Newburgh Heritage

A winter escape in 1854

By Mary McTamaney
Posted 2/18/21

If snow and ice are beginning to get you down, remember what your grandparents used to say about weather in their childhoods. We thought they exaggerated about how cold the wind was that whipped …

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Newburgh Heritage

A winter escape in 1854

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If snow and ice are beginning to get you down, remember what your grandparents used to say about weather in their childhoods. We thought they exaggerated about how cold the wind was that whipped around their faces and how deep the snow that they climbed through to get to school and work. Our ancestors didn’t stretch the truth. Winters in the Hudson Valley can be brutal.

My grandfather grew up on North Water Street and was a boy during the famous Blizzard of 1888. He actually did slide down to the street from his second story bedroom window and join with neighbors to shovel narrow paths to open the way to each family’s front door.

We are hardly the first generation to bemoan Hudson Valley winters nor are we the first to suffer from long periods of isolation. Years ago, I discovered an essay written by mid-nineteenth century local author Nathaniel Parker Willis. Willis was a very popular author in his day (1806-1867). He founded the American Monthly Magazine in 1829 and was the foreign editor of the New York Mirror in the 1830s. Failing health caused him to seek out the country life and he bought a homestead in Cornwall, NY in 1850 where he retired and continued to write. His series of Rural Letters and his book Outdoors at Idlewild (the name he gave his Cornwall home) give us a rich sense of the area in the mid-nineteenth century.

Nathaniel Willis wrote in 1854 about the problem of winter cabin fever and the urge to get out and explore the countryside after a storm. He tells about the need to encounter other people and listen to conversation on just about any topic as long as you are moving in social circles again.

As Willis describes it: “There is a worse stage of winter which imprisons man and horse. There is no exercise to be gotten by riding and walking is out of the question. The lungs pine for expansion. Blood runs slow. Sidewalks and omnibuses begin to loom up in forgotten glory. In watching the railroad trains from my window, I find I have no feeling of being left behind except in the un-get-aboutable weather.” “Last week the winter’s protracted agony got the upper hand and, with my 7,000,000 pores voting for a change of air, I gave in.”

Willis determined, that 1854 winter day, to make a trip into Manhattan. He “started from my home at daylight to meet the railroad cars, in full faith of a noon in the city. I did not reach my hotel until the following midnight and did not get my baggage for still eighteen hours more.”

What Nathaniel Parker Willis encountered was the danger of snow on those early railroad tracks. There were no diesel engine plows back then. Railroad engines were wood-powered steam. Snow drifts blew in quickly along the newly-laid tracks of the Erie and Hudson River Railroads. Weather reports were slow coming up and down the Hudson Valley in those days before telegraph. What could look like a clear day north of the Highlands in Newburgh and Cornwall Bays could be a whirling snowstorm south of Highland Falls. So it was on the day Willis set out for New York. By Cozzen’s Summer Hotel, south of West Point, the tracks were drifted over and the “only prospect from the windows was a tall snow bank on each side.”

For fourteen hours the 500 passengers riding with Willis in the trains caught along the Hudson were stuck without any services. Cars from successive trains backed up for over a mile. No bathrooms existed on those early trains, nor dining cars. Hearty passengers hiked off to find a place with some refreshments. Others made a path from car to car and visited with strangers. Willis complimented his fellow travelers saying “We Americans are a patient and merry people under difficulties. I do not think travelers have sufficiently given us credit for this national quality of jolly indomitableness. There is no sign of the fretful grumbler that would have abounded in such a disappointed multitude in Europe.” (It seems “road rage” had not yet come to America.) Railroad cars on the Hudson River Railroad that 1854 day were disconnected and “passengers were condensed into the forward trains to save weight,” in hopes the engine could pull them free. Heat was supplied in each car by a cast-iron stove “which burned red-hot.” That intense heat coupled with the windows closed against the swirling snow and the pools of water from wet boots made a most difficult atmosphere to sustain “jolly indomitableness.”

Willis says “I suffered painfully myself from the foulness of the atmosphere all day and, of course, sat with damp feet all the way – a dangerous addition to an empty stomach and a pestilent atmosphere.” Late that night, the trains were finally freed and made their way south. At the station at Thirty-First Street at 11 p.m., “there was one four-horse sleigh in waiting and probably between five and eight hundred passengers.” So, Willis and the others started trudging “down-town-wards with a long stumble over the unshovelled sidewalks of slumbering and ill-lighted neighborhoods.” After midnight, in the neighborhood of Union Square, he checked in to the Clarendon Hotel and enjoyed a venison steak. Over that hot dinner he tells us in his essay that he “vowed never again to make even a two-hour pilgrimage in a rail-car without provision against accident – say a cracker or two and some shape of fluid consolation.”

Taking Willis’ advice, perhaps this week we should just watch the ice and snow from our windows, drinking our fluid consolation.

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