When the last hurrah of visitors swarms the island for Stroll weekend, many a Nantucketer faces the inevitable question: “So what’s the winter like?” Answers typically range from “peacefully picturesque” to “dreadfully dull.” Ask someone from the Nantucket Historical Association, however, and the response will likely be: “The winters? They’re nothing like they used to be!”
None of today’s winter weather can compare to the deep cold of Nantucket’s past. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from December through April, islanders lived at the mercy of the elements, isolated by the all-too-common harbor “freeze-ups.” The frozen harbor, which could take three or four weeks to thaw, resulted in a complete detach- ment from the outside world, embargoing essentials like firewood and provisions as well as news and mail from the
When a particularly merciless cold spell struck Nantucket in February of 1829, “no water could be seen from any side of the island,” reported the Inquirer. Not only did the cold weather result in a high sheep mortality rate and scarcity of firewood, but the ice also prevented all mail delivery to the island. When it did finally arrive, sleighs carried the parcels from the head of the harbor into town, where it sat frozen in a block of ice.
While these periods of isolation deprived Nantucketers of contact with the outside world, it did lay the foundation for a community of industrious and resilient islanders who turned the seclusion into opportunities for winter fun. According to NHA historian Edouard Stackpole, when snow fell upon the island in the February of 1849 and the town was “transformed into a snow village,” Nantucketers harnessed their horses to a sleigh and raced along the streets. Years later, in 1865, when the ferry was once again frozen in port, the harbor became a “skating park” and was enjoyed “by old and young alike.”
While some business came to a screeching halt during the freeze-ups, Nantucketers did keep pace with other, more recreational pursuits. In 1856, during a severe ice embargo that lasted from January 4th to February 23th, it was reported that, “The churches remained closed, men went unshaved, the only branch of business pursued as usual was ‘courting.’ No storm ever yet has been known sufficiently severe to interfere with that interesting pursuit.” And so it was that when the firewood ran low, Nantucketers remained warm in one another’s embrace.
By the middle of the nineteenth century it appeared that hard winters were becoming the “order of things,” as a young Maria Mitchell wrote in her journal on January 22, 1857. “[W]e have been frozen in our Island now since the 6th. No one cared much about it for the first two or three days, but as the daily temperatures steadily dropped day after day and even sleighing became uncom- fortable, even the dullest man longed for the cheer of a newspaper.” Despite the boredom that came with a lack of news, Mitchell conveyed that families amused themselves by gathering together to write poetry in “great quantities” and memorizing the poetry of published authors.
Although, she contended, none of those activities could make up for being “now sixteen daily papers behind the rest of the world, and in these sixteen papers, are the items known to all the cities, which will never be known to us.” The mail finally arrived on February 3rd, after nearly a month of silence.
While Mitchell recorded her frustration by journaling, other Nantucketers resorted to more desperate measures of combating the isolation. After several weeks with a frozen harbor, a group campaigned to free the ferry, Island Home, by cutting away the ice encasing the vessel and then exploding a path out of port. Unfortunately, before any headway could be made, another blizzard swept in and thwarted the efforts.
By the turn of the 20th century, in 1914, the Inquirer and Mirror announced that Nantucket no longer “suffered” during the harbor freeze-ups as it once had. The advent of the telephone and construc- tion of the Nantucket cable in 1886 had lessened the sense of isolation that Nantucketers endured when passage by the steamboat was halted. By the middle of the twentieth century, airplanes, kerosene, and electricity forever transformed the limitations imposed by inclement weather.
Indeed, the times have changed and the weather seems to have warmed. So for those who shiver over the idea of spending the winter on the island, remember that it’s a Nantucket rite of passage, and not nearly as long brutal as it used to be.