by Robert Uzzilia
Cairo Town Historian
Originally published in Daily Mail January 19, 2003
Snow is an inevitable part of Winter life in the Northeast. When, however gently falling snow morph into blizzard conditions, a notorious niche in local history is carved.
Over the past two centuries, the small town of Cairo in Greene County has had its share of storms with attitude. To the local children this meant missing school and enjoying a white wonderland of activities. These included sledding down hills, making snow angels and tossing snowballs. For most adults, however, it was a back-breaking game of catch-up to keep roads and pathways passable.
The granddaddy of area storms remains the Great Blizzard of 1888. It was a crippling three-day event effecting the entire Northeast, due mostly to the depth of snow (47 inches locally over three days) and unrelenting wind, creating drifts over ten feet high in most villages. Its impact was magnified because of the time period in which it occurred. Snow removal equipment was limited to horse-drawn scrapers and teams of men with strong shovels and equally strong backs to help clear sidewalks and railroad tracks.
While individual written accounts from Cairo's perspective are scant, we know that the impact was similar throughout the region. A late Winter storm, it started as rain on Sunday morning March 11th. Then the wind suddenly shifted out of the North and the record snowfall began. All night Sunday it snowed steadily. Throughout Monday and Tuesday it continued to pile up. All the while, driving winds were creating longer and taller drifts.
Postal deliveries and train travel to Cairo were halted. Products from local saw mills sat idle. The hamlets of Purling, Round Top, South Cairo, Acra and Gayhead would become isolated for many days. It is said that one gentleman was able to walk most of the way from Jefferson Heights to Catskill Village on fence tops buried in snowdrifts.
So personal was the impact of this big storm that Zobles Cater, a Catskill jeweller, engraved a brass key tag which he carried with him for many years later. It was inscribed as follows: Sacred to the memory of the Blizzard of March 12 & 13 1888."
Another big storm which hit the local area dumped a (non-consecutive) two-day total of 26 inches of snow in December 1969. Travel was so severely hampered by this one-two punch that the local snowmobile club (CPR) manned 20 machines to deliver needed supplies to isolated people in Cairo, Freehold, Leeds, Round Top and parts of Palenville. Access to town via the New York State Thruway, State Routes 32, 23 and 145 was impeded for most of that weekend. By Monday, main roads were opened but the cleanup took many days.
Over the years, the ability of meteorologists to predict movement of weather patterns improved. This ability helped minimize the impact locally during the so-called "Storm of the Century" in 1993. Snowfall totals ranged from 24 inches in the valleys of Greene County to 40 inches in Mountaintop towns. With ample advance warning, most sensible people remained indoors as visibility fell near zero in the gusting winds of up to 50 miles per hour.
Despite the anxiety created during these monster storms, there exists a flip side which evokes a nostalgic warmth inmost of us.
Inside the safety of our homes, the raw, elemental nature of the storm, as framed by a familiar window, had a calming effect. The normally busy pace of life was slowed down. Families worked together against the adversity and played together as well. If power was interrupted by fallen tree-limbs, oil lamps were lit ad alternative heat sources quickly pressed into service. Long neglected games or musical instruments were pulled out of the closet and families sat and laughed together.
When these vicious storms subsided they were often followed by a calm day with vivid blue skies and bright sunshine. It was during these times that unique vistas were created by the fallen and drifted snow. Locally, the Blackhead Mountain Range appeared closer and clearer, as nature's white blanket was ticked into its crevices. Rooflines, fencerows, open fields and even stranded vehicles were transformed into unique Winter portraits.
We retain personal recollections of these and many other big storms. Most are pleasant, some disturbing and still others humorous. By experiencing these tantrums of Mother Nature we are reminded that, despite our technology we remain small players in the overall scheme of things.