DID YOU EVER keep a diary? When I was in elementary school I did. I also kept a couple of short ones when I found myself being an eyewitness to a strike and political demonstration during the martial law era in Poland in the early 1980s, and to the coup attempt in Moscow in 1991.
Once upon a time, before Twitter, Facebook, Google and the Internet, people kept diaries and wrote hardcopy letters to each other. Then came electricity and all sorts of gadgets that made diary writing “unnecessary.” Unfortunately given the transitory nature of media on the Internet, many of the kinds of writings that used to be preserved in letters and diaries seem likely not to last for long.
And so I was thrilled when a Copake farmer lent me a tiny 126-year-old diary, barely 5 inches long, that his great-great-grandmother Cornelia Cook kept. Most of the entries by Cornelia, who was then in her 50s are unremarkable. There were visits to and from neighbors and friends, but she didn’t relate the topics of their discussions. She mentioned making butter and soap, but gave no details. Then all of a sudden, I came to March 12, 1888.
“The snow keeps falling steadily,” wrote Cornelia “and the wind is piling it up…. The stock are without water as the boys can’t get through [to the barn] or seem to be afraid to make the effort.”
On the following day, Cornelia wrote, “The snowstorm continues with unabated fury. All traveling is stopped on the public highways and railroads. The banks are getting higher and higher. God help the poor and needy.”
What Cornelia was writing about was the Great Blizzard of 1888, (March 11-14), one of the worst ones in recorded American history. Snowfalls of 20–60 inches fell in parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and winds reached to more than 45 miles per hour. Railroads were shut down and people were confined to their houses for up to a week.
Here’s Cornelia’s entry on the 14th: “The weather is warmer this morning. The boys had ventured to make some paths so as to be able to get to where it is the most necessary. The storm has ceased. The road’s open tonight as far as the Vosburghs. There is no traveling…. The snow is said to be 30 feet in some places.”
March 16: “The people about here are digging out. The boys are out again with oxen.”
March 17: The report came that the railroad cars had reached Millerton on the Harlem line. Five men have been killed by accidents. Mariah D. was found frozen. She went out to feed her animals. She will be buried tomorrow.”
Her reference to the five men who died is an incident that occurred March 12, 1888 as a five-locomotive plowing team crashed into snow that had accumulated in a rock cut created through a farm a short distance south of Millerton, wrecking all of the locomotives and killing five crew members.
March 18: “W. went to Copake. [He said] 500 men have been at work on the River Road at $.40 an hour so that the Harlem Railroad is through.”
Ordinary folks have all sorts of important photos, old letters and yes, diaries from which we can all learn. Have you got an old diary or old photos in your family? Consider donating them to your local historical society or at least letting them copy their pages and scan the old photos.
(Howard Blue, a historian and author, lives in Copake, where he conducts the Copake Photo History Project. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Roe Jan Historical Society.)