PAST STORMS BROUGHT VALLEY TO STANDSTILL (January 15/99)

Every time a ferocious storm paralyzes an area someone always asks, “Are Canadian winters getting worse?”

You’d know the answer to this question if you had experienced past storms that literally brought the Annapolis Valley to a standstill. Ask some of our seniors about the great storm of 1905, for example. This storm made the history books and has been the topic of numerous magazine articles and historical talks.

My grandfather was in his late 30s and my father a teenager when this storm struck in late winter; both referred to the storm as the greatest catastrophe of their time and they had many tales of the hardships suffered. I’ve read the newspaper and magazine articles, heard the folktales and listened to discussions about the storm; and I’ve looked at those unbelievable photographs of Valley towns with snow tunnels up and down the main streets. There’s little doubt that the 1905 storm was a doozer.

How severe the 1905 storm was may been seen in Marguerite Woodworth’s history of the Dominion Atlantic Railway. The storm totally disrupted operation of the railroad throughout Nova Scotia, closing it down in some areas for weeks and months. The Annapolis Valley may have been the hardest hit since, according to Woodworth, the rail line from Kentville to Yarmouth and from Halifax to Kentville was clogged for a lengthy period and all commerce depending on the railway ceased.

“Heavy snowfalls lasting for days, storms, thaws, then freezing temperatures that locked the line in a grip of snow and ice caused all operations to cease for weeks at a time,” is Woodworth’s summary of the 1905 storm’s effect on the railroad.

When the lines had been cleared – and it took hundreds of volunteers working with shovels to accomplish this since railroad snowplows were almost useless – the railroad had spent over $100,000 in snow clearance alone. Woodworth said it was a “severe financial setback” for the railway that curtailed expansion plans and “disposed of any immediate hope of paying dividends to the shareholders.”

One magazine article I read mentioned that hundreds of people nearly starved to death and many were without sufficient means of heat while the railway struggled to clear the lines. Several deaths were attributed to the storm.  Woodworth ignored the hardship and personal suffering, although there is an oblique reference, and instead wrings her hands over the railway’s financial losses.

During the winter of 1923/24 another severe storm struck this area and Leon Barron recently recalled the effect it had on the Dominion Atlantic Railway. While not as severe and persistent as the 1905 storm, the blizzard of 23/24 disrupted rail service for several days. In many areas the trains were unable to move, the snow piling up so deep on the tracks that railway plows couldn’t cope with it.

Hardest hit locally was the old Cornwallis Valley Railway (CVR) which ran from north from Kentville through Steam Mill and Centreville and then east to terminate in Kingsport. Leon Barron tells me that to clear the CVR line, the railway used two engines behind a plow with a third engine as backup. In some sections of the CVR even this wasn’t enough machinery to clear snow from the tracks and the railroad put out a call to communities along the line for help.

Answering the railroad’s call, men from Kingsport, Habitant, Canning, Pereau and other communities showed up on a Sunday morning with shovels to tackle the worst hit area between Pereau Road and the Jackson Barkhouse Road. In this half-mile stretch, known as the Kinsman Cutting, snowdrifts were as high as the locomotive’s smokestack and it took nine hours to clear the tracks.

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