Friday, May 29, 2020

A matter of historical record: 1816 – The year without a summer

By Walter Lunt

The winter of 1816 was unseasonably warm in northern New England. Frost left the ground in mid-January; ice on lakes and ponds and along the edges of the Presumpscot River disappeared. No one had ever experienced such conditions. While at first dismissed as an anomaly, the balmy weather continued into February and beyond; March, commented one farmer, 
seemed like May. Many farmers in the town of Windham, located in the District of Maine, were considering early planting and, possibly, the chance for two consecutive mature crops in one season.

Farmer Amasey Sawyer, however, decided to hedge his bets and not plant. He had enjoyed a banner year the previous summer, having produced huge crops of wheat and oats for which there had been a ready market in the West. His profits, more than he had ever earned before, were all in gold. He had become the richest man in Windham. But in this unusual year, his instincts drew him in a different direction.

The year without a summer - 1816.  Photo:
Sawyer was keenly aware of the call for more logs at the bustling mills of Horsebeef (Mallison) and Saccarappa Falls on the Presumpscot River, so he invested in timberland on the north side of Sebago Lake.

The unusually warm spring continued into April with June-like temperatures. Area farmers, whose corn, beans and potatoes had broken ground, began ribbing Sawyer for not planting early. April 10 registered full sun and 74 degrees. But the next day brought a change: a warming southerly breeze abruptly turned to a northwest wind. The thermometer fell rapidly, passing the freezing mark by 3 p.m. As described in one report, “by milking time the temperature was 2 below.” 

Several inches of snow fell during the evening. Jubilation over the prospect of banner crops ended. Ironically, one year earlier, almost to the day, a little-known volcano a half-a-world away had blown its top, an event that was now raining down its full effect over Windham and most of North America and Europe.

Summer brought no relief. Temperatures seesawed for months. Killing frosts, snow and drenching rains were followed by periods of heat and drought. Crop failures led to hoarding. Radical price increases on nearly all commodities led to widespread poverty and despair. Sheep that had been shorn froze to death – the lack of oats and hay brought similar results to cows and cattle.

August emerged with a tinge of relief. Sunshine and warmth prompted farmers to plant new crops, but by the 13th of that month, a cold spell re-emerged, freezing all new growth. Windham, as well as many parts of northern New England, found itself in the grip of sickness, death and displacement, as thousands emigrated westward.

Amasey Sawyer, meanwhile, congratulated himself for never having planted anything – his farmland lay bare, waiting for the season that never came. Instead, his crews were cutting long timber on his newly purchased property in the Sebago region. The cold weather and frozen ground accommodated the task. Logs were driven down Crooked River, rafted across Sebago Lake and then driven down the Presumpscot to the mills. Demand for sawed lumber was high as mill owners hastened to fill orders for lumber in the West Indies.

To feed his crews and his neighbors, Sawyer chartered a coastal carrier to ferry cereals, beans, potatoes and vegetables from North Carolina to Portland.

Foul weather continued until Christmas, 1816. From then on, conditions moderated and the following year turned out to be a return to normalcy.

Several monikers were assigned to that sorrowful time; among them: year without a summer, poverty year, volcanic winter and eighteen hundred and froze to death.

Speculation regarding the cause of the bizarre weather varied, based on the limited science and communication of the time.  Some blamed sunspots (as large and numerous sunspots could be seen through the volcanic haze with the naked eye). Others theorized a change in the Gulf Stream. Governor William Plumer of New Hampshire blamed God, and urged people to humble themselves for their transgressions.

It was well into the 20th century before the cause of the year without a summer was fully explained. It was the eruption of a volcano, Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) on April 10, 1815 that spewed ash and dust into the atmosphere limiting sunlight over much of the northern hemisphere. The volcanic fog reached most parts of the U.S. and Canada a year later. 

Scientists also point out the situation was exacerbated by up to five lesser volcano explosions earlier in the century and by the so-called Little Ice Age which was still prevalent in the early 19th century.

Though few, there were upsides to the catastrophe. Artists of the time were inspired by dazzling sunsets, revealing various hues of red, yellow and orange. Food shortages spawned a new fishery. Hungry New Englanders discovered the mackerel as new source of protein. 

And, for fans of grisly monster stories, without that tragic summer, these words would never have been written, “It was on a dreary night…that I behold my man completed.” Author Mary Shelley was said to have been inspired by the gloomy weather of 1816 when she penned the classic horror novel  Frankenstein. 

For Amasey Sawyer, his riches increased as a result of choosing timber harvesting over planting.  <

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