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Thursday, June 11, 2009

GOT A LIGHT?

I suspect the citizens of New Englanders were primed for the end of days. The winter of 1780 had been brutal. In Sudbury, Connecticut seven feet of snow had kept widower Samuel Savage from reaching his own barn. He complained to his diary, “…one snow upon another…and it keeps coming still…” In the core of what would later be called "The Little Ice Age", Chesapeake Bay had frozen over, as had the Hudson River and New York and Boston harbors. Record cold and record snows were recorded from the Mohawk valley to the coast of Maine. Then, in a sudden thaw during the first week of March, bridges were carried away by rivers crowded with ice. April was cold and wet, with late snows. And then in the middle of May, the days abruptly turned warm.In Sudbury Mr. Savage’s diary recorded six days of “fair and pleasant “weather. The merchant Samuel Phillips of Weston, Massachusetts, observed that the air was remarkably “thick” with vapors and mists. “The sun rises and sets very red”, he wrote. And others in New England say the waning moon was blushed, and odd fogs rose from the frozen north facing slopes of the White Mountains. But these odd atmospheric phenomena proved merely the setting stage for the morning of Friday, May 19, 1780.
At six a.m. when the sun rose over Hager’s Brook in West Rupert, Vermont, a haze was already gathering from the southwest over the New York border. On the other side of the White Mountains, one hundred miles to the northeast, in the little village of Lancaster, New Hampshire, workmen were digging a cellar for Jonas Wilder’s new two story home. They felt the gathering gloom, beginning about 10:00 A.M.. A half hour later, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard College professor Samuel Williams noticed the twilight and decided to take notes on the phenomena. The widower Savage had noticed after nine that morning the sky had “…a light grassy hue, nearly the color of pale cider… By ten o'clock the sun had almost entirely disappeared…songbirds, that cheered the day only hours before, now fell silent. Fowls retired to their roosts, or collected together in clusters”. wrote Savage, “…while cocks crowed and crickets shook their fiddles. It was all as if night was falling”.About 11:00 that morning the darkness was so thick the laborers in Lancaster could not see to dig. A ship’s captain 200 miles southeast of Boston reported that at the same hour, under a light rain, the day was so dark he was obliged to steer by candle light. In Ipswich Hamlet, Mass, several amateur scientists noted that at half past “…in a room with three windows…all open toward the southeast and south, large print could not be read by persons of good eyes. About twelve o'clock…a candle cast a shade so well defined on the wall, as that profiles were taken…” And on Boston Common a nervous crowd had gathered when a man rushed up shouting that the tide in the harbor had “…ceased to flow.” A panic almost ensued from this declaration, but for a Mr. Willard who calmly drew his pocket watch and dryly observed, “So it has…for today. It is past twelve o’clock.” At Harvard, Professor William’s recorded a light rain had begun to fall “..thick and dark and sooty”. Noted a Maine observer, “... fowls went to their roost. Cocks crowed in answer to one another…Woodcocks…whistled as they do only in the dark. Frogs peeped. In short, there was the appearance of midnight at noonday”. In Ipswich the amateurs noted that “About one o'clock…the darkness was greater than it had been for any time before…We dined about two…two candles burning on the table.” Attempting to explain the blackness at midday, one man pleaded, “I could not help conceiving, at the time, that if every luminous body in the universe had been shrouded in impenetrable darkness, or struck out of existence, the darkness could not have been more complete.”Approaching two o’clock now the darkness grew even blacker. Samuel Savage could no longer read his watch. A man riding through the wooded hills above Penacook, New Hampshire suddenly found himself amongst black clouds so thick he could barely breathe. Mr. Sammuel Tenny noted that a sheet of paper “…held within a few inches of the eyes was as black as velvet.”
Schools were dismissed, and in Hartford the Connecticut Colonial House of Representatives voted to adjourn. A similar motion was introduced for the upper house, which was debating a bill to regulate Shad fishing. But the Councilman from Stamford objected. Abraham Davenport insisted, “I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”John Greenleaf Whittier was inspired to write, “'Twas on a May day of the far old year Seventeen hundred eighty, that there fell, Over the bloom and sweet life of the spring,Over the fresh earth and the heaven of noon, A horror of great darkness... All ears grew sharp, To hear the doom blast of the trumpet shatter, The black sky... Meanwhile in the old Statehouse, dim as ghosts, Sat the lawgivers of Connecticut, Trembling beneath their legislative robes. 'It is the Lord's great day! Let us adjourn,' Some said; and then, as with one accord, All eyes were turned to Abraham Davenport” Meanwhile in Boston Reverend David Hall noted, “People came flocking to the Meetinghouse requesting my presence (to guide them in prayer)." You could almost hear the reverend smile as he added,"The people were very attentive.”When the superfluous night fell the full moon was due to rise at nine, but did not appear, high in the sky, until 1:00 A.M., and blood red. Shortly afterward dim stars began to appear. Then, “About three o'clock the light in the west increased, the motion of the clouds [became] more quick, their color higher and more brassy…There appeared to be quick flashes…not unlike the aurora borealis.... About half past four our company (of amateur scientists), which had passed an unexpected night very cheerfully together, broke up.”With the dawn on Saturday, May 21, 1780, the world returned to normal. The day was light and the night was dark. And a great many people spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to explain the Great New England Darkness of 1780. But the workmen in Lancaster, New Hampshire merely returned to their work, and by the 26th of July, they were able to raise the frame for Jonas Wilder’s new home, now called The Wilder-Holton House.That home, now a museum, still stands (along with the words of Abraham Davenport) as testament that the best of us continue to build for the future, even when the futility of our brief exsistance seems as black as the night, right before our eyes.
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