A FIRSTHAND GLIMPSE OF THE 1905 “GREAT STORM” (March 30/06)

Just over 100 years ago a general emergency was declared when winter storms paralysed the province. Called the “great blockage,” the 1905 storm was hailed as one of the worst to strike Nova Scotia in over a century; during the persistent storm, entire communities were isolated for weeks at a time and with the railway lines shut down, shortages of fuel and food were a fact of life.

Over the years I’ve written several accounts of the 1905 storm in this column, based for the most part on published reports. Except for talking with my father, who remembered snow tunnels being dug on Kentville’s Main Street, any information I gleaned about the storm came from old weekly and daily newspapers. Regretfully, I never interviewed people who could have provided first-hand accounts of the 1905 storm.

But fortunately, there are people who lived through the great storm and recorded the event in personal journals. One of these people was Hants County farmer Harry Pemberton. For well over half a century, from 1890 until a few years before his death in 1957, Pemberton wrote daily reports in his diary. At the time of the great storm, he was farming in Hants County near Garland’s Crossing.

Recently, Mr. Pemberton’s granddaughter, Faye Hergett of Wolfville, provided me with entries from his diary for January and February of 1905. These entries, stark and to the point, give us a firsthand glimpse of the great storm. As you will see from reading them, it was a harrowing period to be a farmer in an isolated community. Note how often the railroad is mentioned, illustrating the importance of the line at the time.

January 25. Drawed (sic) two small loads of wood. 18 below zero and a terrible storm in afternoon. Pulled horse very hard to get home.

January 26. Stayed home and ploughed roads. Still snowing. Heaviest storm in years.

January 27. Ploughed roads all the morning. Snow piled 12 feet deep all over my wood and sleds. Roads are full. No trains have run since yesterday noon. Heaviest storm in 32 years.

January 31. More snow. So much now it is almost impossible to do anything.

The diary entries are similar in February, Pemberton noting that from February 1 to February 7 it was cold and snowy. The February 7 entry reads: Another snow storm. For February 16: Another terrible snow storm. The comes the most telling entries of all:

February 18. Roads are heavy. Lots of snow and more coming. The midland trains have been stopped for the winter and men paid off, it being impossible to get through for snow. The D.A.R. have not had a train through from Halifax for a week now on account of all the snow and ice on the tracks. All the snow plows have been smashed up and a hard time is generally spoken. Everywhere food stuffs and coal are a (?) and it is almost impossible to get wood so severe is the winter…. Generally speaking, it is a hard, severe winter.

February 22. No trains through on D.A.R. yet. Teams are taking passengers and mail to and from Halifax by road. A very serious time.

February 23. Another snow storm. Road is very heavy and it’s hard indeed to get wood cut as the snow is fully five feet deep on the level. Trains have not got through to Halifax yet.

By February 25 the storm situation has eased a bit, Pemberton writing that he’s heard the trains are running. Then comes a note that an engine and plough finally make it through to Windsor from Halifax. On February 26 Pemberton writes that the trains are running again and the rail line seems to be clear. The great storm of 1905 is over.

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