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Mysteries from the Morgue

Waiting to find out how much snow we'll see this weekend? Take a look back at these legendary Berkshire snowstorms

Memorable blizzards, nor'easters from 1888 to the present in the Berkshires

Nor'easter expected? Blizzard in the forecast? Either prediction is a sure sign that media outlets will dig up photos and facts from historic storms of years past. Sure to be included are the Blizzard of 1888 and the Blizzard of 1978.

But were those the worst storms to hit the Berkshires?

Mysteries from the Morgue: Legendary Snowstorms

Monument Square in North Adams after the Blizzard of 1978.

The Blizzard of 1978 began as a typical nor'easter Feb. 5, developing into a devastating blizzard that wrought havoc on New England, New Jersey and metropolitan New York over the course of the next two days. Heavy snows and high winds, reaching 86 to 110 mph on the coast, forced about 10,000 people into emergency shelters and destroyed 3,500 homes. Travelers abandoned their cars on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and 100 deaths are attributed to the storm.

But in the Berkshires, things were not that bad. Eleven to 19 inches of snow fell in the county over the course of the 33-hour storm, which also brought winds of up to 50 mph and dropped visibility to zero. The snow accumulation was less impressive when compared with the 27 inches that fell in Boston and Providence, R.I., and 40 inches reported in parts of Rhode Island.

(The Northeastern United States Blizzard of 1978 is one of two blizzards that hit the country in 1978. It should not be confused with the Great Blizzard of 1978 that hit the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region nine days earlier. The two-day storm, which began Jan. 25, left up to 52 inches of snow in its wake. With the wind chill, temperatures dropped to minus 50 degrees. Shortages of bread, milk and eggs were reported throughout the region.)

Mysteries from the Morgue: Legendary Snowstorms

It took two days to dig out this train after the Blizzard of 1888.

Blizzard of 1888

Unlike the Blizzard of 1978, the Blizzard of 1888 lives up to legendary status. It began the evening of March 11 and lasted 3 days. Reported snow totals vary from 36 to 42 inches. What made the storm so memorable was the huge snowdrifts that came with it and the aftermath.

A train arriving from Albany, N.Y., on the Boston and Albany Railroad was caught in the "Washington Cut," the name given to a granite outcropping on Washington Mountain 3 miles outside Hinsdale. There, 72 passengers remained for two days as efforts were made to free them from the snowdrifts that reached the top of the train cars. Passengers dined on raw eggs, which they took from a crate in the baggage car.

A train carrying livestock didn't fare as well. The train, stopped in "the Junction" in Pittsfield, lost 32 carloads of hogs. The hogs froze to death during the night. But six carloads of sheep and another of cattle were saved.

Fortunately, a spate of warm weather arrived days later, helping to melt the snow and clear roads.

Mysteries from the Morgue: Legendary Snowstorms

Trolley service came to standstill in March 1916. Brennan's Cut, between Lanesborough and neighboring Cheshire, was shut down for more than three weeks. The 22-foot drifts still remained when the Berkshire Street Railway Co. was finally able to break through on April 12.

Blizzard of 1916

The Berkshires wouldn't be as lucky in March 1916, when a cold spell and a series of storms would cut travel between towns and keep supplies from reaching the hinterlands.

Although a two-day storm March 8 and 9 only brought 20 inches of snow, the county would receive an additional 44 inches by the end of the month. With no break in the cold temperatures, snowdrifts reaching upward of 20 feet became common, making roads impassable.

On March 23, The Eagle reported the closure of the Lee-Otis line for the past two weeks had created a kerosene shortage in Otis. There, residents had resorted to killing a "community steer" and its tallow was divided among the town's residents for candle-making.

Mysteries from the Morgue: Legendary Snowstorms

Brennan's Cut had been closed for three weeks when this photograph was taken March 26, 1916. It wouldn't reopen until April 12.

On October Mountain, a game warden reported that he feared a herd of moose would be lost to starvation. Farmers dug in deep, many taking up residence in their barns alongside their livestock, where they oversaw the arrival of lambs and calves.

Trolley service came to a standstill. Brennan's Cut, between Lanesborough and neighboring Cheshire, was shut down for more than three weeks. The 22-foot drifts still remained when the Berkshire Street Railway Co. was finally able to break through April 12.

February 1934 Nor'easter

Transportation was again stopped in the Berkshires, in 1934, when a two-day storm, beginning Feb. 18, left 18 inches of snow in Pittsfield; 24 inches on the Mohawk Trail, 23 inches in Windsor, 27 inches in Savoy and 12-foot-high snowdrifts in its wake. Three major highways in the country were shuttered. For the first time in a century, the probate court in Pittsfield was closed.

In North Adams, the city Fire Department called "Maggie" and "Maude" out of retirement. With roads made impassable by the storm, the horses were brought back into service, once again pulling a sleigh fitted with firefighting apparatus.

Pittsfield Mayor Allen H. Bagg and several city councilors take over snow-clearing efforts after they accuse the Public Works Department of failing to cope with the storm and falling asleep during the worst of the snowfall.

In Pittsfield, Dr. Earl L. Johnson, the county physician, made house calls on horseback, while postal carriers strapped on snowshoes to deliver the mail. And ninth-grader, Miss Esther Scace, not wanting to miss school, donned a pair of skis and made her way to class. Her trip from her Cascade Street home to Pomeroy School took an hour on skis.

Other storms of note (through 2011):

February-March 1947: A snowstorm that lasts for 16 days drops more than 45 inches on the Berkshires. The greatest one-day snowfall occurs March 3, when 16 inches fall.

December 1969: A two-day storm that begins on Christmas Day leaves 23 inches of snow in Berkshire County. State police on snowshoes wade through 5- to 6-foot snow drifts to reach a woman with severe frostbite who is stranded off Route 116 in Cheshire.

Oct. 4, 1987: An early snowstorm brings 18 inches across the county, causing power outages and hazardous driving. It cancels the Northern Berkshire Fall Foliage Parade, the only time in its history.

December 1992: A nor'easter paralyzes the East Coast, including more than 20 inches of snow fall in Pittsfield; Otis has an unofficial total of 33 inches.

March 1993: A nor'easter dumps 22 inches of snow on Pittsfield in 24 hours. The storm packs winds of up to 70 mph, which help create 10-foot snowdrifts.

March 2001: A two-day late-season coastal storm dumps between 12 and 30 inches on Berkshire County.

December 2002: The first Christmas Day snowstorm since 1985 leaves 10 to 24 inches of snow across the Berkshires.

March 16-17, 2007: A snowstorm dumps up to 18 inches on parts of the county.

Jan. 11-12, 2011: A whopping 40.5 inches are reported in Savoy; 33 inches are reported in North Adams and 23 inches fell in Pittsfield.

Oct. 31, 2011: A Halloween day storm dumps 32 inches of snow in Peru, and nearly 2 feet in several other communities. Pittsfield saw 18 inches.

Sources: The Berkshire Eagle, North Adams Transcript, The New York Times, The Boston Globe.

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 2, 2019)

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.

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