The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 16, 2007


"The worst ice storm in New England history" hit Carlisle in December 1921. Lady Liberty hoists an icy arm in the center of town. (Photo from the Gleason Public Library Collection)

Carlisle's "Great Storms" batter the town from 1717 to 2005

This week's Valentine's Day nor'easter comes on the heels of the anniversary of the Blizzard of 1978. Are we long overdue for the next nor'easter, maybe to rival '78? Never has a recent snowstorm been so discussed or remembered. Many storms have surpassed that storm's snowfall, but the triple punch of wind, coastal flooding, and drifts over three feet, mixed with its unlucky arrival during rush hour has made the storm legendary. The storm became the scale on which to compare future nor'easters.

According to the Mosquito, the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee reported: "The Great Blizzard of '78 hit with such force that school was out for three weeks, including the regularly scheduled February vacation. This made for family togetherness carried to an extreme and everyone was glad to come back to the books again." The storm, starting on February 6, blasted the region for more than 24 hours. The Mosquito reported, "High winds brought only the usual drifting to Curve Street and North Road, with some additional problems on Concord Street and Bedford Road." It was noted that the DPW was able to keep up with the snow and keep all roads open.

John Blinn of Brook Street puts his snowblower to work on his roof following a major snowstorm in February 2003. (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)

The Gleason Library was a popular refuge after the storm. "The Library quickly reopened and enabled many people to escape "cabin fever" by continuing their studying, business research or recreational reading," the Mosquito noted.

East Street resident and former Carlisle School teacher, Wendy Davis, remembers the aftermath of the storm. The teachers had planned a staff party, and she had made a "wonderful white cake, with rum custard on top. I've only made it twice." The party was cancelled, but everyone was out walking so she invited her neighbors in for cake. "I saw people I hadn't seen in years."

Snowfall and blizzards in the '80s

We've had plenty of other blizzards. A spring blizzard hit Carlisle on April 6, 1982, which "turned out to be the largest April blizzard ever recorded." Schools were closed for two days and the DPW was still plowing, three days later. The next large snowstorm, on March 29, 1984, shocked former Carlisle Fire Chief Bob Koning. "The devastation was unbelievable — a miracle that nobody got hurt," he told the Mosquito. A pole with live wires fell across West Street, causing a school bus to get stuck. Receiving more than 58 calls for assistance, Koning said he had to set priorities. Frustrated with the power outage, one resident called to ask, "Why won't the town turn on the water?"

Dangerous storms

Three strong storms hit Carlisle in January 1996, burying the town in more than three feet of snow, and breaking the record set by the Blizzard of '78. "Carlisle's $44,000 snowplow budget has to be empty by now," reported the Carlisle Mosquito. Don L'Heureux, one of the hardy snow plow drivers, said "By the third snowstorm we had no place to put the snow." Carlisle School Buildings and Grounds Supervisor David Flannery enjoyed trying out his new plow, though. "It came just in time," he said. The final storm in the series, on January 16, piled heavy snow on roof tops at the school. A mini-avalanche occurred when the snow cover slid off the roof of the Robbins Building "completely covering classroom windows," reported the Mosquito. The year ended with a nor'easter on December 7 which raged for two days. It was "as bad as the storm of '78," Koning said, and very dangerous. As his crew worked to remove fallen branches, more trees crashed around them, bringing down live wires.

Damaging storms in late spring

Two strong spring storms hit Carlisle in 1997. The first on March 31 was named the Blizzard of '97. It was a wild event, with rain changing to heavy wet snow punctuated with lightning, thunder, and white-out conditions. The second storm on April 1 became known as the "April Fool's Blizzard." Trees, their sap running in the spring, were especially vulnerable to damage as the 20 inches of snow and freezing rain accumulated on their branches.

The Mosquito reported that the storm on January 14, 1999, meant the "Department of Public Works' sanders and plows worked around the clock from Thursday night through the weekend trying to keep ahead of the snow, freezing rain and then more heavy rain on the already icy roads." DPW Superintendent Gary Davis said, "It was ugly." Troubles reported include disabled cars, minor accidents, a stuck delivery truck, frozen front doors, and a bank patron that was reported to be "stuck on the ice."

In a scene all too familiar to every New Englander, a Carlislean shovels out on River Road in March 1996 after four days of snow, rain and freezing rain. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)

Carlisle can weather the weather

Carlisle resident, Marilyn Cugini, vividly remembers a massive storm on February 5, 2001. "We got two, maybe three feet of snow overnight. There was so much snow that our regular plower could not make it up our very long driveway. We called our nearby neighbor and farmer Mark Duffy to come over with his front-loader to plow us out. When he and his son came roaring down our driveway in that 10-foot-tall monster, we all poured out of the house cheering and clapping! Unfortunately for Mark, he drove the front-loader forward so enthusiastically that it got completely stuck in the snow pile. He was finally able to rock his vehicle out of the snow and go home."

Settlers dealt with nor'easters

Christopher C. Burt, author of Extreme Weather, says of New England's winters, "Every form of severe weather occurs almost annually somewhere in New England." What makes New England particularly exciting in the winter are the storms that blow in from the northeast. "These storms produce New England's most intense blizzards," says Burt.

One of the first recorded storms is the "Great Snow" of 1717. "The Great Snow consisted of four successive snowstorms within ten days, from February 27 to March 7, 1717," explains David Ludlum in New England Weather Book. Burt reports, "Snowdrifts up to 25 feet were reported in the Boston area." The storm, with over four feet of snow was so extreme, Ludlum wrote, that large flocks of sheep were trapped for days. Ninety-five percent of the stranded deer population was killed by bears and wolves.

Even though New Englanders expect snow, it can be a nuisance. When the First Parish Church in Carlisle was ready to celebrate their first communion service on December 31, 1781, the stormy weather interfered. It was postponed twice and finally observed on the second Sunday in January 1782.

The Blizzard of 1888

The Blizzard of 1888, on March 11 caused extensive damage to the area. Laurence Eaton Richardson, author of Concord Chronicle 1865-1899, notes "Heavy snowstorms severe enough to stop rail transportation were followed by rains causing floods. In the spring the breakup of the ice carried away the North Bridge." Burt said the blizzard lasted four days. Carlisle received around 30 inches, and the storm probably damaged the Carlisle to Bedford bridge. At the Carlisle Town Meeting on December 10, 1892, notes historian Sidney Bull, it was noted "that the old bridge might be temporarily repaired to make it safe for the winter."

Wind, snow and ice in the 1900s

A huge nor'easter in March of 1916 brought Massachusetts to a standstill with 33.0 inches of snow in the Middlesex area, and a season total over 80 inches. Carlisle resident Edna Sleeper, interviewed in 1982 by the Mosquito, spoke about going to high school during the 1916 winter. "When I used to go to school in Concord, which was six miles away, we used to take a horse and wagon. One time, the horses, which were work horses, broke loose in the snow drift at the center of town and I had to walk two miles home in snow up to my knees."

The end of November and the start of December 1921 brought a nasty ice storm, "The worst ice storm in New England history," states Burt. More than four inches of ice accumulated on trees, shattering branches and littering the roads. Images of America — Carlisle has some excellent photos showing the damage in Carlisle, which cost $159.44 to clean up.

Students took sleds to school

Carlisle resident Ed French told the Mosquito in 1978 (he was 95 at the time) that he had vivid memories of a blizzard on January 20, 1923. He was attending the funeral of his mother, "The snow was so deep and drifting so badly that people had trouble digging out for the horse-drawn sled to get in; then they had to dig their way out again." The town report of 1923 mentions special appropriations of $200 for snow plows, and a School Committee Report said despite the "severe winter of 1922-23 our attendance was very gratifying." Students were brought to school in "barges" or horse-drawn sleds.

Carlisle resident A. E. Benfield related a story to the Mosquito about the snowy winter of 1946, his first in Carlisle. He said he and his wife made an igloo, and after spending the night in it, discovered the next morning the snow ceiling "was almost touching us. We were indeed fortunate that the heavy pile of snow didn't collapse and smother us."

Worse than Hurricane of 1938

The snowstorm of February 24 to 28, 1969 became known as the "Hundred Hour Storm." The snowfall, around 20 inches, arrived at rush hour. Cars were abandoned on highways, similar to the Blizzard of 1978. Many storms have also been compared to the disastrous Hurricane of 1938. Ludlum notes that the damage caused by the "Pre-Christmas Ice Storm" of December 16, 1973 "was said to be greater than what occurred in the Hurricane of 1938," leaving homes without power for more than a week after the storm.

Seventies and snowbound

Snow removal and heat was expensive during the energy embargo and recession in the 1970s. The winter of 1974-1975 was "the worst since he began in 1968," said roger Davis, Carlisle Superintendent of Public Works. A fast- moving snowstorm, arriving at the end of the school day on January 7, 1975 crippled the town. "Carlisle was virtually snowbound January 7 when up to 16 inches fell here, a foot of it within four hours," reported the Mosquito. Four accidents took place, and two school buses became stuck. Though the schools opened the next day, many students (and parents) stayed home. The May 9, 1977, storm caused severe tree damage in Carlisle but the Mosquito reported, "In spite of the hazards, no one was injured and there was no major fire damage."

Emergency funds available

The storm of February 17-18, 2003 was so expensive that Carlisle qualified for emergency assistance. The Mosquito report that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) would reimburse the town "for snow-removal expenses incurred during the 48-hour period of the major storm on February 17-18 that buried the region under 18 inches." Over ten vehicle accidents were reported including one in which "a Westford woman became trapped in her vehicle as a result of a two-car accident."

The January 22, 2005, blizzard broke a year-long period of light snow. It lasted 24 hours and dumped over ten inches on Carlisle. The town had to wait until December 9, for the next snowstorm. "Carlisle's first big winter storm was "more like three storms rolled into one," reported the Mosquito, "as it dumped 16 inches of snow in eight hours last Friday."

Pattern of snowfall changing

The record warmth that led into the 2006-2007 winter has been replaced by record cold, with only 1.8 inches officially of snow, (through February 13) compared to an average of 25 inches by this time. New Englanders have a reputation of looking at a storm as "nothing ... that a bunch of Yankees with jugs of water, kerosene lights, candles and shovels couldn't handle," as Mosquito reporter Kathleen Coyle said. Let us hope we don't receive our season average of 41 inches in the next storm.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito