SUSSEX COUNTY -- This year marks the 200th anniversary of "1816 -- the year without a summer."
Although two centuries have lapsed, mention the year 1816, and most people will immediately associate it with the "year without a summer." What happened that year and what caused it?
Climatologists agree that volcanoes can cause serious, but temporary, effects on world weather. It's become an accepted theory that the 1816 weather phenomenon was caused by the April 5, 1815, eruption of the Tambora volcano on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia. The initial eruption was followed by a more intense phase of volcanic activity from April 10-12, with eruption activity continuing sporadically until mid-July.
As a result of the volcanic activity, an estimated 100 kilometers of dust ash were ejected into the atmosphere, causing complete darkness for three days on the island of Madura. An estimated 10,000 people were killed in the eruption, with an additional 82,000 who subsequently died from starvation and/or disease.
The Tambora eruption, guessed to have been 13 times more powerful than the May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington, blocked out the sun's warming radiation. Increased cyclone activity was also attributed to the Tambora eruption. The effects of the volcanic activity appeared to have been abnormally concentrated near Newfoundland, with activity throughout New England, and in Europe, from central Ireland across England to the Baltic Sea.
Opinion on how the volcano eruption affected the Sussex County area differs sharply. The Sussex Register reported that snow was 12 to 18 inches deep in Vermont on June 6, with winter apparel worn. Locally, in July, it was reported that "wheat and rye fields, which have suffered much from cold, look more promising."
C.V. Crane, the historian of the Port Jervis area, wrote about the 1816 weather in the New Jersey Herald on Aug. 16, 1962. His account differs sharply from that reported in the Register.
Crane wrote: "The following narrative was told me by an aunt, Mrs. Courtright, who lived for some years on the Dr. Pellet homestead at Pellettown in Frankford, from records kept in an old family Bible and tales told around the family fireside in her youth, she remembers the following, which is substantiated by historical data."
The narrative noted that "January was very mild, fires were allowed to go out except when necessary to cook meals and do the chores. The days were generally warm and spring like. February was not too cold. March came in with high winds for the first week but the rest of the month was mostly calm and warm."
Continuing, Crane wrote that "the first part of April was also warm but became colder from the middle to the last of the month, and on May 1 there were winter temperatures with plenty of ice and snow. Grain was killed each time it was planted and the leaves of the trees were withered by the first of May.
"June was very cold. Frost and ice were common. All fruit was destroyed and very little rain fell. There were only a few moderately warm days this month. Everyone looked, longed and waited for warm weather which did not come. Grass grew to a fair height but the men who mowed it by hand wore overcoats and mittens. Sheep fared better than livestock, they being able to burrow in the snow to get at the grass underneath. On June 17, there was a heavy fall of snow with the temperatures below freezing. Great drifts were formed. Many sheep perished.
"One farmer kept fires burning in his cornfield throughout the night with he and his wife taking turns at tending them. They were rewarded by a crop which, although not large, was enough to tide them over until the following spring.
"July came in with ice and snow and this condition lasted throughout the month." According to Crane, "to the surprise of everyone, August proved the worst month of the year. Almost every green thing was blasted by frost and cold.
"In the following winter, provisions ran low and there was great privation and suffering. Many people would have starved if it were not for the abundance of fish and game."
Continuing on a personal level, Crane wrote that "my aunt's grandfather, whose family at the time consisted of himself, wife and two small children, were badly in need of food and he started out one morning on horseback in search of corn. Over at Mount Hope, he came across a farmer who had a few baskets of corn in the barn, these being a part of the previous year's crop. The farmer at first refused to sell him any, but when he was told that the family was starving, he relented and sold two baskets.
"He rode to the mill at Millsburg and had the corn ground and when he arrived at home after dark, the two youngsters went at the meal with spoons and ate it raw, they were so hungry.
Another area resident to write about "1816 -- the year without a summer" was Warwick resident Eliza B. Hornby. In her book "Under Old Roof Trees," published in 1908, she wrote: "The year 1816 was the coldest ever known in this country. It is remembered as the year without a summer. There were snow and ice every month.
"On June 17th, a terrible snowstorm swept from New England to New York, in which travelers were frozen to death. Farmers worked in overcoats and mittens to but little purpose. Scarcely anything planted grew.
"On our home place were a number of fine fruit trees. The young fruit managed to get a start, when there came a freezing rain. Every cherry, pear, apple, plum and peach was encased in an armor of ice, and was literally shaved from the trees by a fierce, cutting wind.
"On the 4th of July, ice formed an inch thick. There was great scarcity and consequent suffering during the ensuing winter. The grain crop was a total failure."
Eric Sloane, in his book "Look at the Sky and Tell the Weather," wrote of similar weather problems. He related that at the Fourth of July celebration in 1816, in Woodbury, Conn., quoit players wore fur gloves so the iron rings wouldn't stick to their hands."
Crane concluded his comments by observing that "the year 1816 has had no parallel since. It was the only year in history in which snow and ice occurred regularly in all the months of the year. The cause was generally accredited to a volcanic eruption in the East Indies area occurring the previous year, the volcanic dust being carried into the stratosphere by volcanic winds and obscuring the sun's rays over the areas affected."
Two centuries have lapsed since the "1816 -- year without a summer," and although it appears from a perusal of the Sussex Register that Sussex County residents did not suffer as greatly as other areas, it has gone down in the history books as "the year without a summer."