“The people of New England are by nature patient and forbearing; but there are some things which they will not stand. Every year they kill a lot of poets for writing about ‘Beautiful Spring.’ These are generally casual visitors, who bring their notions of spring from somewhere else, and cannot, of course, know how the natives feel about spring. And so, the first thing they know, the opportunity to inquire how they feel has permanently gone by.”
– Mark Twain, in his perpetually quotable speech on New England weather given Friday, 22 December 1876 – the year The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published
Visible light satellite photo taken on day two of the Northeast Blizzard of 1978
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the worst snowstorm I’ve ever experienced, the Great Northeast Blizzard of 1978, which is the likely origin of those odd runs on bread and milk that now occur in so many places – most prominently east of the Mississippi – before snowstorms. After this storm, many people in the worst affected areas couldn’t go out for days and genuinely did run out of such things. Where I lived, not far north of Boston, we got 30″ of snow, with eight- and nine-foot drifts due to the near-hurricane force winds that raged during the thirty-two hour storm. Those winds were hurricane force twenty miles away at the coast. My chief memory of the storm as it was happening is those fiercely howling winds driving the heavy snow mostly sideways for hours and hours on end. There was no thought of going outside – it was just too dangerous.
The storm happened on Monday and Tuesday of that week, and it was Friday before we could get to a grocery store. Quite different from the similar snow depth storm here in 2015.
February 1978: Southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, abandoned vehicles litter Route 128, the Boston inner ring highway, near Dedham. It was a week before all 3,500 vehicles there were cleared by the National Guard and U.S. Army.
February 1978: Abandoned vehicles on Route 9 west of Boston – just a mile or so from my current office
To guarantee unimpeded rescues and cleanup, then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared a travel ban in Massachusetts after the storm that extended to three days, so there was no point struggling to get to the nearest grocery a mile away because they’d have nothing in stock – nothing of use, anyway. Once the ban was lifted, our relatively minor street was still largely impassable, so I walked to the store to get some staples – with my sled as carry-all as I recall – and I think we had indeed run out of bread and milk, but still had some eggs.
I think it’s memories of this storm or stories from older relatives that still fuel the “must get French toast ingredients” urge that hits a lot of people before any middling to major snowstorm ’round these parts – and, strangely I think, many other places that have never experienced a regional shutdown lasting several days and almost certainly never will.
Here’s the best overview of the storm and its aftermath I found online, from WGBH Boston:
WBZ-TV aired a special last week, shown below. It was all right, but they buried the lede entirely – suffocated it, really. As the WGBH report mentions quite early on, most forecasts the morning the blizzard started called for about 6″ of snow total. While that sort of forecast would preemptively shut down a place like Washington DC, most people in New England would still go to work, and so they did. No one was prepared for what happened. By the time the monstrosity started showing its true self, snowplows couldn’t keep up with the stupendous rate of snowfall and it was too late for many to try to get home. A lot of those who attempted it were stranded and had to await rescue or abandon their cars and seek shelter.
At the time, there was basically one computer model available, but most meteorologists viewed it askance because it was new and its prediction seemed over the top. Not all of them thought it was dubious, though:
“Back in 1978, we did not have the accuracy of the computer models that we have today. And in 1978 there was a brand new computer model that came out and it was predicting the storm to be pretty much the magnitude it turned out to be. But because the computer model was brand new, people did not have confidence in it. And so there was some question whether or not people wanted to buy into the kind of product that it was delivering. To me it looked very reasonable. I took my little bag of clothes and I moved into Western Connecticut State College weather lab and I said, ‘I’m going to be here for a few days and there’s no question about that. It’s in the logbook on that day: ‘a granddaddy of a snowstorm is coming our way.’”
– Dr. Mel Goldstein
Houses tossed onto the beach like shoe boxes in Scituate, Massachusetts
The National Weather Service office at Taunton, Massachusetts prepared a slideshow some years ago with lots of good photos and graphics explaining how the storm evolved. Click on the image to view the PDF:
NOAA’s report on the blizzard (click to download or open the PDF):
This edition of The Boston Globe never reached its readers – they literally stopped the presses and abandoned the print run. There was no way to distribute it.
I had been scheduled to fly out to Kansas City, Missouri on 7 February to begin my first full-time job, but the snow was still coming down hard at that point and my move was delayed by two weeks. A few months after I moved into the Walnut Tower apartments in downtown Kansas City, wild weather of a different kind: Late afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday, I heard loud sirens that sounded like air raid sirens, but, being 18 years old and a Midwest newcomer, I didn’t know until the next day that what I heard was a tornado warning for the downtown area. I had an inkling, though, because I watched out my 11th floor window for about 90 minutes as, in ones and twos, ten or twelve funnels serpentined off the bottom of the filthy yellow mammatus cloud deck and twisted back up, never getting closer than about 1,500 feet off the ground.
“It was kind of nice to rule by decree because the legislature couldn’t get into the State House. So it was just me, you know.”
– Massachusetts Governor Dukakis
Headline seen: 71.2 million people are under winter weather alerts
By now, especially in light of that decimal point, I think they must have automated this sort of tally for forecast teasers and online clickbait, but even to the nearest hundred thousand, it still means less than nothing. My reaction is a sarcastic “Oh, thank goodness it’s not 74.5 million, but I do wish it were more like 60.8 million.” Even if it were a useful number compared against the population of the US, for example – that still isn’t useful, by the way – do they really think a large percentage of said population knows how many million people live in the US? I doubt even 71.2 million of them could, without Googling, answer that question within 50 million of the number.
Breathless reports of meteor sightings also puzzle me. Thinking back, every time I’ve driven a long distance on a clear night – say, more than a few hours – I’ve seen at least one, and not at the time of meteor showers, either. Like snow in winter, meteors are not uncommon. Online shouts of “INCREDIBLE” and “AMAZING” make me scratch my head and think that some people are mighty easily amazed. I think, “Huh…neat!” when I happen to see one, but that’s the extent of it. When I was seven or eight years old, though, a friend and I witnessed not your piddly little two-second thin streak in the sky, but an extremely large green fireball-type meteor just after dusk that lasted about eight seconds. Now that was amazing, so impressive that you could put me on that street today and I could show you exactly where we stood and point out in the sky just where it started and ended.
Update: I found references to the fireball I saw when I was a kid and posted another article with all the details here.
Also, for the last time, stop trying to name winter storms, Weather Channel. After some years now of your attempts at social network engineering, you and your sister companies under parent NBC/Universal are the only ones who do it – a few other media organisations tagged along at first, but I think they were shamed back out of the practice, and rightfully so. Is that why you keep buying other weather companies – just to make more people in the industry do it?
From Burbank Firefighters Local 778, a group of whom were trapped in the Deer Canyon area until the landslide subsided:
Two people were in the car and survived. They made a beeline out of there after an evacuation order said the basin above them might be overtopped. It was, and they hydroplaned with the debris flow down the hill, then regained control and went up another road to escape the flow.
The debris basin that was inundated, Upper Sunset, is at the upper right. The car came down Country Club Drive, which emanates from the Sunset Debris Basin access road.
The debris basin after the landslide is below. The wall appears to have been breached but was not. There’s ongoing construction to raise the rim five feet to increase the capacity of the basin by 8,000 cubic yards – see the scaffolding – and that middle portion is not yet started.
The prevailing term in government warnings and the news reports out of Santa Barbara County is mudslide, not landslide. Yes, it is primarily mud by volume, but mudslide seems far too mild a term to me when I look at these pictures from today in the northern part of Montecito, just south of the Santa Ynez range that’s northeast of Santa Barbara.
This sort of confluence of events occurs just once or twice a decade at this scale, with multiple fatality landslides occurring every second or third decade. Wouldn’t some people – specifically those who haven’t seen this before – think of mudslide warnings, “Oh, some mud? Whatever”? I doubt anyone would think that if the more apt “landslide” was used instead. A reaction of “Let’s get the hell out of here” would be a little more likely, I think – and a lot more sensible.
When I wonder how mudslide overtook landslide in Southern California, the cynical me answers immediately: decades of real estate agent subtlety, probably.
Click any image for a larger version
Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department
Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department
Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department
Rescue of 14-year-old girl at right. Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department
Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department
You may have heard that, after the California wildfires, there’s a scramble to empty “debris basins” there because so many hillsides now lack any vegetation to halt or even slow landslides that will occur on burn-scarred hills after heavy rainfall. The debris basins are man-made bowls of varying sizes, whose construction first began in 1915, meant to catch landslide debris but allow water through. There are more than 120 of them near Los Angeles, where they’re essential because the tectonically active San Gabriel Mountains are both growing and disintegrating at one of the fastest rates on the planet. The basins are regularly emptied by crews, but because of the volume of material, it can be difficult to keep up.
The regional forecast for the next four days is not good: 1-2 inches of rain at the coast and up to 5 inches on west-facing slopes. As little as a quarter-inch of rain in an hour is capable of triggering a landslide in burned areas.
John McPhee wrote about the basins and the underlying geology of the region in The New Yorker in 1988. The second half of his essay is behind their paywall, but the fascinating first half is freely readable here:
Both parts are included in his book, The Control of Nature. When he wrote that essay thirty years ago, the basins had already collected – and been emptied of – over twenty million tons of landslide material. In the eyebrow-lifting words of McPhee:
Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the [Genofile family] was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.
The lecture notes about McPhee’s essay on this page summarize well the never-ending chaparral overgrowth/wildfire/rain/landslide cycle in Southern California.
The low stuff, at the buckwheat level, is often called soft chaparral. Up in the tough chamise, closer to the lofty timber, is high chaparral, which is also called hard chaparral. High or low—hard, soft, or mixed—all chaparral has in common an always developing, relentlessly intensifying, vital necessity to burst into flame. In a sense, chaparral consumes fire no less than fire consumes chaparral.
As a side note, there’s no need to find blame in campfires of the homeless – or even the far more common cause, poorly-maintained power lines and their rights-of-way – because Southern California wildfires are inevitable. They would, with 100% certainty, occur even if the region was completely uninhabited. It’s not a matter of if – it’s a matter of when.
The strangest aspect of the basins is where much of their debris is transported once removed: back up into the mountains. McPhee called this bizarre flood control district job security an “elegant absurdity”.
Traveling from the west in the area of the record-breaking Thomas Fire to the east, here are the Santa Barbara County debris basins:
Then Ventura County’s – a little rough looking because I cobbled this together from four zone maps of differing scales:
And finally, Los Angeles County’s debris basins, where you can easily see that the landslide problem is most acute:
This map of likely landslide paths after the Station Fire in 2009 is an example of just how acute. This area is near the centre of the map above and not far north-northeast of Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena:
From Sacramento FD, 15 December 2017: Sacramento Engine 316 as part of California OES Strike Team 4805c, preparing to depart Ventura Base Camp for a day on the fire line. The Thomas Fire is now 252,500 acres, with 35% containment and 8,369 personnel assigned.
Hundreds of units are visible in their photo from the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Other totals as of 15 December: 1,012 fire engines, 62 water tenders, 32 helicopters, 158 handcrews, 78 bulldozers, plus other firefighting aircraft.
In the MODIS natural colour image below, smoke from California wildfires stretches north past the Oregon border. The southern half of Vancouver Island is visible at the top and the lower edge of this image is about 175 miles south of the Baja California border. Acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on 11 December 2017.
Aqua’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) shows CO concentration on 11 December 2017. “Column” refers to the 5km-high column of air that’s measured and 1018 is one quintillion.
Still no hope of ever having a hobby of any sort? Thumb-twiddling too mundane? All dully waking moments must involve a dully glowing screen? Why not try chasing your own tail for a while as we track you, serve up some ads, and gain some micro-revenue? Satisfying? Of course not. But it does occupy time.
Vote early and often! Allow all cookies. Attempt no ad-blockers there.
Thirty-six hours of lightning in the severe storms over the Eastern US a week ago, captured by the new GOES-16 NOAA satellite, which launched last November. It was known as GOES-R before launch.
Summarizing the satellite’s capabilities:
GOES-R will scan the skies five times faster than today’s GOES spacecraft, with four times greater image resolution and three times the spectral channels. It will provide high-resolution, rapid-refresh satellite imagery as often as every 30 seconds, allowing for a more detailed look at a storm to determine whether it is growing or decaying.
This image demonstrates the vast increase in resolution from GOES-13 (r) to GOES-16 (l). It’s 4572 x 2252 and 7.3MB:
Click for a much larger version
Hey, I can nearly see my house from here in this medium resolution image of the Northeast US taken in January:
That date is something I keep in mind whenever I read the seasonal totals that the National Weather Service releases on the 1st of March each year, this year’s shown below. Temperatures are in F and snowfall totals in inches. As a perfect example of the temporary nature of their winter ‘in review’, I’ll mention that it’s snowing right now, with an expected 3″ tonight. Also, I believe my area has had around a foot more snow than Boston proper, which is what’s covered by this summary. That’s not a boast – it’s a lament.
The day before that 1997 blizzard occurred here, the temperature had reached 64F/18C.
On Saturday night, the people in the Taunton, Mass. NWS office were obviously torn about what would happen tonight, and had a different Massachusetts-related headline on their minds. From the forecast discussion they pushed out:
A local weatherman the other day: “All I can say is, take comfort in the fact that next winter will be nothing like this winter. I will guarantee that.”
This view is after another blizzard dumped 12-20 inches on Eastern New England last Saturday night into Sunday. It was fifteen inches at my house, bringing the three-week total to a number too enervating to type, utter, or contemplate.
Click for a more enervating view
The second image shows the snow-covered northeastern states as observed on Feb. 16, 2015, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Cloud streets over the Atlantic Ocean in both images hint at the potent winds blowing across the East Coast from the Canadian interior. Following the blizzard, temperatures dropped as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34° Celsius) in parts of New England.
The next storm is on the schedule and it’s to be another blizzard Saturday night. Old Probabilities is saying it may bring the twenty-day total snowfall at my house to…oh, I don’t know exactly, but somewhere around seven-and-a-half to eight feet – well more than an average year’s snowfall in just under three weeks. I’ll do some errands in the afternoon, return home, don my sheepskin slippers, turn down the lights, open the blinds, look out at the snow as I cook something piping hot and comforting for dinner, and feel a little better about winter now that my Multi-Fire XD electric fireplace is in its permanent home as of last night. It’s quite relaxing, indeed all the way to soothing.
A friend was going to help assemble the flat-packed Windham media console but his kid was sick, so I put the 140-pound behemoth together on my own. The instructions were perfectly clear, but the weight and size of the pieces made the job awkward for one and the somanabatch took two-and-a-half hours to build.
Click for a larger view
I selected the Windham because, like my old media console, it has a raised glass platform for the telly that allows me to have the set perched on a turntable – the rectangular piece under the four legs at the top – so I can easily rotate the TV 75 degrees counterclockwise to watch while I work in the kitchen that’s off to the right, and have my soundbar – the 40″ wide black bar underneath the glass – in a position where it won’t get knocked off when I swing the set around.
I imagine a multi-watch/warning/advisory map like this morning’s is akin to foreplay for professional weather people. All of the items on the right are in effect for various parts of the state and shoreline; the colours on the map side reflect only the most important warnings for each area.
URGENT – WINTER WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TAUNTON MA
1057 PM EST FRI FEB 13 2015
…WINTER STORM WILL BRING BLIZZARD CONDITIONS TO EASTERN MASSACHUSETTS THIS WEEKEND AND HEAVY SNOW FARTHER INLAND…
CENTRAL MIDDLESEX MA-WESTERN NORFOLK MA-NORTHERN BRISTOL MA-WESTERN PLYMOUTH MA-SOUTHERN BRISTOL MA-SOUTHERN PLYMOUTH MA-DUKES MA-
INCLUDING THE CITIES OF…FRAMINGHAM…LOWELL…FOXBORO…NORWOOD…TAUNTON…
BROCKTON…FALL RIVER…NEW BEDFORD…MATTAPOISETT…VINEYARD HAVEN
1057 PM EST FRI FEB 13 2015
…BLIZZARD WARNING NOW IN EFFECT FROM 7 PM SATURDAY TO 1 PM EST SUNDAY…
* LOCATIONS…EASTERN MASSACHUSETTS INCLUDING MARTHAS VINEYARD.
* HAZARD TYPES…BLIZZARD CONDITIONS…INCLUDING HEAVY SNOW…POOR VISIBILITIES…AND STRONG TO DAMAGING WINDS.
* SNOW ACCUMULATIONS…8 TO 10 INCHES. SNOW DRIFTS UP TO A FEW FEET CAN ALSO BE EXPECTED.
* TIMING…SATURDAY EVENING INTO SUNDAY.
* IMPACTS…TRAVEL WILL BECOME NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE AND POTENTIALLY LIFE THREATENING DUE TO WHITEOUT CONDITIONS AND BITTERLY COLD WIND CHILLS….ESPECIALLY ALONG AND INSIDE ROUTE 128. CONDITIONS WILL REMAIN DANGEROUS FOR TRAVEL WELL INTO SUNDAY DUE TO BLOWING AND DRIFTING SNOW…REDUCED VISIBILITY AND DANGEROUSLY COLD WIND CHILLS.
* WINDS…NORTH 20 TO 30 MPH WITH GUSTS UP TO 60 MPH.
* VISIBILITIES…ONE QUARTER MILE OR LESS AT TIMES.
* TEMPERATURES…AROUND 20.
A BLIZZARD WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS OR FREQUENT GUSTS OVER 35 MPH ARE EXPECTED WITH CONSIDERABLE FALLING AND/OR BLOWING AND DRIFTING SNOW. TRAVEL MUST BE COMPLETED BY LATE SATURDAY AFTERNOON. THOSE VENTURING OUTDOORS MAY BECOME LOST OR DISORIENTED. STAY INDOORS.
A friend was supposed to visit Monday and Tuesday this week, but those plans were cancelled due to the weather, which reminded me that Mark Twain had a similar problem a while back – March 1888 to be precise. Olivia, his wife, was to have joined him for a week in New York City, but it was not to be. From his letter to her dated 10 March 1888:
And so, after all my labor and persuasion to get you to at last promise to take a week’s holiday and go off with me on a lark, this is what Providence has gone and done about it. It does seem to me the oddest thing – the way Providence manages. A mere simple request to you to stay at home would have been entirely sufficient; but no, that is not big enough, picturesque enough – a blizzard’s the idea; pour down all the snow in stock, turn loose all the winds, bring a whole continent to a stand-still: that is Providence’s idea of the correct way to trump a person’s trick. If I had known it was going to make all this trouble and cost all these millions, I never would have said anything about your going. Now in the light of this revelation of the methods of Providence, consider Noah’s flood – I wish I knew the real reason for playing that cataclysm on the public: likely enough, somebody who liked dry weather wanted to take a walk. That is probably the whole thing – and nothing more to it.
The blizzard he refers to was the Great Blizzard of 1888, which paralysed the Northeast US, sank or grounded 200 ships, blanketed the countryside with 20-60 inches of snow, and killed 400 people – 200 of them in New York City. The supremely annoying “Weather predictions must be perfect! You made me stay off the roads and I didn’t have to! What about my Taco Bell dinner! Call 9-1-1! Waaaa!” people in that area would be well-advised to stick that in their collective pipe and smoke it. Those ubiquitous “Me, me, me! Outrage, outrage, outrage!” chowderheads regretfully now fully enabled by antisocial media remind me of the Italian government trying to jail earthquake scientists a few years ago. I’m happy to report that their manslaughter convictions were finally overturned last November.
The GOES-EAST satellite – GOES-13 at the moment – captured the genesis and follow-through of this week’s blizzard in exquisite detail:
GOES-13, known as GOES-N before launch, was built by Boeing Satellite Systems [PDF of GOES-N databook] and contains several other instruments in addition to its imager:
It’s about the size and weight of a large SUV:
The operational infrastructure behind – or perhaps I should say underneath – the satellite is rather breathtaking. Presented in both org chart and geographic styles here:
And now for the other Twain bookend. I’ve read dozens of his speeches, but his talk on New England weather is my favourite. His part begins several paragraphs into this article, at the subhead SPEECH OF MR. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.
From The New York Times, 23 December 1876
NEW-ENGLANDERS AT DINNER.
THE ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF THE NEW-ENGLAND SOCIETY – SPEECHES BY HON. GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS, ‘MARK TWAIN,’ REV. EDWARD EVERETT HALE, REV. DR. JOHN COTTON SMITH, REV. DR. TAYLOR, AND OTHERS – INTERESTING LETTER FROM GEN. SHERMAN.
The New England Society’s annual dinner at Delmonico’s last night was one of the most brilliant celebrations of the kind that has ever been held in this City. The preparations were made with great thoroughness, and the addresses by the respondents to the several toasts were full of earnestness, good feeling, good sense, and good wit. The dining-hall was filled with seven tables, the President’s table overlooking six others arranged opposite to it at right angles. Above the head of the President was suspended against the wall the banner of the New England Society, flanked by silken national ensigns, and on the opposite side of the hall, before the orchestra balcony, was a national shield also draped with United States flags. the tables were elegantly and tastefully decorated with baskets and set pieces of flowers. Before the President was a design, in flowers of delicate hues, representing Plymouth Rock, and there were many viands in the feast that recalled to genuine New Englanders the plain and beauty fare of the land of steady habits. The guests entered the dining room just before 7 o’clock, and at that hour Rev. Dr. John Cotton Smith, at the invitation of President Borden, said grace. Among those present were Rev. Edward Everett Hale, ex-Gov. Edwin D. Morgan, Hon. George William Curtis, Rev. John Cotton Smith, Rev. Richard S. Storrs, Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain,) Mayor Wickham, Joseph H. Choate, Rev. Dr. William M. Taylor, Hon. Elliot C. Cowdin, Hon. Salem H. Wales, Commodore J. W. A. Nicholson, G. B. Loring, Hon. Isaac H. Bailey, Dexter A. Hawkins, Prof. Bartholdt, (sculptor of the colossal Statue of Liberty), District Attorney Benjamin K. Phelps, Prof. F. B. Sanborn of Dartmouth College, representatives of St. George’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick’s Societies, Assistant District Attorneys Bell, Russell and Rollins, Parke Godwin, Clark Bell, Police Commissioners, Wheeler and Erbardt, and Prof. W. E. Chandler, the whole company numbering more than two hundred. More than two hours were spent at dinner, when, at 9:30 o’clock, Rev. Mr. Courtenay gave thanks. President Borden then rose, and having called the company to order, he announced that Gen. William T. Sherman had written a letter of regret, saying that in the present condition of affairs at Washington he was unable to leave that city, and William M. Evarts was also detained in Washington and was unable to attend, and that letters of regret had been received from ex-Speaker James G. Blaine, Gov. Tilden, Gov. Chamberlain, of South Carolina, Robert C. Winthrop, and Gen. John C. Newton.
Hon. George William Curtis was called upon to respond to the toast of “Forefathers’ Day.” He was received with prolonged applause, and by many of the company rising to their feet with waving handkerchiefs and loud cheers. His remarks were frequently interrupted by hearty expressions of approval, and his allusion to Abraham Lincoln as the development of the seed sown here two centuries ago by the coming of the Mayflower, was followed by vehement applause. His suggestions for the conduct of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the settlement of the political difficulties threatening the nation roused is hearers to the highest pitch of excitement, and evoked unanimous and prolonged applause.
As Mr. Curtis sat down, he was greeted with the heartiest cheers, which subsided only to be renewed with greater vigor. Cheers followed the announcement of the sentiment, “The President of the United States.” In reply to the “City of New York,” Mayor Wickham humorously arraigned a large number of City officers for alleged shortcomings, charging them with being New Englanders, and succeeding in finding so many against whom the charges were applicable, and indicated them so plainly, as to cause unbounded merriment.
Rev. Edward Everett Hale, in responding to the toast, “New England Culture,” made an address in which wit and wisdom were happily blended. Commodore Nicholson responded to the toast, “The Army and Navy.” Mark Twain provoked a storm of laughter by his rambling talk about “New England Weather.” Rev. John Cotton Smith commanded the fullest attention of the company by his response to the toast set down for him. Responses were made by Rev. Dr. William M. Taylor, Prof. Sanborn, and others.
The proceedings were begun by the President, Mr. William Borden, who said:
Gentlemen, will you give your reverent attention for a moment while I call upon Rev. Mr. Courtenay to return thanks?
Rev. Mr. Courtenay responding to the suggestion of the Chairman, offered prayer as follows:
“Most merciful God, and Father, in whom we live and move and have our being; Thou who can satisfy the desire of every living thing, we render Thee our thanks for the satisfaction of our bodily appetites, and pray Thee that what we shall now hear may be for the satisfaction of the higher appetite of our intellects and our reason for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
SPEECH OF MR. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.
The Oldest Inhabitant – The Weather –
Who hath lost and doth forget it?
Who hath it still and doth regret it?
“Interpose betwixt us Twain.”
– Merchant of Venice
“I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all, makes everything in New England – but the weather. I don’t know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the Weather Clerk’s factory, who experiment and learn how in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don’t get it. [Laughter.] There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration – and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. [Laughter.] But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours. [Laughter.] It was I that made the fame and fortune of that man that had that marvelous collection of weather on exhibition at the Centennial that so astounded the foreigners. He was going to travel all over the world and get specimens from all the climes. I said, “Don’t you do it; you come to New England on a favorable spring day.” I told him what we could do, in the way of style, variety, and quantity. [Laughter.] Well, he came, and he made his collection in four days. As to variety – why, he confessed that he got hundreds of kinds of weather that he had never heard of before. And as to quantity – well, after he had picked out and discarded all that was blemished in any way, he not only had weather enough, but weather to spare; weather to hire out; weather to sell; to deposit; weather to invest; weather to give to the poor. [Laughter.] The people of New England are by nature patient and forbearing; but there are some things which they will not stand. Every year they kill a lot of poets for writing about “Beautiful Spring.” [Laughter.] These are generally casual visitors, who bring their notions of spring from somewhere else, and cannot, of course, know how the natives feel about spring. And so, the first thing they know, the opportunity to inquire how they feel has permanently gone by. [Laughter.]
Old Probabilities* has a mighty reputation for accurate prophecy, and thoroughly well deserves it. You take up the papers and observe how crisply and confidently he checks off what today’s weather is going to be on the Pacific, down South, in the Middle States, in the Wisconsin region; see him sail along in the joy and pride of his power till he gets to New England, and then – see his tail drop. He doesn’t know what the weather is going to be like in New England. He can’t any more tell than he can tell how many Presidents of the United States there’s going to be next year. [Applause.] Well, he mulls over it, and by and by he gets out something about like this: Probable nor’-east to sou’-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points between; high and low barometer, swapping around from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning. [Loud laughter and applause.] Then he jots down this postscript from his wandering mind, to cover accidents: “But it is possible that the program may be wholly changed in the meantime.” [Loud laughter.]
Yes, one of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it. There is only one thing certain about it, you are certain there is going to be plenty of weather. [Laughter.] A perfect grand review; but you never can tell which end of the procession is going to move first. You fix up for the drought; you leave your umbrella in the house and sally out with your sprinkling pot, and ten to one you get drowned. [Applause.] You make up your mind that the earthquake is due; you stand from under, and take hold of something to steady yourself, and the first thing you know, you get struck by lightning. [Laughter.] These are great disappointments. But they can’t be helped. [Laughter.] The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing when it strikes a thing, it doesn’t leave enough of that thing behind for you to tell whether – well, you’d think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there. [Loud laughter and applause.]
And the thunder. When the thunder commences to merely tune up, and scrape, and saw, and key up the instruments for the performance, strangers say, “Why, what awful thunder you have here!” But when the baton is raised and the real concert begins, you’ll find that stranger down in the cellar, with his head in the ash barrel. [Laughter.]
Now, as to the size of the weather in New England – lengthways, I mean. It is utterly disproportioned to the size of that little country. [Laughter.] Half the time, when it is packed as full as it can stick, you will see that New England weather sticking out beyond the edges and projecting around hundreds and hundreds of miles over the neighboring states. [Laughter.] She can’t hold a tenth part of her weather. You can see cracks all about, where she has strained herself trying to do it. [Laughter.]
I could speak volumes about the inhuman perversity of the New England weather, but I will give but a single specimen. I like to hear rain on a tin roof, so I covered part of my roof with tin, with an eye to that luxury. Well, sir, do you think it ever rains on the tin? No, sir; skips it every time. [Laughter.]
Mind, in this speech I have been trying merely to do honor to the New England weather; no language could do it justice. [Laughter.] But, after all, there are at least one of two things about that weather (or, if you please, effects produced by it) which we residents would not like to part with. [Applause.] If we hadn’t our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries – the ice storm – when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top – ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles, cold and white, like the Shah of Persia’s diamond plume. [Applause.] Then the wind waves the branches, and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms, that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again, with inconceivable rapidity, from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold; the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence! One cannot make the words too strong. [Long continued applause.]
Month after month I lay up my hate and grudge against the New England weather; but when the ice storm comes at last, I say: “There, I forgive you, now; the books are square between us; you don’t owe me a cent; go, and sin no more; your little faults and foibles count for nothing; you are the most enchanting weather in the world!”
THE OTHER TOASTS.
The other toasts of the evening were “The Clergy of New England,” responded to by Rev. John Cotton Smith; “Lafayette – who gave us himself and liberty; and Bartholdi – who gives us Liberty and Lafayette.” No. Response. “The Agricultural and Manufacturing Interests of New England,” Dr. George B. Loring, and “Our Sister Societies,” responded to by the Presidents of the Irish, Scotch, and English societies.
The proceedings terminated shortly after midnight.
*At the time of Twain’s speech, Old Probabilities was the widely-used nickname of Cleveland Abbe, first scientist of the American Weather Bureau, predecessor to the National Weather Service.