The year Rochester didn’t have a summer


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — We’ve all been through more than our fair share of grief over the last year. All of us have been affected in some shape form or fashion, if not transformed, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, imagine if, in addition to a pandemic, we had to endure a year where summer was simply subtracted! Imagine a year where there was no final spring frost, or a year where we were still shivering and shoveling in June!

Let’s be clear. By no means am I attempting to contribute more torturous thoughts to what has already been an unimaginably torturous time. After a year the likes of which we just endured, naturally, this is the last thing, in addition to a pandemic, that anyone would ever want to experience.

But, in 1816, a year where summer was curiously absent, was not fiction. Instead, it was a harsh fact of life for many across the Northern Hemisphere, and it all started in 1815 with the violent eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano on the other side of the world.

Courtesy: NOAA, Mt. Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa, in present-day Indonesia

According to NOAA, the explosion of Tamobra ejected a volume of approximately 31 cubic miles of ash into the atmosphere. That ash and smoke circumnavigated the Northern Hemisphere causing average temperatures to drop a full degree Fahrenheit due to the resulting dust that was injected high into the atmosphere.

The climate disaster that followed was felt across the world, including right here in parts of New York state and into the Finger Lakes. It would go on to be coined in the modern era as “The Year Without a Summer”, or, historically, “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”.

One look at old newspaper articles from that year talks about some tough times. There are mentions of a June snowfall in Geneva, New York, along with the need for heavy winter coats in Canandaigua! There’s even an account from an article in a July 1816 edition of the Cortland Republican that really captures the moment, with the reporter noting, “I can find no person who has ever seen snow in June. Great coats and mittens are almost as generally worn as in January and fire is indispensable.”

Geneva Gazette, circa 1816

Some people are “done” with snow before Christmas even gets here. Imagine the reaction here to snow in June!

I had the opportunity to visit and speak with Wayne County historian Peter Evans back in 2019. He had many records on site of how those living here at the time had just made their way into the area from New England and how they dealt with the conditions which included severe crop loss.

Here’s part of his account of what took place.

Peter Evans, Wayne County, NY historian

The last big freeze was in AUGUST, but then SEPTEMBER started the WINTER freeze.”

“The plants would start to come up, and then…freeze…would come in and kill everything. So they go back out, till it up again. Some people through at least four of these exercises”

“Things that were vital like grains, wheats, corn, particularly corn just did not survive”

Weather diaries are just one example of living accounts of that historic summer. But there are other accounts that are right under your nose that you may have never realized were associated with that time. If you decide to look for them, look no further than your local library and the classic book shelf.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the best example of how the “Year Without A Summer” influenced some of the literature of the time. As the story goes, Mary Shelley, accompanied by poet Percy Shelley and Mary’s stepsister Claire, traveled together for an extended getaway to Lake Geneva. Typically, May would have been an ideal time to enjoy the weather there, but the “Year Without a Summer” had other plans for them. The dreary, dismal, rainy and cold conditions had the three cooped up in their chalet. In an attempt to be creative and make the best of it, they decided to put together a writing contest to see who could come up with the best horror story.

And, voila, a classic was born!

So, the next time you’re upset by a cool, rainy summer day in Rochester, remember, it could be a lot worse, and it has!

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