If you like to mark anniversaries of memorable storms, there’s a big one coming up next month – the 100th anniversary of the “Great Blockage.”
Early in February 1905 snow started to fall in Kings County and it continued for 21 days, literally burying this area under drifts said to be up to five meters deep. Elsewhere in the province snow levels are reported to have reached seven meters. Life in Kings County and around the province came to a standstill as the storm isolated communities, made roads impassable and closed down the railroad.
Newspaper reports at the time hailed the storm as one of the worst in over a century, and there are accounts of entire communities facing great hardship as food and fuel supplies ran short. Only the declaration of a provincial emergency and the calling out of every able male and arming them with shovels saved the day. One account of the great storm notes that among those answering the call to man shovels and attack the great blockage of snow was the entire student body at Acadia University.
Hardest hit in Kings County were isolated communities with few connections to the outside. Even communities lying along the rail line suffered. In various areas along the line the great storm piled up drifts nearly 30 feet high and it took weeks to clear them.
For several years in the mid 1930s The Advertiser published a column called Railway Notes by George Bishop of Kentville. Bishop, a railway man himself and a noted antique dealer, devoted a March 1939 column to the 45 year career of railway engineer W. B. Hartlen. Mr. Hartlen was the engineer who operated the famous “snow train” during another great storm, the great snowfall of 1916. Bishop wrote about this storm in the 1939 column on the occasion of Hartlen’s retirement. Thanks to Bishop’s column, we can see today how severe and crippling storms were in earlier days and why great hardship followed in their wake.
After the great storm of 1916 had abated, W. B. Hartlen’s first tasks as operator the snow train – a massive plough mounted on an engine – was to clear the North Mountain Branch of the railway. It proved to be no easy task. “Drifts piled 26 feet high and half a mile long” blocked the line Bishop reported. On one occasion Hartlen’s engine ran into a drift where it “completely disappeared” and had to be shovelled out by hand.
This gigantic snow drift on the line at Grafton proved almost impossible to remove at first and Hartlen had to call for assistance. He told Bishop about attacking the drift several times before getting through; and he only accomplished this by calling for a second engine to assist him.
Bishop wrote that Hartlen “did the job and did it well,” noting that Hartlen will “be remembered by many” as the snow train’s engineer.
While the 1916 storm wasn’t the near catastrophe of the 1905 great blockage, it too literally closed the county and brought everyday life to a standstill. One newspaper account of the 1916 storm said that on average just over 40 inches of snow accumulated in a three day period. In places, said the newspaper, winds caused drifts to pile up to a height of nearly 30 feet and for three days nothing and nobody moved.