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Ice Storm Photos Frozen in Time


Technology changes, but Nature stays the same -- human nature too. In December 2008 an icy nor’eastern left tens of thousands without electrical power, some for more than a week. How our Victorian ancestors reacted to a similar storm in 1866 is visible in photos and newspaper accounts.










Through a winter window

See pix & read accounts from 1886

The pictures look hauntingly familiar. Down both sides of the street the magnificent tree limbs, weighed down by snow and ice, bow to the ground in unison as if to welcome a passing monarch. Crystals shimmer like jewels in the morning light. Curious Portsmouth residents examine the fallen branches, snapped like twigs by tons of frozen water. Severed telephone and telegraph wires twist in the winter breeze.

Wait a minute. Telegraph wires?

We are looking, not at the devastating ice storm of December 2008 from which Seacoast residents are still recovering, but at very similar photographs of "The Great Ice Storm" of January 29, 1886. Within days of the disaster, photographers Lewis and Charles Davis were advertising souvenir pictures, mounted on heavy cardboard and suitable for framing at just 35 cents apiece. Hi-tech "stereoscope slides", shot with a specialized camera, made it possible to remember the ice storm in 3-D.

Painting word pictures

Meanwhile, three local newspapers offered colorful accounts of the event. Never in living memory, according to the Portsmouth Chronicle, had the trees been so coated with ice "from the ground to the tips of the smallest twigs" and hung with millions of tiny icicles as thick as pipe stems. Walking was almost impossible, according to the reporter, because both streets and sidewalks were "as slippery as greased glass". For three full days the sound of branches crashing to the ground was heard in every corner of the city. One man, according to the Portsmouth Journal, experimented with a chunk of ice that weighed 40 ounces. When he melted away the water, the twig at the center weighed only a single ounce.

The Portsmouth Daily, however, took time to ponder the "destructive beauty" of the storm. The "arctic artist commands our admiration," one journalist noted:

"The glittering trees reflecting the gas lights, presented the effect of bowers of diamonds, rivaling …the most startling productions of Alladin's lamp. Every object was brilliant with reflected light … from the street lanterns hung pendants of silver, and ordinary fences were radiant with nature's silver varnish."


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Sunday, February 25, 2018 
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