When the Hudson River and Long Island Sound froze over
I went looking for a story about a particularly cold winter that I had bookmarked only to find the magazine redid their archive, making it impossible to find the original story.
I found it by hitting on writer Jerry Pournelle’s website, located here
The original story was published online by Newsday.com and the original link that no longer works is
A good part of the text is taken from a weather historian named David M. Ludlum, so credit is due there.
The time frame for this cold snap is a year after the famous cold winter at Valley Forge. Essentially, the northeast US had a few very cold winters in a row back then.
Frozen Ducks in the Kitchen
Nations at war shiver through the Northeast’s hard winter of 1779-80
By George DeWan | Staff Writer
IT WAS so cold the ducks froze.
The snow began to fall about the 10th of November, 1779, and continued falling almost every day until the middle of the following March. The Northeast virtually shut down. It was known as The Hard Winter, and may have been the coldest these parts have seen since the Wisconsinin glacier.
It was a world of ice. The rivers, creeks and streams on Long Island were frozen solid, as was Upper New York Bay. The East River and the Hudson River could be crossed by foot. British cavalry thundered from Manhattan to Staten Island. Long Island Sound was more ice than water.
As for the frozen ducks, the Long Island Loyalist judge, Thomas Jones, a sober man not usually given to tongue-in-cheek tall tales, passed along a “remarkable if true” story about a Staten Island farmer named Goosen Adriance:
“He went out in the morning upon his farm, which adjoins the water, and going along the shore, he observed a parcel of ducks sitting erect and in their proper posture,” Jones wrote in his book, “History of New York During the Revolutionary War.” The author continued: “He walked up to them, found them stiff, and as he supposed perfectly dead; he carried them home, threw them down upon the table in his kitchen, where a large wood fire was burning, and went into the next room to breakfast with his family. Scarce was the breakfast over when a great noise and fluttering was heard in the kitchen. Upon opening the door how great the surprise. The supposed dead ducks were all flying about the room.”
According to weather historian David M. Ludlum, no winter before or since was as cold.
“Long Island Sound was almost completely clogged with ice, and people were able to cross from Long Island to the vicinity of Stamford on the Connecticut shore for several days,” Ludlum writes in “Early American Winters: 1604-1820.” “Some Hessian soldiers took advantage of this route in order to escape from their regiments.”
Judge Jones, who lived at Fort Neck (now Massapequa), wrote in his book that 200 provision-laden sleighs, pulled by two horses each, escorted by 200 light cavalry, made the five-mile trip from New York to Staten Island. On Long Island, with British occupiers making demands for firewood, cattle and living space, already harsh conditions were made even harsher. Part of Long Island Sound became a highway of ice. “It was so strong, that deserters went upon the ice to Connecticut from Lloyd’s Neck, upon Long Island, the distance more than 12 miles.”
George Washington’s troops were shivering in winter quarters at Morristown, N.J. — one writer said it made Valley Forge of the previous year look like a picnic. But his men occasionally sneaked across the frozen harbor and attacked British troops on Staten Island. The British hauled cannon across the ice from Manhattan to defend themselves.
WASHINGTON, an inveterate diary-keeper, has this entry for Jan. 6, 1780: “The snow which in general is 18 inches deep is much drifted — roads impassable.” He was apparently referring to the new snowfall from a major storm on that date, since other records indicate there was already close to four feet of snow on the ground.
“In the woods it lay at least four feet upon a level,” Jones wrote. “It was with the utmost difficulty that the farmers got their wood . . . All the wood upon New York Island was cut down. The forest trees planted in gardens, in court yards, in avenues, along lanes, and about the houses of gentlemen by way of ornament, shared the same fate. Quantities of apple trees, peach trees, plum trees, cherry trees, and pear trees, were also cut down.”
The New York Packet reported a thermometer reading of 16 below zero in the city. Current records of Central Park readings only go back to 1869, so this would beat the 15 below zero recorded in 1934. The severe cold reached up and down the coast, from Maine to Georgia. Ludlum says that the Connecticut Courant in Hartford provided the most complete temperature record. And, due to the lack of sophistication of the newspaper’s audience, the editor believed it was necessary to explain the nature of a thermometer and what its readings meant.
When springtime came, New York was depleted of wood. So on June 16, 1780, the new British governor, James Robertson, issued an order to “the inhabitants of Long Island” to furnish wood for the army barracks in the city, “to guard against the severities of a long winter.” Their quotas: Kings County, 1,500 cords; Queens, 4,500; western Suffolk, 3,000 cords. The inhabitants of Southold, East Hampton and Southampton were required to cut 3,000 cords from the Smith and Floyd estates at Mastic. They were to be paid at varying rates, but it is not clear whether payments were ever made.