The Blizzard of 1888

With Litchfield stuck in a weather pattern that seems to bring more snow every day, perhaps a look back at the great Blizzard of 1888 is in order.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel's house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888.  Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel’s house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

With little in the way of accurate meteorological predictions, the blizzard came as a surprise to the Northeast on Sunday, March 11, 1888.  It had been an unusually warm winter, and that day dawned with rain.  It soon turned to hail, then sleet, then ultimately snow.  Bitter cold and high winds set in, and the snow continued for three days.  When it all stopped, between 20 and 50 inches of snow had fallen in Connecticut, with drifts of 12 feet not uncommon.  (One drift in New Haven reached 40 feet high!)  The storm resulted in more than 400 deaths and an estimated $20 million worth of damage.

Dr. Buel's house after the snow had melted.  One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn't melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dr. Buel’s house after the snow had melted. One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn’t melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The following are excerpts about the blizzard from the Litchfield Enquirer:

March 12th – “The wind blew a perfect blizzard all day and the drifting and falling snow made even main streets almost impassable Monday night the storm continued with increasing fury and buildings rocked as though in a storm at sea.”

A modern view of Dr. Buel's house.

A modern view of Dr. Buel’s house.

March 13th – “On Tuesday morning the wind had lessened though still blowing a gale with the thermometer at or near zero. The most remarkable drifts are at Dr. [H. W.] Buel‘s. One, a little west of the house, about 20 feet, to a level with the eaves. There is an addition on the west of Dr. Buel‘s house, reaching- about to the eaves, which is almost completely covered by the snow, so that our reporter, walking- along the top of the drift, passed completely over the roof of this part of the house, and down on the northern side. There is a drift on the east which is even higher, shutting up one of the library windows completely, and reaching nearly to the top of one of the large firs which form a hedge on that side of the house.

March 14th – “The wind is northeast and considerable snow is still falling. People are about on snow shoes skees (sic) and snow shoes extemporized out of boards some carrying groceries to those in great want. Little business is doing. Most of the stores are closed. A few are open with people standing about comparing notes about tunneling to their woodsheds drifts over second story windows and other marvels of the great storm.”

The Lake Station, Bantam.  Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Lake Station, Bantam. Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Shepaug Railroad was out of service until March 16th. A railroad cut near the Lake Station (today the Cove in Bantam) was filled with a drift 22 feet deep!

And all this snow needed to be removed from the transportation network without the benefit of modern plows!


Hidden Nearby: Camp Columbia State Park in Morris

DSC_0194This post is the third in a partnership with the website. is posting video tours of some of the sites visited by this blog.  To see our video tour of Camp Columbia, click here:

Camp Columbia State Forest stands as something as a ghost town along Route 109 in Morris.  For nearly 100 years – from 1885 to 1983 – Columbia University held engineering and surveying classes on the more than 500 acre campus, which at its peak occupied nearly one square mile from the shores of Bantam Lake to the Morris/Bethlehem town line.  Here, engineering breakthroughs such as the concrete roof that would later top Madison Square Garden were pioneered.

A 1934 aerial view of Camp Columbia.  Courtesy of the State of Connecticut.

A 1934 aerial view of Camp Columbia. Courtesy of the State of Connecticut.

Land purchases began in 1903.  Prior to this the university had rented land from Mrs. Everett Waugh.  Mrs. Waugh’s farm would become the heart of the property, which soon would feature dormitories, a YMCA building with billiards and ping pong tables, a mess hall, and an astronomical observatory.   Columbia paid $10,000 for the 1903 purchases.


Officer candidates participating in a World War I training program held at Camp Columbia. Photo courtesy of Columbia University.

In the years prior to World War I, a boathouse was built on Bantam Lake.  Future expansion was halted by the coming of war, and in 1917, officers’ training for the United States Army took place on the property.  Trenches were dug near Munger Lane, and mock infantry assaults swept the camp.  In 1918, the university issued an informational packet for those interested in a second round of training at the camp, which stated that the purpose was to offer “an officers’ training course for men who may be called to the National Army and desire to fit themselves for officers of noncommissioned officers in Government Service.”  The packet stated that the program was conducted by the university, not the Army, but that  it had “the approval and endorsement of the Secretary of War, and the record of the men who attended last summer shows that the course has been effective in preparing men for officers’ rank, real usefulness, and rapid advancement.”


A 1940s image of the Camp Columbia tower; the tower is still standing but no longer has the hands on the clock. Photo courtesy of Columbia University.

In 1934, a fieldstone dining hall was built and eight years later the central feature of the camp, a 60 foot cylindrical water tower with an observation platform made of local stone was presented to the camp by the Class of 1906.  A 1952 Columbia University press release describes the tower as a “land-locked lighthouse, or the battlement of a feudal castle.”


Dwight Eisenhower as president of Columbia University.

 Columbia engineering students blasted and leveled the hilly terrain to create a softball field and football field.  In the late 1940s, the Columbia Lions football team held their early season practices here under Coach Lou Little, who paced the sidelines at the school for 26 seasons and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960.  Little was supported in his efforts by the then president of Columbia, Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Ike is reported to have spent time at the camp watching practices and hunting on the grounds.


The Instrument House, one of two surviving structures.

Still, the primary purpose of the camp was as a field school for engineering students, and by the early 1950s the summer program was mandatory for these students.  Courses taught at the camp included Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, and Technology & International Affairs.  Additionally, the Columbia University American Language Center offered classes for those international students who wished to apply to American colleges.  The presence of the 60 or so international students in 1952 – from Korea, China, Japan, Malaya, Norway, Sweden, Colombia, Greece, Canada, Brazil, Engalnd and Italy – allowed the university to declare that the camp was “a veritable United Nations in microscosm, the youngsters live together and work together with no more friction than one would find in any other college class.”

Remains of the old flag circle at Camp Columbia.

Remains of the old flag circle at Camp Columbia.

By the mid-1960s, declining student interest in the camp experience and changes to the engineering curriculum brought an end to the Engineering Department’s use of Camp Columbia.  The university maintained the grounds for special programming until 1983 when it was closed.  While the university struggled to find a buyer for the property, the buildings slowly deteriorated.  In 1989, the Town of Morris declared several buildings to be a public hazard and they were utilized in a controlled burning training exercise.


Remains of an old fountain at Camp Columbia.

In 2000, the State of Connecticut agreed to purchase the grounds for $2.1 million and began to remove most of the buildings.  Today, only the boathouse, tower and instrument house still stand.  Still, for the explorer willing to walk the grounds, hints of foundations and clearings in the forest provide a glimpse into what was once a thriving intellectual community.

The Constitution Oak

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Connecticut, the “Constitution State,” has a unique history of state constitutions.  The “constitution” that is celebrated on our license plates is the Fundamental Orders of 1638.  This document stated that Connecticut held no political allegiance to England, but rather was loyal to its local government.  In 1662 the Fundamental Orders were replaced by a royal charter exerting the King’s authority over the colony.  However, Connecticut residents paid little attention to this document and continued to abide by the provision of the Fundamental Orders.  This continued until 1818, when provisions establishing the Congregational Church as the official religion of Connecticut were deemed incompatible with the relatively recent First Amendment.  A new state constitution followed.

The Civil War monument in front of the state capitol was erected at the time of the convention in 1902.

The Civil War monument in front of the state capitol was erected at the time of the convention in 1902.

By 1901 it was apparent that there were significant flaws in the 1818 constitution.  Senatorial and House districts were set up according to geographic rather than population guidelines.  The end result was that Union, with a population of 1,000, had the same number of representatives as New Haven, with more than 100,000 residents.  In 1901, Connecticut voters called for a constitutional convention by a 2-1 margin.  The convention put forth a proposal that would award towns between one and four representatives based on population.  This was not enough for the cities, but too much for the small towns, and the proposal was voted down by another 2-1 margin.

Charles Andrews

Charles Andrews

That convention would be all but forgotten except that each of the 168 delegates (representing every municipality in the state) was given a pin oak seedling to plant in their town.  Charles Andrews, one-time governor (1879-1881) and then chief justice of the state supreme court was Litchfield’s representative and the presiding officer of the convention.  He planted his at the eastern end of the town green.

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Periodic surveys of these trees have revealed dwindling numbers.  Of the 168 original oaks, 110 were still standing in 1939 and 86 in 1986.  The last survey, conducted in 2002, revealed only 74 remain.  While a new state constitution was finally approved in 1965, Litchfield’s oak – a reminder of a failed constitution – still stands.

Periodic surveys:

1902 168
1937 110
1986 86
2002 74

Connecticut Tercentary Signs

Travelers entering Litchfield from the west encounter this tercentary sign as they pass Stop and Shop.

In 1935, Connecticut celebrated the tercentenary of its European settlement. It was an enormous undertaking, with over 3,000 events attended by more than 4 million people (the total population of the state was 1.6 million,which ranked it 29th in the country; in 2012, with 3.5 million residents, Connecticut still ranks 29th!).

The State Legislature created the Connecticut Tercentary Commission in 1929 to plan and oversee the commemoration.  Among its sponsored activities were special exhibits and ceremonies, musical events, pageants and parades, activities for schoolchildren, and special license plates.  Special coins were minted, and special stamps created.

Two undertakings of the Commission continue to serve their original purpose more than three quarters of a century later.  The first is the series of sixty pamphlets on Connecticut history published by Yale University Press for the Commission.  These pamphlets, authored by various Connecticut writers including Commission chairman Samuel Herbert Fisher, are all available at the Connecticut State Library.  Of particular interest to Litchfield are The Settlement of Litchfield County, The Litchfield Law School, 1775 – 1833, and Connecticut Portraits by Ralph Earl.

The east side of the sign between Stop and Shop and the Webster Bank. It bears Connecticut’s state motto, which translates to “He who transplanted still sustains” and the state seal, which shows three grapevines, one representing each of Connecticut’s three earliest settlements, Windsor, Wethersfield and Hartford.

More noticeable on the Litchfield landscape are the roadside historical markers erected by the Commission.  Thousands of cars pass Litchfield’s four signs every day, yet there is no indication on the signs about who put them up, when they were put up, or why.  There were 139 known signs erected to inform motorists about important episodes or people from Connecticut history.  However, as many of these signs were duplicate (for example, nine signs in Hartford told the passerby about a nearby 17th Dutch fort), there were 71 different historical sites marked by the Commission.

The west side of the sign located between Stop and Shop and the Webster Bank.

All the signs were 1.5 feet by 2 feet, and painted in the distinctive brown with white letters.  However, while most hung from poles, there was no uniform method for hanging the markers.

It is interesting to ponder, what sites were marked? What sites weren’t? In keeping with the historiographical attitudes of the time, it is not surprising to learn that many identified sites of military importance.  However, eleven of the signs identified sites of educational importance, and sites of literary importance were also well represented.  Litchfield’s markers reflect these trends.

This sign marking the Beecher homestead is located at the intersection of North Street and Prospect Street.

Signs mark the Litchfield home of the literary and theological Beechers …

Located along North Street. Note: If any town officials are reading, the tree around this sign needs to be trimmed!

… and Litchfield’s educational pioneers Sarah Pierce …

Located in front of the Tapping Reeve Home and Law School on South Street.

… and Tapping Reeve.  Yet no signs (at least no extant signs) mark the sites of homes of Revolutionary heroes Oliver Wolcott or Benjamin Tallmadge, further evidence that what is considered significant in history changes over time, and isn’t always cast in stone, or metal.