1816: The Year Without a Summer - A Northern New England Perspective
Eric Werme

[The following is from a World Wide Web page I wrote after finally seeing a granite monument to Rueben Whitten who shared his wheat with neighbors that winter. I stopped in Ashland, N.H. to see it while heading north for the Boston Mensa mountain climb in Woodstock. The next day dawned rainy but changed to snowy during breakfast, the first snow we've ever seen at the lodge on a mountain climb weekend. While I've seen other memorable snow storms in May, it felt very, very weird to be seeing 1816 weather the day after visiting the 1816 monument!]

[References and photos are on my WWW page at http://ewerme.home.attbi.com/1816.html]

In April 1815, Mt. Tambora, a volcano on an Indonesian island, first stirred and then exploded. Of the 12,000 inhabitants of the island, only 26 survived. 4,000 feet of the volcano was blown off, the ensuing eruption ejected an estimated 25 cubic miles of debris. As in many large eruptions, dust and sulphate aerosols were injected into the stratosphere and took months to gradually settle back to the troposphere where weather systems could wash them back to the ground.

The eruption was the biggest of perhaps the last 10,000 years, dwarfing Krakatoa (1883, 4.5 cubic miles) and Mt. St. Helens (1980, 1 cubic mile). The stratospheric cloud stretched around the Earth, spread north throughout the northern hemisphere, and reflected enough sunlight to affect weather patterns. In some parts of the world, the impact was minor but in much of Europe it caused near famine conditions. In New England it helped changed history.

In 1816, family farms were largely subsistence affairs. Transporting crops to the cities was feasible only along waterways. The major crop was Indian corn, most which was fed to livestock during the long winters, but it was a staple for human consumption too. Wheat was prone to a fungus, apples and potatoes did well. (Johnny Appleseed was in the middle of his career, planting apple trees throughout the new states around Lakes Erie and Michigan.)

Several cold spells in May 1816 delayed the start of the planting season. June began well, but crops were lost in a cold spell between the 5th and 11th. In Danville, Vermont, water froze an inch thick and a snow storm brought foot deep drifts. A warm spell starting the last third of June provided hope that summer had arrived, but a killing frost on July 9th dashed that hope. The rest of the month was warmer, but didn't equal the warmest days of June. A warming trend in August abruptly ended with a frost on the 21st and a worse one on the 30th.

Some crops did well, apple and pear harvests were very good, perhaps due in part to the cold weather being hard on insect pests. Potatoes did well too. Some people were able to raise a good crop of wheat, and they were rewarded with prices that were double that of normal years. Increased farm efficiencies have exceeded inflation - the high price was never equaled until the 1970's.

After 1816, the weather quickly returned to normal conditions. However, farmers had already started emigrating to the more hospitable weather and soil of Ohio and further west. Emigration from Maine was so great that letters were printed in the newspapers encouraging people to stay and warning of hardships on the frontier. The migration helped accelerate the construction of the Erie Canal, which started construction in 1817 and was completed in 1825. Others went to the mills in Manchester and Lowell, others went to the seaports of Nantucket and New Bedford to learn the whaling trade. Another impetus to the westward migration was an energy crisis - much of the accessible first growth forest had been cut for construction, fuel, and products. Today's rural New England is much more forested than it was in 1816.

The westward emigration decimated the population of many farming communities. To this day, many northern New England towns have a smaller population than they had in 1816. In New Hampshire, many exceeded the old population only when a long growth phase began after 1960. Rumney, New Hampshire grew 22% and 13% to 864 in 1820, then declined to 820 by 1960! (In 2000, population reached 1480, with most of the growth between 1970 and 1990.)


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