A LOT OF SNOW – 1905’s “GREAT BLOCKAGE” (February 23/01)

The snowfall we’ve had this winter is nothing compared to some of the storms that rocked the province in the past. On a scale of one to 10, this winter’s snowfall ranks a three or at best a four when measured against a storm remembered as “The Great Blockage” and the “King of Storms.”

The Great Blockage began on an “eerily quiet day” in February 1905. Winter until then was described in newspaper accounts as “moderately quiet” and Nova Scotians had been lulled into thinking the worst of it was over. The storm that lambasted the province was one of the worst in over a century and literally brought the province to a standstill. Snow fell for 21 days and while no accurate records of accumulations can be found, newspaper accounts spoke of seven-meter drifts and a paralyzed economy.

In the Annapolis Valley, the Great Blockage literally felled the railway and made the few roads that existed impassable. Whole communities in the Valley were isolated and on the verge of starvation as a result of the great snowfall; only emergency measures – calling out literally the entire male population and arming them with shovels – saved the day. Newspaper accounts of the period say that it took many communities weeks to shovel out and many areas didn’t return to normal until spring.

In the scrapbooks of Arnold Burbidge, Centreville, are newspaper accounts of severe winters in the 40s that make the recent spell of weather seem almost tropical. In January of 1941 temperatures plummeted to minus 35 degrees in the Annapolis Valley. By April of that year a whopping eight feet of snow had accumulated and winter was still lingering. The newspaper accounts mentioned that 25 years earlier, in 1916, a record 40.5 inches of snow fell in the month of March.

Looking back, there was the “Year of the Frost,” the year when there were 12 months of winter after clouds of ash from a volcanic explosion blanketed North America. This occurred in 1816, which was known to contemporaries as the year “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” In that year there was no spring and no summer. In May the temperature was wintry with plenty of snow and ice on rivers and lakes. In June, 10 inches of snow fell and the cold weather made overcoats and mittens mandatory. July came in cold, snowy and icy. “To the surprise of everyone,” said newspaper accounts, “August proved to be the worst (month) of all.”

In 1855, Nova Scotians suffered another terrible winter. In his published diary, Adolphus Gaetz writes of a winter that persisted well into May. In 1894 another severe winter dumped an unbelievable 146 centimetres on parts of Nova Scotia in one month alone.

In the files of the Kings County Historical Society are several A. L. Hardy photographs that indicate snowfalls were high in fairly recent times. In one photograph taken by Hardy on January 19, 1923, work crews are clearing a massive snowbank from the D.A.R. line outside Kentville. In another photograph, apparently of the same storm, the snow piled up along the railway tracks is higher than a D.A.R. engine.

More recently a Christmas eve storm in 1944 dumped 53 centimetres on the province. More than 56 centimetres of snow fell in a 1947 storm. In 1960 one storm deposited 76 centimetres of snow on parts of the province. There were record snowfalls in 1970, and in 1981 some areas of the province accumulated 126 centimetres of the white stuff in January alone.

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