“Great Snows” of 1717 and 2010

Very snowy day in Salem, though hardly as dramatic as the “Great Snow of 1717” which buried New England under five feet of snow and drifts of 25 feet or more for several weeks.  This big event is recorded by many Massachusetts notables, including contemporaries Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall and Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne—over a century later.  Hawthorne had a complicated relationship with his native city, which is evident not only by the addition of the “w” in his name to differentiate himself from his witch trial judge ancestor John Hathorne, but also by many of his works.  Nevertheless, the city also furnished him with lots of material and he remains inextricably tied to it.  From my perspective as a historian, one of Hawthorne’s best Salem works is his short story Main Street, published in 1852 in a collection entitled The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales.  This little story presents its readers with Salem’s colonial history from a very Hawthornian perspective:  the author takes on his witch-hunting and privateering ancestors and Cotton Mather as well.  He also gives us a nice description of snowy Salem in 1717, but not quite today: 

     The Main Street has vanished out of sight.  In its stead appears a wintry waste of snow, with the sun just peeping over it, cold and bright, and tingeing the white expanse with the faintest and most ethereal rose-color.  This is the Great Snow of 1717, famous for the mountain drifts in which is buried the whole country.  It would seem as if the street, the growth of which we have noted so attentively, following it from its first phase, as an Indian track, until it reached the dignity of sidewalks, were all at once obliterated, and resolved into a drearier pathlessness than when the forest covered it.  The gigantic swells and billows of the snow have swept over each man’s metes and bounds, and annihilated all the visible distinctions of human property.  So that now the traces of former times and hitherto accomplished deeds being done away, mankind should be at liberty to enter on new paths, and guide themselves by other laws then heretofore; if, indeed, the race be not extinct, and it be worth our while to go on with the march of life, over the cold and desolate expanse that lies before us.  It may be, however, that matters are not so desperate as they appear.  That vast icicle, glittering so cheerlessly in the sunshire, must be the spire of the meeting-house, incrusted with frozen sleet.  Those great heaps, too, which we mistook for drifts, are houses, buried up to their eaves, and with their peaked roofs rounded by the depth of snow upon them.  There, now, comes a gush of smoke from what I judge to be the chimney of the Ship Tavern; and another—another—and another—from the chimneys of the other dwellings, where fireside comfort, domestic peace, the sports of children, and the quietude of age are living yet, in spite of the frozen crust above them.

Pictures from my little corner of Salem today:  lower Chesnut Street and Samuel McIntire’s Hamilton Hall (1805).  Clearly, “all the visible distinctions of human property” survived the storm.

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