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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

The ‘Arctic Winter’ of 1875

As the mercury has plunged across Cape Cod since Christmas, memories of frigid winters past quickly come to mind.

In recent years, who could forget the brutal stretch of cold and snow during February and March of 2015, when waves of slush splashed ashore? Or how about the winter of 2003-04, with giant icebergs scattered about on the flats of Cape Cod Bay?

Those were brutal all right, but back in the first half of the 20th century, there were still folks around Cape Cod who had vivid memories of what was referred to as the “Arctic Winter” of 1875.

How brutal was that winter? Well, from Feb. 3 until March 6 of that year, it was actually possible to walk on the ice of the bay from Provincetown all the way to Sandwich.

“It was the most prolonged bitter cold winter on record here, and miles of water areas were locked in ice and scores of boats imprisoned,” according to the Jan. 2, 1947 edition of The Cape Codder.

Numerous accounts recall the 1875 winter as one of the coldest winters on record. Some 75 fishing vessels were rounding the Cape and 50 were frozen in the bay for more than a month. Men pushed dories over the ice to Provincetown for coal and provisions. Some walked across the bay from Provincetown to Sandwich on the ice.

“George Burbank, the Sandwich antiquarian, relates that some sailors coming ashore, tunneled under salt hay stacks to keep from freezing,” the Provincetown Advocate recalled several years later. “The farmer who owned the stacks sent a bill to Washington for his hay, and also a bill of two cents for the breaking of a cedar fence rail. The bill was framed and hung on the wall of the executive chamber for a long time, according to Mr. Burbank.”

Provincetown Harbor was described as “being closed up entirely.” The ice extended 22 miles to Sandwich, and over to Brewster and Orleans, “a distance of 30 miles from the water line.”

In February, the U.S. cutter Gallatin made several attempts to free the vessels, but remained stuck. There was no hope for the ice breaking up anytime soon.

“The crews of these imprisoned vessels are perfectly safe so far as starvation or freezing is concerned, being able to reach the shore at any time,” The Advocate reported.

The ice began to break up in mid-March, but not before the region was hit with several snowstorms in a row. In early March, the Arrow, a vessel out of Boston, was swept through the ice southward to the Sandy Neck area of Barnstable and Sandwich. Most of the crew had left the ship near Truro before the storm, but two Boston men had quite an adventure before turning up safely on shore. They attempted to haul a dory over the ice, but were exhausted by this attempt, and set off over the ice on foot and then through icy water near the beach. The two men were later spotted walking down the beach.

The ice jam broke up shortly after the Arrow sinking, but winter left its calling card well into spring that year. It wasn’t until April 25 that all of the ice had finally melted from Cape Cod’s beaches.

Originally published in The Cape Codder, Jan. 5, 2018.

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