This Place in History: Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death

BETHEL, Vt.

At 'This Place in History' Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins takes us the United Church of Bethel.

"This is our 'place' in history. We're talking about the year 1816. This church was built in 1816. Now 1816 was the Year Without A Summer. So throughout Vermont and a better part of the world, there was snow and frost every month of the year. It caused all sorts of problems. So much so, that many groups thought maybe the world is coming to the end. It brought together five distinct denominations right here in Bethel. They came together and built this church. But I understand this was a meteorological event," introduced Perkins.

Vermont State Climatologist Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux explained the science behind the 'Year Without a Summer'.

"The event that took place in April of 1815 was the eruption of Mt. Tambora, Indonesia. It produced this amazing amount of ash and dust and gas material into the atmosphere. Tambora is in the equatorial parts of the Earth, and with an eruption of that magnitude (it's one of the largest on record) anything that moves in the Equator can either move north or south. It has the ability to travel across the northern and southern hemispheres for an extended period of time," said Dupigny-Giroux.

"Once it erupted in April of 1815, that material got from where we live, which is the troposphere up to the higher levels which is called the stratosphere, that's where jet aircraft fly. It then had the ability to pretty much circle the Earth for several years. It actually blocks out the radiation coming in from the sun. And if you have less radiation coming in from the sun, the Earth starts to cool."

"And it didn't just snow in June, it snowed in July into August. August was colder than July and July was colder than June. So even though people started to plant and replant, along came another frost, along came another icing and snow. That killed off a lot of vegetation that was struggling and trying to grow. [There are stories of] people eating straw and tadpoles because there was nothing left," said Dupigny-Giroux.

"I brought a couple of items from the Vermont Historical Society Archives. One which I thought was very interesting was the Vermont Register and Almanac for the year of 1816. We're going to look at June. This says, 'June hath 30 days 1816'. It says for June that it's going to be hot weather with thunder and rain," read Perkins.

"We have a set of letters from a gentleman named David Wing from Montpelier. 'For years past, we've had the most extraordinary weather that has perhaps ever been witnessed in these parts. It all began on Thursday the 6th with some snow squalls all afternoon and Friday, quite cold and snow at times. Upon Saturday morning, the ground was covered with a mantle of winter. The snow in some places drifted to the depth of six and seven inches which continued on the ground until Sunday afternoon. And winter seemed again returned with all its terror. The notes of the sweet songsters of Spring were silenced'," read Perkins.

"Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during that year because it was so cold and they had a competition with friends about who could write the scariest or most Gothic tale. We got Frankenstein out of that," said Perkins.

"When we think of our neighbors on the other side of the pond in England, some of the most famous paintings from J.W. Turner were actually created right after the 1815 eruption with those amazing sunsets. Back then, they didn't know why were they were so brilliant and orange. Now we do," said Dupigny-Giroux.

"There are so many lessons we can learn, but I think the big one is how connected we all are. From a healing perspective, we're connected through helping our neighbors, but we're also connected geographically," concluded Dupigny-Giroux.

Where weather and history come together, at 'This Place in History'!
 

For more from our 'This Place in History' series, click here.

For a map of Vermont's roadside historical markers, click here.


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