worcesters”, where unfavorable weather “kept away all spectators” and worries that Pike, the center fielder for the Worcesters, must have been “sold out” since the errors he made had given a win to the Boston team.

That all changed when the skies darkened shortly after dawn on Tuesday, September 6, 1881 – throughout all six New England states.  In the “forenoon,” as they called their mornings then, witnesses watched a “London fog” envelop their homes and roads.  This London fog soon took on a yellowish hue.  New Englanders worried that they were seeing the beginnings of a hurricane coming.  They began to talk about their “Yellow Day”.  The name stuck.  Those among the more superstitious remembered Mother Shipton‘s apocalyptic prophecies with apprehension and hoped that they were not witnessing the end of the world.

By noon, the skies had darkened to the point that birds were seen roosting, and people, so accustomed to relying on natural light during their nineteenth-century days, reached for “artificial lights” to light their offices and homes.  Early afternoon trains left Boston with lamps lit, and the railroad men were seen leaving the depots with their lit lanterns in-hand, a scene usually only seen on evening and night trains.  People began to compare Yellow Day with Black Friday, New England’s darkest day, that had occurred in 1780, more than a century earlier.

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society...

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Massachusetts, in Fall River and in Lowell, students left school early.  Mills throughout New England either lit their ‘artificial lights’ or followed suit, sending their employees out into the oddly darkened streets.  Mills that relied on artificial lighting took on an unearthly glow as their gas lights were lit during the day.  Instead of their usual yellow glow, gas lighting took on a brilliant white glow in the strange light of the day.  Outside, lamplighters lit street lamps on the cities’ main roads. In agricultural communities like West Barnstable, farm work stopped for the day, as farmers watched cattle stop feeding and hens roost early.  Witnesses began to describe the Yellow Tuesday skies as looking like something that one would see when peering through smoked or stained glass.

The air became still, and calm, during that Tuesday, and people remarked about the odd tinge that colors took on as the day wore on.  Plants were particularly brilliant – the odd light sharpening their green and blue hues.  Lawns, usually a mundane green, took on brilliant color, and looked oddly bluish, in the day’s strange light.  Yellow objects appeared colorless and white, and the color in red objects popped, while blue objects became ghostly.  People in the street looked sickly and yellowish.  Overhead, birds flew low in the skies.

Boston's Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source:  Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

Boston’s Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source: Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

So many Bostonians rushed to the Equitable Building to view the strange day from its high roof that the roof had to be closed to further visitors in the afternoon.  People sought explanations for what they were witnessing.  The calmest theories blamed forest fires raging in Canada or Michigan, combining with fog and overcast skies in New England.  Surely, the “saffron curtain” blanketing New England’s skies was a combination of that fog and smoke passing high above the surface of the earth, people reasoned.  But, no one smelled smoke.  Others attributed the yellowish hue to large amounts of pollen in the air from pine and fir trees.   Many fretted about the skies, and more than a few feared that the Judgement Day was at hand.  Some took this even further.  Groups of Second Adventists in Worcester, Woonsocket, and Hartford were seen wearing their ascension robes to local schoolhouses where they awaited the world’s end.  More than a few whispered that the “saffron curtain” was the sign of a divine judgement for the July 1881 shooting that had left President Garfield ailing in New Jersey.

As the afternoon wore on toward 5 PM, the smoke began to dissipate, and by 8 PM, stars sparkled in the clear skies above New England.  New Englanders compared the Yellow Day of 1881 to the Dark Day of a century before, in 1780.  Black Friday of 1780, as it was known, followed an odd and severe winter of 1779-1780 where New Englanders frequently saw auroral displays and large spots appearing on the sun.  Snow, four feet deep, lasted from mid-November until April.  After that cold, long winter, a vast blackness opened the day on Friday, May 19, 1780, across New England, and extended beyond its borders into northern Pennsylvania and well into Canada.  The Massachusetts Spy reported that sunlight at high noon was about as bright as clear, bright moonlight.

A Map showing Damage in Michigan from the Thumb Fire of 1881. (From: State of Michigan: Department of Natural Resources)

In its aftermath, 1881’s Yellow Tuesday joined the 18th century’s Black Friday in lists of oddly memorable New England days.  The causes behind the odd skies of that September day were eventually traced to smoke that had travelled eastward from Michigan’s massive “Thumb Fire” that had burnt over a million acres of woodlands in Michigan’s Thumb Area (Pictured, at left) all on one day, the day before.  Yellow Tuesday long lived on in regional lore, but left everyday conversation soon after with President Garfield’s death on September 19.


The Day a Cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts – 1890

On a summer morning in July 1890, the cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts suddenly and without warning.  What we would today call a tornado or microburst began as soft showers advancing across the city as people made their way to work on Saturday, July 26, 1890.  As nine o’clock approached, the clouds thickened and darkened the sky.  The rain intensified.  Fifteen minutes later, a funnel cloud appeared in the skies above Lawrence.  The wind picked up.  Then, the noise started.  Later, survivors learned that those sounds were nearby houses being torn apart.

Most Lawrence residents confused the commotion for noise coming from the city’s textile mills or from the city’s busy streets.  Chaos emerged as they realized a cyclone was crashing down onto South Lawrence, sending trees, houses, and other debris flying  through the air and across the city.  In just three minutes, twenty-five houses were completely destroyed.  Another 25 received serious damage.  Dozens of people were wounded, and eight people lost their lives.

St. Patrick's Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe - July 27, 1890)

St. Patrick’s Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe – July 27, 1890)

The cyclone struck Lawrence just west of Broadway, a main route connecting the city with Andover.  The houses on the west side of Broadway escaped with minor damage and downed tree limbs.  St. Patrick’s Church, the Catholic Church at the corner of Salem Street on Broadway’s east side, wasn’t so lucky.  It suffered broken windows and a lost roof on one of its transepts.

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy:  Illustrated American, 1890)

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy: Illustrated American, 1890)

Far worse, though, was the damage to the neighborhoods off Broadway.  Among the first casualties of the 1890 Lawrence cyclone was the saddest.  Mary Lyons, 24, was outside as the cyclone approached her Emmet Street home.  Fearing for her child, she ran inside her home just moments before the winds dashed her house from its foundation and broke it apart.  Her husband, James, was just a few feet further away, in a neighboring field, and just steps behind his wife.  The winds proved too much for him and he was blown aside, never reaching the house.  Outside, pinned to the ground just feet from his home, he was forced to watch it break apart with his family inside.  When the winds died down minutes later, he regained his footing, ran for his home and, with other rescuers, found the body of his wife, with a beam that had fallen across her forehead.  As they pulled her from the wreckage of the house, they found the Lyons’ young daughter underneath her, very alive and clasping her mother’s body while crying “mamma, mamma”.

The cyclone next crossed Salem Street’s overhead railroad bridge where Michael Higgins, who was working the bridge’s switch house, was blown more than 150 feet away.  His body was later found with a broken neck.   He was 23.  The winds next hit the house of Deacon William Cutler, who lived on the corner of Salem and Blanchard Streets.  The four people in the house at the time survived with just minor injuries.  One daughter narrowly escaped death by hiding under the family’s piano.  Another of Deacon Cutler’s daughters, Helen, just 11 years old, wasn’t so fortunate when she was carried down an embankment by the cyclone and struck by debris.  She died a few hours later.

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone.  (Courtesy:  The Illustrated American, 1890)

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone. (Courtesy: The Illustrated American, 1890)

Soon after the cyclone bore down on the Cutlers’ home, the wind shifted, sending the cyclone spiraling toward Springfield Street, where the heaviest devastation was recorded.  The houses there were either torn down entirely, blown over on their sides, or had entire walls torn out.  There, Elizabeth O’Connell, 32, died when she was crushed to death by the debris of her collapsing house.  Her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, affectionately known as Mamie, died with her.  After Springfield Street, the cyclone flattened a grove of trees on Union street, before demolishing another six houses on Portland Street.  On Portland Street, among the debris, Elizabeth Collins and her six-year-old daughter, Annie, were found inside their house.  Hannah Beatty, 10 years old, was also found nearby.  All died of suffocation after being trapped under debris.

Some stories of miracle cases were told where death had been averted.  A bundle of rags blowing down Springfield Street in the aftermath of the cyclone turned out to be the baby daughter of Mrs. Elizabeth O’Connell, covered in dust and plaster, but otherwise unharmed.  Another Springfield Street resident, Mrs. Lizzie Holdeworth, was sitting in her house as the winds bore down upon South Lawrence.  She heard a crash, but lost consciousness before she could react.  When she came to, she was trapped under a pile of beams, unable to move, or to even make a noise.  A rescuing party, arriving hours later, chopped her free.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, Lawrence set upon the ruined district around Springfield Street and started clearing the debris, and planning funerals for the dead.  Half of the cyclone’s victims were parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church.  Owing to the fact that cyclones are somewhat rare in the New England region, thousands of sightseers were reported to have descended upon South Lawrence in the days following the cyclone to view the damage.  Many remarked that the loss of life was very low for such a damaging storm.  This, of course, was no solace to the family and friends of the eight victims who lost their lives during the Lawrence Cyclone of 1890.


Hot Spells of Long Ago – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910

Like today, the summer months of a century ago were no stranger to hot spells in the Greater Lowell area either.  One particular hot spell, during the middle of July in 1910, was said to be ‘hotter than the hobs of Hades’, as it was reported by Oscar, a popular downtown Lowell personality who worked at Putnam’s restaurant in Merrimack (now Kearney) Square.  By the hot spell’s second day, on July 11, 1910,  Lowell residents rejoiced as they were cooled by a gracious, if not refreshing, northwest wind that brought the temperature down a few precious degrees.

Group of bathers at Hanlan’s Point. (Toronto, Canada), 1913 – City of Toronto Archives (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But, even though the northwest wind had brought the 100°F temperature down a meaningful 8°F, it was still an oppressive 92°F in the shade at Lowell’s Pawtucket Boulevard.  At the height of the spell on the day before, the temperature had reached a hot 96°F at the Concord drug store in Belvidere.  The city farm near the Chelmsford town line recorded a temperature of 98°F.  That heat, recorded on July 10, 1910, was said to be the hottest in 30 years.  And, the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Lowell up to that time, 102°F, were noted on that day at two spots, Gallagher’s Tobacco Store on Merrimack Street and the Merrimack Woolen Mills at the Navy Yard.

So, what did people do, in an age before air conditioning, to escape the heat?  Whatever they could.  The Lowell Fire Department helped in the effort to keep people cool, by wetting down the roads twice per day, flushing the unhealthy dust from the air.  The 7 o’clock wetting each evening was the most popular.  While wetting down the roads, the fire department was known to also wet down the roofs and sides of houses too.  As they dispersed through the city to spray down the streets, they were greeted in a variety of languages.  Children followed the watering cart, to keep their legs wet.  Wearing little more than a smile, they played in the muddy streams that had replaced the hot, dusty roads.  The bravest among them approached the firemen’s hoses even though the streams of water emerging from them were capable of knocking a small child a great distance.

Illustration Credit: Lowell Sun – July 11, 1910

By Tuesday of that week of the hot spell, the weather began to cool, to 88°F.  When the street-wetting visits by the firemen were still hours away, people waited (and prayed) for passing showers.  During the mid-July 1910 heat wave, Tyngsboro was the only Greater Lowell community visited by a shower.  Portsmouth, NH was also visited by a strong thunder shower.  Both had attracted so much attention that they were recorded in the Lowell Sun the next day.

Not everyone hated the heat waves.  Lowell’s soda fountains and ice cream shops did a brisk business with those seeking a brief respite from the heat.  And the street railway welcomed the extra fare-paying passengers who could not or would not walk.  All sought to escape the unhealthful city air during the hot spell.  Many who could escape fled to the beaches on the north or south shores.  Those who were too poor to afford travel swarmed the beaches of the city’s Merrimack and Concord Rivers.

Others sought out the amusement parks along the street railway – Canobie Lake, Lakeview and Willow Dale, all of which were heavily visited.  Salisbury beach, Hampton Beach, Lynn beach, Revere, Marblehead, Nahant, and Nantasket were all popular destinations too.    Lowell residents often found their neighbors and co-workers at the beach.

To escape the city and get to the beach was difficult.  Some relied on the electric cars to get to Salisbury Beach or Hampton Beach, but the ride was cumbersome, lengthy, and not well-loved.  On Sundays, no train ran from Lowell to Salisbury or Newburyport.  Instead, Lowellians needed to take a car that would get them to Lawrence in time for the 8:20 AM train that left there for Salisbury, a trip that cost 55 cents.  Even on an 8:20 AM train, you wouldn’t expect to arrive at Salisbury until 80 minutes later, at 9:40.

Meanwhile, those trapped in Lowell’s tenements would often find themselves on their doorsteps, unable to withstand the heat inside their buildings.  Others would crowd the city’s commons or Fort Hill park, jockeying for prime positions on the park’s limited benches.  And they had to contend with one of the era’s most annoying pests, the brown-tail moth.

The brown-tail moths congregated on the lightposts so closely that passersby sometimes mistook the black posts as white, the color indicating stopping points for the electric car lines. (Illustration Credit: Lowell Sun – July 11, 1910)

Brown-Tail Moths were associated with the hot spells of a century ago. The moths were an invasive species accidentally introduced from Europe  only a few years earlier.  By the time of the 1910 heat wave, the moths were a common pest who invaded at times of high heat.  Often seen on the Chelmsford Street electric cars, the pests would fly into the faces of the motormen and the passengers, causing the cars to run more slowly.  Contact with the brown-tail moth caused an irritation similar to poison ivy and could be particularly severe in some people.

Hot spells were dangerous.  In the two-and-a-half days from Saturday to noon on Monday, 30 deaths were recorded in the Lowell area due to heat.  A significant amount, 11, were infants and children under 5 years of age.  One day later, by noon on Tuesday, 11 more had died, for a total of 41 deaths due to the heat wave.  Four more of those deaths were children under 5.  The others were older patients who doctors said would have lived, if not for the extreme heat.

One of the groups most seriously at risk was the men who worked the streets, cleaning and maintaining them.  Most had grown accustomed to the weather over the course of their lives.  One key survival trick?  They would wear wet cabbage leaves under their hats so that “sun won’t affect the brain”.  They also drank oatmeal water to “keep their stomachs in order”.  Advice of the day warned against drinking ice water or swimming in very cold water when overheated.  The shock to the system was unhealthy.  Women in the mills, too, were frequently overcome at their work and had to be carried outside to the open air.  And, lastly, the children who carried lunch pails to their parents and relatives in the mills were frequently overcome by the unforgiving midday heat.

One hundred years ago, hot spells were a matter of life or death, literally.  Much advice was provided for avoiding the perils of ‘heat prostration‘, which is today better known as ‘heat exhaustion’.  In July 1901, The Western Druggist advised its readers to eat a light, nutritious diet.  That meant no sweets, no pastry, no fats, and no heavy dinners.  Instead, readers were to eat lean meats, fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish.  The Western Druggist admonished its readers to pace themselves and take a couple of hours off in the middle of the day for a siesta, like those in the ‘hot countries’.  Also, readers wishing to avoid heat prostration were told to avoid alcohol and other stimulants.  Most sunstroke, it was reported, was caused by those who had become drunk on beer, whiskey, or other alcoholic drinks.  And last, milk was to be sterilized and kept on ice before it was given to children.

The Western Druggist then went on to advise city-dwellers to spend time in the public parks.  The air, it was said, had been cleansed by the trees of ‘carbonic acid’ and purified with oxygen.  And, according to the common knowledge of the time, the air in a wooded area was actually colder, due to the average mean temperature of growing trees being just 54°F.


Climate Change: Is Massachusetts getting warmer and wetter?

English: Blue Hill Observatory, Milton Massach...

Blue Hill Observatory, Milton Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Massachusetts getting warmer?  Wetter?  There has been a lot of talk about global warming, climate change, its causes and its implications for our future.  But, how has climate change affected Massachusetts?

To really identify climate change, one needs a consistent set of data, taken reliably, continuously, and consistently at the same location over a number of decades.  For our post today, we consider the data set collected by the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, based in Milton Massachusetts, which owns the oldest continuous weather record in North America.

The Observatory dates to its founding by Abbott Lawrence Rotch in 1885.  Located atop the Great Blue Hill in Milton, Massachusetts,  the Observatory, from its vantage point 635 feet above sea level, offers great visibility.  On clear days, New Hampshire’s Monadnock region, some 60 miles away, can be seen to the northwest.  And, the Blue Hill is the highest US peak on the east coast where the Atlantic Ocean can still be seen.  What’s even better is that the Blue Hill Meteorological Observation provides free access to the weather it has observed and recorded atop the Great Blue Hill since 1891.

So, what does the information tell us?

Massachusetts is getting warmer.  Period.  No question.  

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

When you first start comparing average monthly temperatures for June, for the years 1995-2011, some variation from year to year emerges.  This is expected.  During those 17 years, however, the average temperature for June was 1.4 degrees warmer than the 109-year average observed from 1891-2000.  And, only two of those years were more than 1 degree colder than the average.  1999 saw the warmest June since record-keeping began at the Great Blue Hill, 4.7 degrees above average.  Just two years later, in 2001, the second-warmest June ever was recorded.  In fact, 2008 and 2010 are also mentioned in the record books.  They are tied for the 8th warmest June ever recorded.  Did we have any cold Junes in those 17 years?  Yes, one – you may remember that cold, damp June of 2009?  Well, it really wasn’t that odd.  That was the tenth coldest June since 1891; nine other Junes were colder.

But, maybe June was just an odd month, for the last 17 years.  So, what happens when you look at full-year data for the same 17 years between 1995 and 2011?  Bad news, it gets worse.

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

Not one year during that period fell below the 109-year average for annual temperature.  2003 came the closest, but was still 0.1 degrees above the average.  In fact, the average annual temperature for the 109 years between 1891 and 2000 was 47.4 degrees, while the average for the last 17 years was nearly two degrees warmer, 49.2 degrees.  And, seven of those years fall within the top ten warmest years ever recorded.  Consider that 2010, 1999, and 1998 were the first, second, and third warmest years ever – in that order.  This is consistent with the US Environmental Protection Agency‘s finding that average annual temperatures in the Northeast have risen by 2 degrees since 1970.

But the snow keeps falling – even on Halloween

It still snows; so, it can’t be getting that much warmer, right?  Last year, we had our snowiest October ever in Eastern Massachusetts.  Remember those power outages caused by falling tree limbs?  A look at the chart below shows that average annual snowfalls vary much more widely, yes.  But, maybe that’s the point – snowfall, and maybe precipitation in general is getting harder to predict.  The extremes are becoming more common as the storms grow stronger.  Sorry, meteorologists.

Annual Snowfall Comparisons – Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

In the 18 winters since 1994-95, six have been remarkable in that they have ranked in the top ten snowiest, or least snowiest, seasons ever.  In 1994-95, the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory observed just 17.9 inches of snow for the entire season, which remains the second least snowiest season recorded since 1891.  But, then, during the following winter, in 1995-96, the area saw a whopping 144.4 inches of snow, the greatest amount of snowfall since 1891.  2002-2003 and 2004-2005 were both very snowy seasons as well and remain on the area’s top five ‘snowiest’ lists.  And, then a couple of years later, in 2006-2007, the area saw just 27.6 inches of snow, the lowest amount since Clinton’s first term.   Last winter, 2011-12 was unusual, however.  Officially, it is the fifth least snowy season ever recorded.  This ranking quickly drops to the second-least snowiest if you leave off that odd October storm that dropped more than a third of last winter’s total snowfall before Halloween even came.

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

So, if the snow is becoming less predictable, what about total precipitation?  This, too, seems to follow a similar pattern.  The storms, and the precipitation, are becoming more severe, and less predictable.  In the last 17 Junes since 1995, we’ve experienced the wettest June since record-keeping began.  And, it wasn’t that cold, wet June of 2009, which, from a precipitation perspective, was surprisingly average.  The wettest June since 1891 was in 1998, when the area received a massive 17.3 inches of rain.  And, again, back to the extremes – the following year, June 1999 saw almost no rain at all – 0.14 inches, and is recorded as the driest June ever.  Precipitation during the following two years, 2000 and 2001, reversed course to again become the 8th and 9th wettest Junes ever.  More recently, June 2006 dumped a surprising 12.3 inches of rain in the area and is the third wettest June.  Only one year of the last 17, 2005, was among the driest ever – and was just the 10th driest at that.

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

Admittedly, looking at data from an annual perspective smooths the extremes out some, but not enough to disregard the idea that extremes are becoming the norm.  Since 1995, Massachusetts has seen six of its wettest years on record.  1998 is on record as being the wettest year ever recorded, at 71 inches of precipitation.  And 1996, at 69.4 inches, holds second place.  More recently, 2005 saw 66 inches of precipitation in the area and is ranked the third wettest year since 1891.  Three other years, 2010, 2011, and 2006 are the region’s sixth, seventh, and eighth wettest years, respectively.  None of the seventeen years since 1995 have been among the ten driest years ever.  Indeed, the US EPA even recognizes that precipitation in New England is increasingly falling as rain, not snow.

Obviously, complete year data for 2012 data are still not available.  But, through May, average temperatures for all five months have been significantly above normal.  The average temperature for January was 31.2 degrees, 5.6 degrees above normal.  February and March were the second warmest ever recorded.  April was recorded as the third warmest ever, and May, the sixth warmest since 1891.

So, these data are just that – data.  What impact do these graphs and records have on nature, on something we can see?  Consider the photographs below.   The first shows Lowell Cemetery on May 30, 2005.  The second shows the same location, in Lowell Cemetery, on the same day in 1868.

Lowell Cemetery as it appeared on May 30, 2005. (Photo Credit: American Journal of Botany)

The same location in Lowell Cemetery, as it appeared on May 30, 1868.

Source:  2009 Report issued by the US Global Change Research Program.