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 one 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 a January 2008 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 1937, 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.