Was the past week cold enough for you?
Genealogists were perhaps wishing – along with everyone else – that they could move to Florida. But it's possible that at least a few were inspired by the near-Arctic temps to consider how weather events of the past shaped their own families and the local communities in which they lived.
In 1816 Wyoming Valley was almost entirely a farming area. The extremely cold weather all that year, the so-called year without a summer, was disastrous and cost many farmers their crops. According to climate scientists, that worldwide phenomenon of chill and icy summer days happened when volcanic activity in the Pacific produced enough ash in the Earth's atmosphere to block a measure of sunlight.
The classic example of flooding disrupting people's lives, of course, was the 1972 Tropical Storm Agnes disaster, when communities all up and down the Susquehanna were inundated. Businesses closed temporarily or forever, and many people moved from flooded areas to higher ground in the Back Mountain or Mountain Top areas.
But Agnes was not the only major flood here. As far back as the 18th century farmland was routinely inundated and crops swept away whenever the river overflowed. As the area urbanized, it was also homes and businesses that suffered when floods ravaged communities in 1865, 1902 and 1936. In 2011, record river heights badly damaged towns such as West Pittston and Shickshinny, with federal buyouts enabling some people to leave the most-threatened areas.
Tornadoes, better known as a Midwestern weather event, have struck this area with great force. The biggest and most damaging in the Wyoming Valley area were those of 1890 and 1914, which wrecked homes and businesses and killed dozens of people from Shickshinny through Hanover Township and Wilkes-Barre to Bear Creek.
There were hurricanes too. Hazel in 1954 brought punishing winds, while Tropical Storms Connie and Diane a year later ravaged the Poconos area and caused more than 70 deaths by flooding.
Sometimes the disaster plays out over weeks or months. Record cold and snowfall in the mid-1970s during the so-called energy crisis caused business cutbacks, which translated into reduced wages and unemployment. Harsh winters in the 1860s-1870s brought hardship as well.
Sometimes weather combines with other factors to impact society. The winters of the 1920s were not out of the ordinary in themselves. But several strikes by the United Mine Workers interrupted the supply of anthracite coal to homes and businesses during the heating season all across the American Northeast and caused many consumers to switch to alternative fuels. Bottom line: the area's economic engine – anthracite coal mining and shipping companies – declined in size and importance, costing many of our ancestors their jobs.
Weather can change history. A little study can show how it has changed our own families' lives as well.
Genealogical Conference: Reserve April 20, a Saturday, for Finding Our Ancestors at Home and Abroad, a daylong event sponsored by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania and the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society. It will be held at the Educational Conference Center of Luzerne County Community College, Prospect Street, Nanticoke.
A lineup of professional genealogists, archivists and historians will offer talks during the day. I will be available in a meeting room, starting in the morning, for informal discussion of local genealogy.
Details on registration will be available soon and will be announced here. But don't delay - last year's event drew an overflow crowd to hear the speakers and visit the many booths lining the center's main hallway.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader genealogy columnist. Reach him at [email protected].