Monday, January 21, 2008

Winter on the Tug Hill

Thomas, Randy and I all have ancestors that lived on the Tug Hill in Northern New York in the 1800's. Possibly many more of you did too. I live between the lake and the Tug so the weather this past weekend started me wondering why they came, how they got through the winter and why they stayed.

First off a little geography. Just what and where is the Tug Hill Plateau? From the New York State Tug Hill Commission:
Tug Hill is a 2,100 square mile, rural and remote region of New York State located between Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks. The region is heavily forested and receives the heaviest snowfall in the eastern United States. The headwaters of several major rivers spring from the region's core forests. The region consists of 41 towns (containing 21 villages) in portions of Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, and Oswego counties. With just over 100,000 people, about 50 people per square mile, one of Tug Hill's most notable characteristics is its relative lack of people

Tug Hill is noted for its heavy snowfalls, usually described as the heaviest east of the Rockies, though Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the White and Green Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont rival Tug Hill.

The combination of winter winds blowing over some 150 miles of Lake Ontario waters and the 2,000-foot rise of Tug Hill creates these heavy snows. But "lake effect" snows can be very local, so snowfall amounts around the Tug Hill Region vary considerably. There is no "average" snowfall for the entire region, except to say it is heavy everywhere in the 2,100 square mile region.

Tug Hill's elevation and position with respect to Lake Ontario results in annual snowfall in excess of 200 inches--the heaviest snowfall east of the Rockies.

So what is "lake effect"? This is the short version. For more details see the full article at Wikipedia. (Emphasis added be me.)
Lake-effect snow is produced in the winter when cold, arctic winds move across long expanses of warmer lake water, providing energy and picking up water vapor which freezes and is deposited on the lee shores. The same effect over bodies of salt water is called ocean effect snow, sea effect snow, or even bay effect snow. The effect is enhanced when the moving air mass is uplifted by the orographic effect of higher elevations on the downwind shores. This uplifting can produce narrow, but very intense bands of precipitation, which deposit at a rate of many inches of snow each hour and often bringing copious snowfall totals. The areas affected by lake-effect snow are called snowbelts. This effect occurs in many locations throughout the world, but is best known in the populated areas of the Great Lakes of North America.
This is a composite of some of the radar returns from the weekend. You can see how tight the bands are. They do fluctuate up and down the eastern end of the lake. In the areas in yellow the snow was falling at a rate of 1"- 4" an hour.

And in this graphic you can see the average snow totals for the region. Most of the Tug Hill is in the pink and red. If your ancestors settled in Southwestern New York the conditions would be very similar.

So why did they come? My best guess is opportunity. There was money to be made from logging. I imagine that the land was cheaper in this area. But for now all I can do is guess.

At the risk of creating my own family myths, I have to wonder how they got through the tough, long winters that are part of living here. I couldn't find any pictures from the 1800's but I did find these from Oswego County, taken in December 1837, at the Library of Congress digital collection. Photographer: Arthur Rothstein.

My great-great-grandparents, in 1855, lived in a log cabin in Adams, NY. Would it have been similar to this one? How much wood did they have to cut each year to keep it warm? How much time did they spend in the nice months preparing for winter? How many layers did they have to wear to stay warm? What were their quilts like. Did they have snowshoes?

There would most likely have been animals to care for. How much hay and silage did they need? Was the barn heated? If they had a cow how hard was it to milk in the cold? How much did they shovel? Just a path to the barn or more? Did they have other animals?

Did the snow make some chores easier? Were logs easier to drag over snow? Did they have a sleigh?

Were they able to plow the roads with horses? Were they cut off from neighbors for days or weeks at a time?
I know that there were many more questions that ran through my mind over the last couple of days. Life on the Tug Hill couldn't have been easy in winter. It is beautiful county in the other seasons. Is that why they stayed? It wasn't enough for the many that moved on. Lots of questions and no real answers.

I couldn't resist including this picture for Terry.


Thomas MacEntee said...

Wow! Great post Apple and lots info about the Tug Hill region. You are to be commended for the thoroughness especially with the maps and illustrations.

My uncle still does some work (for telephone companies who need surveying and easements) up around Tug Hill. He lives over in Greene County near the Hudson and says he just won't work in the Tug Hill area between December and March if he can avoid it.

I think we have a bonafide mystery on our hand as to "why" our ancestors landed here and stayed here. I think a previous angle can also be worked in: why didn't they just work along the Erie Canal area to the south where business was thriving?

Terry Thornton said...

LOL! Thanks, Apple. An outhouse and snow. What more could I ask for! You have made my day.

You've done a beautiful article about a small region I'd never heard of except on your blog. And I'd not figured out that Tug Hill is a region rather than just a little hill! Thanks.

[It seems to me that a HOGS BLOGGER needs to start a TUG HILL OF NEW YORK blog with history, observations, genealogy, and stories of the region. You've got a great kick-off article.]

Thanks again for the outhouse and snow picture. I'm still laughing.

Nikki - Notes of Life said...

Very interesting :) Great black & white pictures too!

Lori Thornton said...

Those are some great pictures! I loved the picture for cousin Terry. It was so fitting!

Colleen said...

Awesome pictures. Growing up in western NY I can relate. Though now living in southern Arizona I also have to wonder how people survived summers without air conditioning! Also, hopefully you won't object to the bit of language, I have a motto about my family's migration west:
{ahem} From Niagara Falls to Tucson: From where hell freezes over to where it's hotter than hell.

That about sums it up!

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Thanks to you all. John finally finished clearing the roof today so we're ready for more.

Thomas - my uncle ended up working in Greene Co even though his home was in Philadelphia, NY.

I'll have more coming up on the Erie Canal. There was lots of work on the canal but I'm not sure it was well paid work. I'll have to look into land prices in various areas along the canal.

I'm glad the picture made you smile. I don't think I could handle another blog right now and a Tug Hill blog might quickly degenerate into a snow blog and I have one of those already. LOL

I could spend all day looking at hte pictures on the LOC site. Do you know if there is a similar British site?

I thought you and Terry would enjoy the snow pictures, I just wish I'd found some from January or February!

LOL. I'm ready ready for hotter than hell. John's family has mostly moved to warmer climes. I won't leave as long as Mom still needs me but I'm more than ready now.

Janice said...


I'm loving these photographs, especially the privvy one, brrrr! They remind me a little bit of New Hampshire winters years ago. My husband lived in the Tug Hill area for a while, and he says I don't have a clue what snow accumulation is like lol.

Thank you for the great entertainment!


Chery Kinnick said...

What a great post, Apple. I love the winter photos. Even when we don't have any from our own relations, such historical photos allow us to see exactly what it might have been like. As I said, great, great post!


Thanks for the photos and story.
You've inspired me on what to write for my next post!

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I didn't really understand what the snow was like until I moved here in 2004 and I've lived in CNY most of my life.

Thank you. I love the LOC archives. Who knows, I may stumble across one from my family.

Jewel Girl,
Glad you found inspiration here and I look forward to your post!

Randy Seaver said...

Wow, thanks so much for bringing a really cool place into my lexicon. I've never heard of Tug Hill before.

Of course, when I visited Jeffco in 2004, it was late April and the snow was gone and the trees were blooming and everything seemed nice and clean.

My guess as to why they came was because there was land available, especially to RevWar veterans and their sons. Of course, many of them moved on in 10 to 30 years because the land was so poor.

Cheers -- Randy

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Spring time is a beautiful time to visit. We moved here in the summer of 04 and the weather was wonderful that year.

My land is poor, sandy loam full of rocks. My sister's farm in Ellisburg is very fertile. I don't know if that is from years of improvements or the location along the creek and close to the lake.

The Tug Hill wasn't part of the Military Tract. I haven't researched the land history for northern NY as well as I have the central and western parts of the state.

TheGeneticGenealogist said...

Great post Apple! As you know, I grew up in Ellisburg at the base of the Tug Hill. Our land was pretty rocky there as well, but very fertile.

deerjohn said...

Interesting Post,Apple. I am a Tug Hill native, now living near Syracuse. We still have land on the Tug, near Lowville. You may like my blog at: I have some Tug stories and photos.
In my own history, my Dad's father came from north of Watertown, went to Arizona to get rich. Didn't find silver, but my grandmother, who had just come from Norway. They returned to NY and he bought a farm on the Tug as it was affordable. I'm sure you would find it the same for the Irish, Polish, Hungarians, and others who tried to farm there. My mother's grandfather was a Civil War vet, and received some land in Montague from New Jersey for his service. Not sure how that worked. For more, check out 2 great books by Harold E. Samson: Tug Hill Country, and The Other Side of the Hill. Both out of print, but still available.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the article, the photos and the history lesson. My wife and I live between Oswego and Fulton and for some reason the local lake effect band always runs through our property. We moved here, home, a few years ago after spending serveral years on the the shore of southern Jersey. I curse myself everyday in the winter for moving home. In any event, my wife's family is from Lowville on the other side of Tug Hill. Eveytime we go up in the winter is a chore and I oftern wonder what and how people survived before modern day machinery. We think we had it tough snow blowing, imagine back then? Wow! Great article, I'm going out to shovel the walk for the 2nd time today!!

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this! I live between Fulton and Mexico, in the same band as you. Years ago we lived in Pennellville so when we moved back we thought winter would be about the same out here. Boy were we wrong. lol

deerjohn said...

I meant to say that my blog is called "Wandering the Tug" at Stop by.