True, it has been a cold winter. Throw in the two blizzards that bracketed January and it might even rival an old-fashioned winter, the type your grandparents boasted so often about living through.
But if so, there is still a good distance to go before we scrape the depths your grand folks were probably thinking of 80 years ago — that stretch of weeks between the ends of December 1933 and February 1934 that caused remarkable things to happen on the waters around Martha’s Vineyard.
Woods Hole, for example, is one of those channels where the currents run hard enough to drive channel buoys over onto their sides. But it froze over so solidly that year in early February that people on the shore couldn’t see the tide running at all. Gulls on the Island, desperate to find food, flew inland and fed beneath backyard bird feeders. And on Feb. 10, 1934, the ice lay thick enough that Henry Beetle Hough, the co-editor of the Gazette, and his colleague Bill Roberts walked across outer Edgartown harbor from the lighthouse to the entrance to Cape Pogue Pond and back.
“No matter how severe those old seasons may have been,” declared a Gazette editorial, which took the moment to look back on even icier winters, “at least they produced no such sub-zero occasion as that witnessed by the spoiled and luxury loving youth of the world on Feb. 9, 1934. No matter how cold it may get, most of us do not mind, so long as a new record is being set. At a temperature of anywhere from 10 to 24 below zero, there was plenty of excitement and almost enough thrill to keep us warm. At a mere 4 degrees above zero we could have had no satisfaction and would doubtless have suffered much more discomfort.”
The cold first set in during the final week of December 1933. Steamers slowed on their passages between the mainland and the Islands because the reek — or vapor from the warmer sounds — was rising densely enough to keep officers and crew in the wheelhouses from seeing the pennants snapping from the bows.
Ice caked and silenced the bells and blocked out the lights of channel markers, which soon capsized from the weight. The spars and rigging of fishing boats at Menemsha, Vineyard Haven and Edgartown were cabled with ice, thick and white. Ducks froze alive in the ponds and harbors because the threat of frostbite to their webbed feet prevented them from walking on land. Gulls that evidently did not get their fill at the bird feeders attacked the most disabled ducks and ate them where they lay stuck.
A journal kept by S. Bailey Norton of Edgartown when he was 14 offers a day-to-day record of how the cold transfigured things along the waterfront early in the year. Between the last weeks of January and February, he noted day after day of near-zero morning temperatures (10 on Jan. 29; 6 on Feb. 3; 2 below on Feb. 7). He wrote that the harbor was “frozen over” on Jan. 31. On Feb. 8 he reported for the first time that “Some people walked across to Chappy this morning before the sun was out . . . . Some cold!”
Then came Friday, Feb. 9, 1934: “16 degrees below zero! Boy it’s some cold!” wrote Bailey. “Every one is walking across the harbor. The steamboat never left Nantucket [because it was iced in]. The one that left Vineyard Haven took six hours to reach New Bedford. The Sound is all froze up. No school all day. . . . The coldest in history around here. Pa walked across the harbor and went eeling on Caleb’s Pond. He didn’t get many. All the ice houses are getting 9 inch ice.”
The next day Mr. Hough and Mr. Roberts, a linotype operator and pressman at the Gazette, ventured across the field ice atop the outer harbor, walking from the lighthouse to the entrance of Cape Pogue Pond and back. In his 1940 book Country Editor, Mr. Hough wrote:
“It was about ten degrees above zero when we started. We had, between us, a hatchet, an iron bar (these for testing the ice), and coil of rope. Salt water ice is likely to be dangerous. It may soften quickly, and there are always the tides scouring away underneath. But this morning the harbor ice was flinty, and we could not find a place where it was less than twelve inches thick . . . .
“It was queer to be walking out past the harbor light, to be leaning against the channel buoy. Then we walked straight out across the frozen water, out and out and out, over what should have been the sea, where the steamboats used to ply. The town began to grow smaller, and we were alone and far off from land on the ice under a cloudless blue sky. Far off toward the sea we could see where the ice rose into mounds, bordering the open water. In places there were little translucent circles under our feet, like the glass discs which are inserted in city sidewalks. Farther along the water had congealed in the air and formed sharp scales and jets which broke off as we stepped on them. . . .”
Of their return, he wrote:
“Within sight of [Edgartown Memorial Wharf] we had our heart’s desire that day, and I have thought of it often since — how over the blue, deep, shining strait where the steamboats used to run and where the tall yachts sail, we walked one February morning. The secret of it is that the things of nature come into some fresh and intimate association with the spirit of man, and this is one of the objects of travel as well as one of the objects of living. But one may find it at home, at his front door.”
(“Boy! It’s just like Alaska,” young Bailey Norton added that day, footnoting with some deft attention to detail: “The heaviest man to walk on the harbor was Burt Vincent at 252 lbs. The heaviest woman, Abbie Butler, 208 lbs.”)
There was a brief thaw in the middle of February, but then the temperatures fell away again — as low as zero on the 24th and 25th. A blizzard struck on the 25th and 26th, leaving a foot of snow on the flat and drifts four and five feet deep against stores and homes. Finally on March 2 Bailey Norton wrote: “All the ice and snow is melting, everything is slush.”
The winter of 1933-1934 keeps company with earlier epochs of remarkable cold. In 1857, the Vineyard was cut off from the mainland for two weeks, and men were said to have walked from the vicinity of Oak Bluffs (not yet a town) to Cape Pogue. In 1905, four men sailed an iceboat from Eel Pond to the gut of Cape Pogue, then across Cape Pogue Pond. They visited for the day with the keeper and his family at the lighthouse there.
There have also been old-time winters since — 1942, 1950, 1961 and 1968 can claim the title — and within the memories of many today there stands the winter of 1976-1977, when ice sheeted over Vineyard Haven harbor and Katama Bay, and the Chappy ferry steered around plates and continents of ice that were trying to fill in the entrance to Edgartown harbor. But in none of those years did the temperature fall sharply enough or long enough for even the lightest men or women of the town to walk across it.
In an editorial, the paper wrote approvingly of the Freeze of ’34:
“. . . . Unusual events, such as the cold wave, serve to emphasize the fact that we of the Vineyard are all a community. Ordinarily split and separated in their activities and places of business, the men of the different towns seem to come together when ordinary affairs are interrupted. One sees representatives of all walks of life working together at some job of ice cutting or the like; or visiting together at the scene of some interesting freeze-up or other occurrence. Crowds gather in cities, but only in towns do the inhabitants have the innate talent of coming together usefully. . . .”