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Niagara Falls
Saturday, June 22, 2024
Niagaras History Unveiled: The summer that never arrived

As I sat inside and bemoaned the fact it snowed in Niagara this week and is still freezing outside, I wondered if this had happened before.

What I discovered was quite interesting. 

In 1815, the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was ready to start over again after being razed by the Americans on their retreat in December of 1813.  

The War of 1812 was over and it was time to rebuild, clear more land and prepare for crops to be planted. War claims were being settled, land grants were made and new settlers were calling the town of NOTL home.

All in all, Upper Canadians were preparing for a new life.  

The first summer after the war was labour intensive, and the crops were just starting to yield enough to sustain NOTL through the winter of 1815-16.

Hopes were high and everyone expected the summer of 1816 would be a good year for crops — little did they know an event on other side of the world would change their future for many years to come.

On April 10, 1815, in the Dutch East Indies (now called Indonesia) on the island of Sumbawa, 13,000-foot Mount Tambora erupted, sending three columns of fire from the mountain top, thrusting smoke and gas 25 miles into the stratosphere. 

The ground shook as if from a great earthquake, causing tsunamis throughout the Java Sea; the winds from the fire were so violent that trees were uprooted and thrown around before they were burned; lava poured down the mountain sides at speeds of up to 100 mph towards the sea 30 miles away; harbours became landlocked trapping all ships; and islands of pumice formed out in the waters around Sumbawa.

These islands of pumice were so huge and numerous that they were seen floating in the Indian Ocean a year later, with many being sighted as far away as India.  

Then, over a three-week period after the initial eruption, volcanic ash spewed from the volcano burning forests and grasslands over the entire island.   

It is said 10,000 people died almost instantly from the eruption with another 70,000 succumbing to the ash and gasses in the following weeks.

Then, a haze of sulphuric acid, ash and dust would spread around the globe, blocking out the sun and creating drastic changes in weather patterns —the northern hemisphere was shrouded in darkness, causing snowfalls in June, heavy frosts in July, month-long rains or no rain at all.

The effects of this one volcanic eruption were felt all the way into North America. 

Reports from across the New England States, Atlantic Canada as well as Upper and Lower Canada recorded the weather seemed to go backwards; with snows in June, heavy frost in July, little sun in August and winter in September.

One recorded snowfall in Lower Canada during the month of June 1816 was so heavy people resorted back to using their winter sleighs.

Many farmers noted the usual signs of spring were not apparent in 1816 — hm, are we on to something here?

Birds were slow to return to their nesting areas, and the ones that did arrive — some said — froze to death. However, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they more likely starved to death.

The fields were too hard to cultivate so crops could not be planted. Of the ones that were planted later in the season, many failed. Any crops that were harvested were kept within the community, nothing was shipped out — not even to military garrisons.

Fruit trees did not come to flower and if some did, the bees were not out of their hives to pollinate because it was too cold.  

Farm animals were dying due to lack of grazing grounds and fodder and prices rose for all goods. Communities already hard hit with the war recovery were now starving. 

There was a great hope in Upper Canada on importing grains from the United States or even from Europe, but the winter-summer was occurring throughout the entire northern hemisphere.

Immigration to North America was curtailed and in some ports such as Halifax, shiploads of immigrants were turned away as there was little to no food to feed these new arrivals.

Many New England farmers abandoned there homesteads and headed west in search of better weather.

As well Atlantic farmers decided to head to the Red River Valley in Manitoba for better opportunities.  This migration to the western areas of North America increased greatly, so much so that by 1817 the state of Indiana was fully settled.

Unfortunately, the new settlers didn’t find what they were looking for — they still faced cold temperatures and now had to deal with little to no precipitation, even during the winter months, for several years.

During the 1816 winter-summer, some scientists in the United States tried to find causes as to why summer never arrived, going so far as to blame Upper and Lower Canada. 

Their reasoning was that too many trees had been felled for new  settlements in the north and had permitted the arctic air to blow further south.

Thankfully today we have a greater global knowledge and we realize just how precarious a balance our world is always experiencing. 

In 2017 volcanic activity was reported as fairly average.  

So cheer up, I do believe spring will soon arrive and we will have a lovely summer.

Fingers crossed.


To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.

Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Denise is a regular Niagara Now contributor. Her full profile can be found here.

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