Detail from Collier's magazine cover, 1954

Weathering the Storm

A History of Extreme Weather

100 years ago this week, the thermometer in Death Valley, California, hit the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world: 134°F. This year, it’s edging closer to that mark than at any time since, and with a brutal heatwave hitting the Southwest it might just get there. With superstorms, massive wildfires, and deadly tornadoes in recent months, people are asking if this is the new normal. But how did people respond to extreme weather in the past?

In this week’s episode, the hosts explore “historic” weather in historic time: everything from the year without a summer (1816), to experiments with rainmaking in the later 19th Century, to extreme weather as entertainment in the 20th – courtesy of Coney Island sideshows. And they look to the major questions raised by major weather events: what kinds of disaster responses have been useful and which ones have been, well, disastrous? And how much is any “natural disaster” entirely down to nature?

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View Full Episode Transcript

This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode.

BackStory with the American Backstory hosts


“Weathering the Storm”


P. Onuf: Major support for “Backstory” is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.


B. Balogh: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is “Backstory.” We’re the American Backstory hosts. Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th century guy and I’m here with Ed Ayers.


E. Ayers: I’m your 19th century guy.


B. Balogh: And Peter Onuf.


P. Onuf: The 18th century guy.


B. Balogh: And today we’re going to talk about the weather.


P. Onuf: Hey, cool.


E. Ayers: And hot. [laughter]


B. Balogh: No, crazy.


Tape: Extreme weather blew March 2012 into the record books.


Tape: More than 15,000 records were broken in March, hundreds—


Tape: I think we’re in the fifth year maybe of a consecutive drought.


Tape: Good evening. We’ve had tornadoes on the ground tonight in Oklahoma and the problem with this ferocious weather system—


E. Ayers: Coast to coast this past spring thousands of temperature records were broken. The month of March was the warmest on record and it came on the heels of a winter that was the fourth warmest ever.


P. Onuf: The weather craziness isn’t limited to just heat. Last year, the number of tornadoes was near an all-time high. At the same time, many states across the South have been contending with unusually long periods of drought.


B. Balogh: So, is all this extreme weather connected to climate change? Is it part of a long term trend of human-caused warming? Or is a blip? Something natural? What’s to be done about crazy weather, if anything, from a policy perspective?

E. Ayers: Well, we’re not going to answer those questions, Brian, because we’re not the future guys, we’re the Backstory hosts. [laughter] But what we can do is talk about how Americans have coped with tornadoes and floods and hurricanes and droughts and everything else you can think of in the past. Give us some perspective on what’s happening to us today. [music]


P. Onuf: We start our show today in 1816 on a very cold day in Franconia, New Hampshire. We know about this particular cold day because an 88-year-old doctor named Edward Holyoke kept a diary.


Tape: Exceedingly cold. Ground frozen hard and squalls of snow through the day. Icicles 12 inches long in the shade at noon.


P. Onuf: Ice, squalls of snow. Well, pretty standard fare for New Hampshire, right? Well, here’s the thing. Edward Holyoke was not describing the scene in January or even in April. He was jotting these notes down in June. [music]


E. Ayers: The strange weather had started in March. Up and down the East Coast one day, it would be hot and summery, the next day there’d be hail and sleet but by May, it was just cold. The frost wouldn’t let up. Fruit trees were glazed with ice. On the 4th of July, the ice was still as thick as window glass. Here’s an account from right here in Virginia.


Tape: Water froze in cisterns and snow fell again. With Independence Day celebrants moving inside churches where hearth fires warmed things a might.


E. Ayers: Up in Connecticut, a man named Chauncey Jones complained that “a body could not feel very patriotic in such weather.”


P. Onuf: By August, the livestock were starving. There was nothing to harvest so food prices were sky high. In Troy, New York, The Farmers Register noted that people were desperate for flour.


Tape: Several agents lately came here to purchase up every barrel they could lay their hands on, but not finding the quantity they wanted have proceeded to New York to drain the market there.


E. Ayers: So what are people going to do in the face of so much misery? In good American style, they say, I’m going to leave. [laughter] So people flood out of Vermont, 10 or 15 thousand going out west. It wipes out seven years of population growth in Vermont. In Maine, so many people head west that the local newspapers start running articles telling you about Maine’s great attributes—it’s close to Europe, it doesn’t have malaria, there’s lots of opportunities for sledding, but tired, hungry families continue to leave and partly as a result of this migration, Indiana becomes a state in 1816 and Illinois becomes a state in 1818.


P. Onuf: So, 1816, it’s a very bad year. It’s known as the year without a summer.


B. Balogh: I can see why.


P. Onuf: A poverty year. 1800 and froze to death.


E. Ayers: Scientists now think that this remarkable cold stretch was a result of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in what’s now Indonesia. That was the deadliest known volcanic eruption in recorded history, killing some 90,000 people on the surrounding islands, but in the pre-telegraph era, people didn’t know this. They had to wait until ships brought word and maybe they never heard at all. In the absence of knowledge, Americans just looked at the sky and hoped that 1817 would bring a good harvest. It did, but not before tens of thousands of people had left the East Coast for greener pastures in the West. [music]


So, one way of dealing with extreme weather has been to get the heck out of town. Another way is to try to control the weather and while controlling the weather seems like something you might see in a sci-fi channel, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea was really mainstream. “Backstory” producer Eric Mennel has been reading up on this trend and he found one city that tried to take control, but then promptly lost it. Here’s Eric.


Eric Mennel: In 1915, the city of San Diego could be summed up in two different numbers. The first, its exploding population. In the previous 35 years, the city’s population had gone from 2,600 to more 40,000. The second number that could describe San Diego—average yearly rainfall. That number was stagnant and San Diego needed to find water for its new residents. They sent a telegraph to Los Angeles to a guy named Charlie Hatfield because Charlie Hatfield had a very particular skill. Charlie Hatfield knew how to make it rain. [sound of rainfall and thunder]


It’s easy to roll your eyes at the idea of rainmaking but in reality, Hatfield wasn’t the first person to claim that he could control the clouds. During the Civil War, many soldiers and scientists noticed something strange. Every time there was a battle, a big one, with lots of explosions, it seemed to rain very shortly after.


Tape (Edward Powers): If lightning and thunder and thunder and rain have been brought on by the agency of man, when bloodshed and slaughter only were intended, this surely can be done without these latter.


Eric Mennel: This is Edward Powers writing in his 1871 book, War and the Weather. In the book, he lists 153 Civil War battles that were followed by rain. He then come to what seems like a logical conclusion.


Tape (Edward Powers): Rain has been and can be brought on by heavy discharges of artillery.


Eric Mennel: Powers, like many others, believed that cannon fire caused the rain. He imagined an experiment—300 cannons placed in a circle one mile wide, all facing inward and upward, all fired simultaneously. He thought that the shells would churn up the air and push any moisture together forming drops of water that were heavy enough to fall. In hindsight, it feels a little like America’s 3rd grade science fair project. [music]


Twenty years later, the United States Congress took up the rainmaking mantel. They appropriated nearly $20,000 to shoot explosives into the air in Midland, Texas. Those experiments failed but it didn’t end the fascination with rainmaking. C.W. Post as in Post cereals, you know, Fruity Pebbles, he spent $50,000 on rainmaking experiments between 1911 and 1914. He was apparently pleased with the outcome of his experiments and convinced there was a future in rainmaking. Back in San Diego, with the water crisis looming, they received a reply from Charlie Hatfield. It was an offer.


Tape: “I will fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing between now and next December 1916 for the sum of $10,000.”


Eric Mennel: Morena was a 15-billion gallon reservoir in the mountains above San Diego. Since it was built it had never been much more than one-third of the way full, so for $10,000, Hatfield would supply the city with more rain than it had ever seen. This would give the city a nice reserve for its rapidly growing population. And if he couldn’t meet the goal, all 10 billion gallons of it, the city wouldn’t owe him anything, so for San Diego, it was a win/win.


Hatfield’s method of rainmaking was slightly more advanced than the cannon fire of earlier decades. He built wooden towers, maybe 20 feet tall and on top of them, burned chemicals into the sky. Presumably, these chemicals would cool the upper atmosphere and provide solid particles for the moisture to grab onto and fall. Hatfield set up his tower on January 1st, 1916. By January 10th, his chemicals were burning. And he felt a little drop on his head. [ping] Then another. [pinggg] And then a couple more. [ping ping] And then the sky let loose. [sound of rainfall and thunder]


For the next few days, it seemed like just a much needed storm, but even the local meteorologist had predicted several inches of rain. But then the flooding started. Roads became impassable. Telephone lines began to fall. San Diego was becoming an island. On day seven of this remarkable story, the local paper’s front page asked, “is rainmaker at work?” Somehow, Hatfield managed to make a call from a reservoir to City Hall.


Tape: “I just wanted to tell you that it is only sprinkling now. Within the next few days, I expect to make it rain right. Just hold your horses until I show you a real rain.”


Eric Mennel: Supposedly, one resident pleaded, “let’s pay Hatfield one hundred thousand dollars to quit.” [music]


After two weeks, the rain stopped but a second round of storms came through. Five days later, a dam in the mountains above town burst.


Tape (C. Killingsworth): I heard a great roar that cannot be described in words.


Eric Mennel: C. Killingsworth, a resident of San Diego, described the rush of water from the broken dam.


Tape (C. Killingsworth): Before I realized what was happening, the water was upon me. The waters towered with what seemed a hundred feet in the air. Folks living in the valley were running for their lives.


Eric Mennel: Dozens of homes washed away. At least 20 people were killed. Downtown San Diego had become the American Venice. All the while, up in the mountains, Charlie Hatfield must have been celebrating because enough rain had fallen to fill Morena Reservoir. He added 10 billion gallons of water in just one month. It didn’t take long for people to start pointing fingers. If Hatfield was responsible for the rain, wasn’t he also responsible for the damage, for the deaths? Word reached Hatfield that some folks were planning to lynch him, so he skipped town and went to Texas. And he never got his money. He had written his own contract and the City of San Diego found plenty of loopholes to exploit. [music] Hatfield’s flood didn’t end the quest for control of the weather. Far from it.


In 1946, General Electric experimented with weather modification. They found a way to concentrate moisture at high altitudes. They could make it snow, but they cancelled the program. General Electric got scared because when you control the weather, there’s no such thing as an act of God. When something goes wrong, you’re the one to blame.


P. Onuf: Eric Mennel is one of our producers. [music—“was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood, when blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud. I came in from the wilderness, a creative void of form. Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”


B. Balogh: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, the Hurricane Katrina of the 1950s, and why it barely made headlines. You’re listening to “Backstory.” We’ll be back in a minute.


P. Onuf: We’re back with “Backstory,” the show where history steps up to the microphone. I’m Peter Onuf.


B. Balogh: I’m Brian Balogh.


E. Ayers: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, “Weathering the Storm.” We’re looking at how Americans have coped with extreme weather throughout all our history.


B. Balogh: In June of 1957, a powerful hurricane by the name of Audrey slammed into the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Hundreds of people were killed, making it the sixth deadliest hurricane on record in the U.S. So, what did the federal government do in the wake of this terrible storm? President Eisenhower didn’t visit the devastation. Congress was in session, but it didn’t hold any special discussion on the response to the hurricane. A billion dollars worth of damage had been done, but lawmakers appropriated a paltry two million dollars in aid and here’s the most amazing part: nobody really thought there was anything particularly wrong with the government response or, you might say, lack of a response.


Now, fast forward to 2005. Another storm, approximately the same strength, had just plowed into the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina. The president was on the ground in New Orleans within a few days, but he was roundly criticized for taking so long to get there. It went without saying that the feds would appropriate a significant chunk of money for the hardest hit areas. The only question was how much. David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana, pushed for the most generous federal relief appropriation in history.


Tape (Gareth Davies): He asked for two hundred billion which the Washington Post calculated was more than the federal government had paid for the entire Louisiana territory in 1803 in inflation-adjusted dollars, so it was really quite a large amount.


B. Balogh: This is Gareth Davies, a lecturer in American history at Oxford University. Gareth says that while Vitter didn’t get the whole two hundred billion in relief money, he did get half of it. That means the federal government spent six thousand times as much money, inflation adjusted, on Katrina as it spent on its response to Audrey, so I asked Gareth where does that shift come from.


Tape (Gareth Davies): I think the point at which Americans start to look to the federal government to protect them from natural disasters on a very large scale, is really the 1960s, but really since the New Deal I would say, and certainly since World War II and the Cold War, there has been a sort of bureaucratization of American government and the federal bureaucracy has had far greater freedom, autonomy flexibility, to move in response to disasters.


B. Balogh: Gareth, are you saying that the federal response to disasters is pretty much in line with the federal response to the need for interstate highways or the federal response to the demand for health care?


Tape (Gareth Davies): Yeah. And I think one can be quite precise actually about when this transformation takes place. It takes place in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans. The federal response is quite unlike the federal response to any other disaster in American history. What happens is that Russell Long, the senator from Louisiana, picks up the phone and dials the White House and Lyndon Johnson answers the phone.


Tape: “Hello.” “Hello.” “Yes, Russell?” “Mr. President.”


Tape (Gareth Davies): And Russell Long says, “I’m standing in my house and a tree has just come through the roof and my family was nearly wiped out. And we are suffering in New Orleans and we need your help.


Tape: “We need your help.”


Tape (Gareth Davies): And Lyndon Johnson has received a lot of help from Russell Long in the previous year, so LBJ feels quite beholden to Long and wants to help him. On the other hand, Johnson’s about to go into the hospital to have his gallbladder removed.


Tape: “Russell, I’ve got a hell of a two days that I’ve got scheduled. Let me look and see what I can back out of and get into and so on and so forth and let me give you a ring back. If I can’t go, I’ll put the best man I got there.”


And Russell answers that, “We don’t want your best man. We want you. I’m a Johnson man,” he says. And then Russell Long starts imaging the headlines, if Lyndon Johnson went down to New Orleans. “President Lyndon Johnson, a great American hero visits New Orleans.”


B. Balogh: Hmmmm— Gallbladder, headlines, gallbladder, headlines. I wonder which one Johnson chose.


Tape (Gareth Davies): Yeah, he said, “You lost Louisiana in ’64. No one could touch you. Not even Eisenhower could beat you,” he says. “If you ran again in Louisiana after—” So, Johnson says,


Tape: “I mean, let me think about it and call you back. I love ya. Thank you, my friend. Bye.”


Tape (Gareth Davies): And literally, five hours later, Johnson is touching down in New Orleans. Not only that, he has with him the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Surgeon General, four or five others sort of agency heads and the winds are still blowing and Johnson makes a rather nice spontaneous speech, really empathetic speech, and then he strides off to the alarm of the Secret Service into a place where refugees were being kept, African American refugees in a schoolhouse and a little bit like Katrina, they were in dark un-air conditioned places with no electricity. There was no water and Johnson has an aide shine a flashlight in his face and he says, “I’m Lyndon Johnson. I’m your president and I’m here to help.” I think that just at that particular moment in time expectations of federal and presidential leadership, not just bureaucratic leadership, but presidential leadership, had changed in a way that endured.


B. Balogh: So it became actually politically risky for a president to not respond?


Tape (Gareth Davies): Yes. And that was new.


B. Balogh: So, have you taken a look at presidential responses to requests for disaster declarations? Is this pressure on the president to respond reflected in the numbers?


Tape (Gareth Davies): Yes. So, in 1950, Congress said that the federal government could assist local communities whenever a president certified the disaster was sufficiently big to constitute a national event. Johnson declared 18 emergencies every year. A lot of your listeners will probably think that American politics has moved to the right since then, so let’s see what happens. Under Nixon, the number doubles, to 36 per year. By the time that George W. Bush is president, it’s gone up to 72. So, if you were looking at the trajectory of government since the peak years of the Great Society, then that’s a big of a surprising finding. It’s gone up four-fold, 400%.


B. Balogh: It strikes me that one would expect from everything that you’ve told us that Americans would be incredibly grateful for all of this newfound aid and protection coming from the federal government but I don’t really see people saying thanks for all this help.


Tape (Gareth Davies): No, I think that’s right, and in that sense, there’s been this sort of paradox that at the same time when popular expectations of government help have been getting higher and higher and higher, Americans have also developed an increasing contempt for their government, so Americans expect more of a government that they despise, so there’s tremendous potential for dissension and tumult when you have those two forces and they collide with one another when you get an episode like Hurricane Katrina. The expectation is tremendous, but Americans are predisposed, sort of almost hotwired into their system, to look for instances of dereliction of duty or incompetence. [music]


B. Balogh: That was Gareth Davies, lecturer in American history at Oxford University.


E. Ayers: So, I’ve got a question for you guys. I know both of you know all about the places where hurricanes hit. They were big storms, were the most extreme of extreme weather as the history of the United States goes. Whether it’s the Caribbean of the 18th century or Brian’s beloved Florida of the 20th and 21st centuries, it seemed to me that these hurricanes that blow through with such regularity must’ve been a great social equalizer. They must’ve sort of taken down the houses of the powerful and given—

P. Onuf: Levelers, so to speak.


E. Ayers: Levelers, yeah, and given other people a chance at a start. Would that be a fair supposition or not?


P. Onuf: No. No. Absolutely wrong, Ed, and the reason is this: hurricanes and extreme weather events generally have differential impact. Now, in the West Indies, the great development in the 17th century, before my century, as plantation societies emerge in the Sugar Islands, the big development is consolidation. It’s the people who have lots of labor, lots of land, and lots of credit back in the metropolis, back in Britain, those are the people who can ride out a storm and not only ride it out, but pick up the pieces afterward, and it’s the big slaveholders who pick off the small farmers who can’t rebound after extreme weather, after a hurricane, and in some ways, the places that best sustain middling sorts are the places without extreme weather, in the temperate climates, and hurricanes, I think, epitomize the ways that climate encourages the rapid consolidation of wealth.


E. Ayers: Because, it would strike me, the same places that would foster a hurricane also foster environments when you could grow very valuable crops.


P. Onuf: That’s absolutely the point, Ed.


E. Ayers: Yeah, but Brian, you don’t grow valuable crops in the 20th century—


B. Balogh: Hey, tourists are our most valuable crops…


P. Onuf: Whoa.


B. Balogh: Ed, so just watch what you’re saying, but I shouldn’t be mean to you because actually your supposition for the 20th century is kind of correct in an aspirational way.


E. Ayers: Right. Partial credit. That’s all I ask.


B. Balogh: Yep. And here’s the partial credit. We in the 20th century aspire to great projects of equality, egalitarian projects and we believe through construction methods and building codes on a house-by-house basis, are going to make houses safe, whether they’re the houses of poor people or of wealthy people—


P. Onuf: Sounds great, Brian.


B. Balogh: So your supposition is what fuels so much in the 20th century. Sadly, this does not pan out in reality and here’s why. A combination of hubris and federal insurance actually lures people to where the hurricanes are, only to see those people wiped out. Now, who benefits after that destruction?


E. Ayers: Well, Peter has told us it’s the rich.


B. Balogh: Yeah, and the story is pretty much the same thing in the 20th century. They have access to capital and what they tend to do is use these natural disasters to in a way fast forward the economy of an area, so if you had smaller houses and that fishermen lived in along the Gulf Coast at the very time that fishing is becoming less economically viable, people, let’s say a wealthy land developer who is trying to grow a cash crop which is called northern tourists—


P. Onuf: I like it.


B. Balogh: They use that natural disaster in a way to do part of their work, clear out the land, use capital to buy up large plots of land and really fast forward that economy to what today we called the Sun Belt.


E. Ayers: So, my question was freaking awesome because even though it turned out to be exactly wrong, it did show an important continuity across American history which is hard to find. [laughter] Really, things changed so radically, but here’s a case that extreme weather tends to create extreme social orders. [music]


We’ve talked about intense cold, we’ve talked about hurricanes, we’ve talked about torrential rain, and all of those have been around for a long time, but in 1859, Americans experienced a type of extreme weather even that was new, at least in the kind of damage that it brought. Jackie Sojico tells the story.


Tape (Jackie Sojico): Frederick Rice was a telegraph operator in Washington, D.C. He could talk almost instantaneously with Americans at the far reaches of the country without leaving his chair. It was a technological feat that his parents only dreamed about and now in 1859, it was so easy, so effortless. But on the night of September 2nd, something was different. Frederick just couldn’t get a steady current to his machine. [bzzzz] He checked the battery but couldn’t find anything wrong. Finally, he got up to scan the horizon. He knew that storms sometimes caused this kind of interference. It was just past 8:00 that evening. Frederick opened the door and he found the night sky lit up as bright as day. People all over the world were seeing the same thing as Frederick. In New York, crowds marveled at the glowing red and white clouds. Campers in the Rockies woke up in their tents thinking it was already morning. Here’s one account from theRocky Mountain Reporter:


Tape: On Thursday night at about 11:00 o’clock, our attention was attracted by the red appearance of the sky in the northeast which we at first supposed was the reflection from a fire in that direction, but it began to spread on both sides and was pronounced by those who knew it to be the aurora borealis or Northern Light.


Tape (Jackie Sojico): It was one of the largest auroras in recorded history. People had seen this phenomena before, usually in the far north, but this one seemed to fill the entire sky. Eyewitnesses reporting seeing it as far south as Cuba. Newspapers the next day were filled with strange stories from that night, like this one from the New Orleans Daily Picayune:


Tape: Singular as it may appear, a gentleman actually killed three birds with a gun yesterday morning at about 1:00 o’clock, a circumstance which has perhaps never had its like before. The birds were killed while the beautiful aurora borealis was at its height and being a very early species, were no doubt deceived by the bright appearance of everything and came forth innocently supposing it was day.


Tape (Jackie Sojico): Frederick Rice wasn’t the only telegraph operator to report interference with his connection that night. All over the country others were having similar experiences. Two operators, one in Boston and one in Portland, tried something a little unconventional to get around the problem. Here’s the transcript of their conversation.


Tape: Please cut off your battery entirely from the line for 15 minutes. Stop. Will do so. It’s now disconnected. Stop. Mine is disconnected and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing? Stop. Better than with our batteries on. Stop.


Tape (Jackie Sojico): The aurora lasted just a few hours. When the sky cleared, telegraphs came back fully operational. There was no permanent damage to machines, no serious injuries or deaths, no panicked crowds, but the aurora stayed in the headlines for a month. The New York Times speculated, “it might be an omen for a coming natural disaster.” [music]


In 1859, scientists knew about the aurora borealis but they didn’t know for sure what caused it. Some thought it might be meteors falling towards the earth or a polar ice cap reflecting moonlight back into the sky, or maybe lightning really high up in the atmosphere, but this aurora was so big it made people reconsider what they thought they knew. The telegraph operator stories were hard to ignore and they seemed to point towards one answer in particular.Harper’s Weekly declared:


Tape: Henceforth, no one can be excused if he talks about the reflection from the polar seas of ice. We have practical evidence that the aurora is or contains the electrical fluid.


Tape (Jackie Sojico): This was the moment when people began to understand that the same electrical currents that powered that telegraphs could also light up the sky. And within a few years, scientists had figured out that the 1859 aurora originated from a solar flare. The flares sent a huge stream of electromagnetic particles to earth, creating the solar storm that spread magnetic activity from the poles as far as Australia and the southern U.S., the same places where people had reported seeing the aurora.


Today, we depend on electricity in a way Americans in 1859 could barely have imagined. But until the telegraph failure that Frederick Royce struggled with 150 years ago we had little hard evidence of the aurora’s connection to electricity. On that September night in 1859, we saw for the first time that something as intangible as light could reach down from the sky and interrupt our everyday lives.


E. Ayers: Jackie Sojico in an independent producer. [music]


P. Onuf: We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we take a quick trip to Coney Island to experience the late 19th century version of a disaster movie. You’re listening to “Backstory.”


B. Balogh: Welcome back to “Backstory.” I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th century guy and I’m here with Ed Ayers.


E. Ayers: Your 19th century guy.


B. Balogh: And Peter’s with us, too. Peter Onuf.


P. Onuf: The 18th century guy. Today’s show, “Weathering the Storm,” we’re looking at how Americans have made sense of extreme weather and we’ve reached the point in our show where we break down the fourth wall and invite you listeners into the mix. As we do with each of our shows, we’ve been soliciting your comments and questions for the past couple of weeks on and on Facebook. Today, we’re calling up a few of the folks who left us a note. Hey, guys, we got a call from Baltimore, Maryland. It’s Lauren. Lauren, welcome to “Backstory.”


Caller (Lauren): Hi. Thanks for having me.


P. Onuf: So, we’re talking about the weather today. And, well, everybody’s involved with the weather. What’s your particular involvement?


Caller (Lauren): Well, my particular involvement is a couple of years ago we had some very bad weather, a really big snow. We called it Snowmageddon and we called it Snow My God—


P. Onuf: No kidding.


Caller (Lauren): While I had the unusual task of digging out my own street because the plows weren’t coming through, I started thinking about history. I’m a big history fan.


P. Onuf: All right.


Caller (Lauren): But I really wanted to know what would’ve done about snow removal in northern cities during the pre-truck eras? I’m thinking Buffalo; I’m thinking three feet of snow, four feet of snow. How does one do that by hand?


B. Balogh: Very slowly.


P. Onuf: Yeah. Well, you know, I don’t—


Caller (Lauren): [laughter]


P. Onuf: You would do it slowly and all you would do is get access from your house out into the world and so often you find tunnels. I mean, this is—


Caller (Lauren): Ahhh—


P. Onuf: You’re just dealing with a fact of life in these places. Individual households have got to manage themselves, but they manage everything. It’s not as if dealing with the snow is the rare thing in which they’re thrown on their own resources. They are their own resources and so the expectation is not that somebody else does these things and it’s only when you have a more complicated economy and city society when people need to get around and you’ve got the technology that enables you to get around, then you’ve got to maintain.


E. Ayers: Yeah. I think a great concern of the Snow Belt cities would’ve been the freezing of the Great Lakes. And it would’ve been shipping would’ve been—


B. Balogh: That’s a great point.


E. Ayers: A major concern, you know, and so I think we forget that the cold really was pretty serious back in the day.


P. Onuf: Yeah, and it gave a real impetus, of course, to the railroad revolution because—


E. Ayers: Yeah.


P. Onuf: The year-round travel depended on the mode of transportation that you could sustain in any weather—


E. Ayers: Yeah, and so the Great Lakes become more useful when they’re connected with railroads and they’re not entirely dependent on all that, so across the 19th century, as they built more and more stuff, they found that more and more stuff fails—suspension bridges and big roofs on big buildings and things, electrical lines and all those kinds of things in snow belt cities like Milwaukee and Chicago, they began to actually change the very rules of building—


P. Onuf: Uh-huh.


E. Ayers: So that they could help control the effects of all of this. This is one reason you had elevated steam railways so that you’re not affected by this.


P. Onuf: That’s when, to keep the trains running, you’ve got to keep the tracks clear—


B. Balogh: Right.


P. Onuf: And so probably the first systematic comprehensive use of plows would be in northern train lines. Otherwise, I mean, the common sense response is not to remove but to deal with the surface and it’s a fact of life in northern cities and villages that you’re going to have a level of snow and then you have that old technology, the sled.


B. Balogh: You know, Lauren, what happens—our expectations always seem to surpass the technology, so no sooner do we begin using trucks and converting garbage trucks to snowplows by putting plows on the front of them than citizens expect the snow to be cleared immediately and so all of a sudden mayors find themselves losing jobs, local politicians are pilloried for not clearing the snow fast enough.


E. Ayers: And you know why, though, Brian. It’s something in your century. I will concede this. It’s a lot more important to have cleared streets when you don’t have horses.


B. Balogh: Absolutely.


E. Ayers: And you start having motor cars.


B. Balogh: Right. You have cars and you have commerce that absolutely depends on being able to take those cars and buses also, to work.


P. Onuf: Lauren, thanks a lot.


Caller (Lauren): Thank you.


B. Balogh: Thank you, Lauren. Thanks a lot.


Caller (Lauren): Bye.


B. Balogh: If you’re just tuning in, this is “Backstory.” We’re talking about extreme weather and how Americans have dealt with it.


P. Onuf: Hey, guys, another call and this one’s from North Carolina, Southern Pines, and it’s Deborah. Deborah, welcome to the show.


Caller (Deborah): Thank you. So, I moved here to North Carolina from New York a couple of years ago and I noticed that there is a big cultural divide, so—


P. Onuf: And you just noticed that?


Caller (Deborah): [laughter] Sometimes— What I mean to say is that there’s a cultural divide kind of in some ways, especially politically I would say, between the North and the South, so I guess I was wondering if climate has any sort of connection to this cultural divide.


P. Onuf: No.


B. Balogh: Climate and culture.


P. Onuf: I’m going to start by telling you what 18th century people thought about that, that the character of a people, of a nation—


E. Ayers: Thomas Jefferson— I see this coming. What’s the list of attributes he had for northerners and southerners?


P. Onuf: Well, yeah, that’s exactly right. He did North/South, they’re greedy, nasty, avaricious in the north and there’re some good qualities. They’re sober.


Caller (Deborah): Okay.


P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah, but in the South—


E. Ayers: Thrifty.


P. Onuf: A bit lazy, but they’re hospitable and, you know, they don’t work that hard because, well, we won’t explain exactly why, but he was attributing it to climate. We attribute it to slavery.


E. Ayers: So, let me go actually to Deborah’s question. The imagined influence of climate in a place like the Carolinas, they knew that there were differences between the Low Country people and the Up Country people.


P. Onuf: Yeah.


E. Ayers: And what’s interesting, of course, and Peter alluded to this is that there were places where slavery could flourish and places where it could not, so slavery seems to be very strong in the hottest areas where you could grow these cash crops and people begin telling themselves the story that, well, slavery’s here because only black people can actually survive here. This is naturally suited for Africans and their descendants to labor out in these hot sweaty fields because it’s just their nature. And it’s the nature of white people to sit on the porch and cash the checks.


P. Onuf: Yeah.


E. Ayers: So I think that you see the North/South divide is real is the point that I’m making. The slavery/non-slavery divide becomes increasingly real, but even within the South, the division between the Low Country and the Up Country becomes a divide because is this going to become manifested in political terms.


P. Onuf: Yeah, and what you’re suggesting I think this is transition will set up Brian with this, from an analysis of national character and national differences becomes racialized as people become increasingly aware—


E. Ayers: That’s right.


P. Onuf: Of the different peoples of the world and how they adapt to different climates and I think that sets the stage from nation, in a way to, race—


B. Balogh: From nation to race to air conditioning.


P. Onuf: Ohhh—


B. Balogh: The consequence of things like air conditioning is that our fellow historians now talk less and less about the differences between the North and the South and they talk about—


Caller (Deborah): Right.


B. Balogh: Age groups. They talk about suburban versus urban and what was presumed to be a real fundamental division maker, climate is overcome by mechanisms like air conditioning and the demographic shifts that went along with it.


Caller (Deborah): Hmmm— Interesting.


E. Ayers: Now, what I would like to point out is that Southern Pines itself is a prime example of the reinvention of a landscape by this modern machinery. Southern Pines, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, was considered— Hellish is not really the right word, but it is a place that was bypassed by people who wanted to have productive farms because it’s good, mainly—you will have noticed—for, well, southern pines [laughter] is what it’s good for.


B. Balogh: So what is it like now? What is it like now?


P. Onuf: Well, pitch into that one.


Caller (Deborah): Ummm, there’s pine trees everything. It‘s sandy. There’s a lots of ants and there’s golf courses everywhere.


E. Ayers: And, are you in an air conditioned environment right now, Deborah?


Caller (Deborah): I am, thank goodness. [laughter]


E. Ayers: And you say how nice it is.


Caller (Deborah): Oh, it’s very lovely.


E. Ayers: So, what I’m doing is showing how the same place with the same climate would be interpreted in entirely different ways over time.


Caller (Deborah): Right.


E. Ayers: And that what seems oppressive in one time is seen as a vacation boon another time, and I have actually argued in print that we’ve greatly exaggerated the influence of climate on southern culture. It strikes me, in general, that climate is an easy way to explain away things like the political differences that you’re talking to. It kind of, as they say, naturalizes it, makes it explainable in a way when I think it has other sources that we can actually point to as the actual history.


P. Onuf: Yeah. It was a great question, Deborah, and we really enjoyed talking with you.


Caller (Deborah): Okay. Thank you so much.


B. Balogh: Thank you, Deborah.


E. Ayers: Stay cool.


Caller (Deborah): Bye. [music]


B. Balogh: hosts, we’re going to take a little trip now to New York City. Buckle up because we’re going to Coney Island. Starting in the 1880s or so, Americans would stop by the amusement park, not just for rides or cotton candy, but to watch re-creations of recent disasters. It was kind of re-creation recreation, if you will. If you had gone to Coney Island in 1905, you could watch a sound and light show dramatizing the Johnstown Flood which killed over two thousand people in 1889. Or you could catch a reenactment of the Galveston hurricane which killed between six thousand and twelve thousand people in 1900, only five years before. Imagine heading to an amusement park today to watch a re-creation of Hurricane Katrina. If you can imagine that, you can start to see how strange this all was.


Aaron Beebe is the Director of the Coney Island Museum which preserves and interprets the history of Coney Island. Aaron has created a modern day spectacle that echoes what visitors to Coney Island in 1905 might’ve seen there. We paid him a visit to hear about these turn-of-the-century spectacles. They were basically the IMAX screens of their day. There were huge paintings with all kinds of bells and whistles.


Tape (Aaron Beebe): Really from the mid-19th century until the end of the 19th century, there were these panoramic paintings. They were called cycloramas, panoramas, cosmoramas. They specially built buildings for them. They were usually ten stories high. You’d go through a darkened hallway up a spiral staircase usually into the center of this space and you’d stand on this viewing platform and you’d look out and 360 degrees all the way around you was this scene. And so you were at the center of this immersive experience. [music] A lot of them were really focused on disaster, so there were fires and wars and floods.


Tape: The great sprawl of Coney Island, City of Fire, stands before you again in your memory.


Tape (Aaron Beebe): At the turn of the 20th century Coney Island had three giant amusement parks. It was where the amusement park was invented. What was kind of astonishing was that the height of that moment in Coney Island, the three big parks, ended with a giant fire. It was the biggest fire in the history of New York City in terms of property damage until 9/11.


Tape: Fire! Fire! Fire…


Tape (Aaron Beebe): I was working with another artist on putting together an exhibition about these spectacles in Coney Island and so we decided we wanted to do a panoramic painting, a 360-degree painting, about the fire of Dreamland.


Tape: When the nozzles are first opened, the firemen play their streams boldly onto the flames, but soon the water dies out. Something’s gone haywire with the pressurizing system and the breeze—


Tape (Aaron Beebe): When I go on YouTube today and I look at footage of the tsunami disaster, I can do that sitting in my living room anytime I want. At the turn of the century in New York, if you wanted to see that, you had to go to Coney Island and so when they reenacted the San Francisco earthquake six months after the earthquake, it was because the people who were in New York wanted to see what that was like. They wanted to have some sense of what that experience might’ve been and the only place that they could do that would’ve been here.


Tape: Continue to appreciate the life-affirming spectacle of which Dreamland was the unapologetic impresario.


Tape (Aaron Beebe): Now, I see people in Coney Island or people who go to movies and they’re always looking for the artificiality, right? And they’re saying, “Oh, you know, that was totally fake, right? I didn’t feel scared at all.” There’s something about always being able to see that artificiality just around the corner, to be able to pull back the edge of the screen or the edge of the set, and know that you’re in good hands because there’s some piece of the machinery showing. Just having a tiny, tiny, tiny taste of the artificiality makes it feel safe.


B. Balogh: That was Aaron Beebe. He’s the Director of the Coney Island Museum. Thanks to producer Jamie York who helped with the reporting of that story. [music]


hosts, that piece brings together two central themes that really emerge at least in the 20thcentury. On the one hand, there’s this incredible need to be reassured that the world is controllable, so we routinize disaster. We go in. We pay our money. We’re scared. We know it’s all going to come out okay and I think that that’s what really today The Weather Channel is about or the local weather forecast. Storms are brewing, but they’re going to pass and this is what it’s going to be like tomorrow and the day after, etc., etc. We are soothed, but in contrast to that, there is this real desire for chaos, to have the social order disrupted and to be a part of that, so people also pay their money to go in and have the normal events, the normal social order, turned on its head. It’s almost as if it were one of those carnivals from ye olden days.


P. Onuf: Well, that’s just the word for it, Brian, and the carnival—turning things upside down, but I think there’s a deeper dimension to this, too, and that is I think you’re talking about being able to walk away from a disaster unscathed, to have somehow participated in it, but not be damaged. Much of the extreme weather we’ve talking about did horrible damage.


B. Balogh: Yeah.


P. Onuf: In terms of human lives and property and to have the experience, to get so close to it, but then to be able to walk away.


B. Balogh: To survive the tornado.


P. Onuf: Yeah. I think it’s a major— A major theme in 19th century literature. Ed, I think it has to do with the idea of the sublime, the awful. It’s a bodily feeling as if you’re caught up in the great storm, but that’s, of course, relates to what’s going on in your mind. It’s that connection with the cosmos that you transcend for a minute your quotidian daily life and you experience the transcendence.


E. Ayers: You know, what it means is that you’re a part of something much larger and more powerful than yourself, so there’s this strange kind of power that comes from participating in something in which you’re powerless.


P. Onuf: Uh huh.


E. Ayers: You know, but something like this Coney Island device, like the films today, like The Weather Channel, you’re controlling and being controlled at the same time. You’re being reminded—


P. Onuf: Nice, nice.


E. Ayers: That you’re being buffeted, but on the other hand, you can change the channel or walk out.


P. Onuf: That’s right. [laughter]


E. Ayers: So, it’s a lot like a horror film, but the main actor is extreme weather. [music]


B. Balogh: And that’s all the time we’ve got for today. But, remember, you can continue the conversation at There you’ll find images of the Coney Island Cosmorama as well as plenty more links and our free podcast. If you’d like to be a caller on a future show, please leave us a note.


P. Onuf: That’s at Don’t be a stranger.


E. Ayers: “Backstory” is produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel and Anna Pinkert. Our senior producer is Tony Field.


P. Onuf: Jamal Milner is our technical director. Nell Boeschenstein is our researcher and Frank [Sorello] is our intern. “Backstory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.


E. Ayers: Special thanks to our actors in today’s show: Aaron Dickey, Matthew Gibson, Laura Herbert, Clinton Johnson, Elliott [Majerisk], Kevin McFadden, Trey Mitchell, Malcolm Rosenthal, Raymond [Templecar], Robert Vaughan, and Richard Warner. Thanks also to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.


B. Balogh: Major support for “Backstory” is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and The History Channel—History Made Every Day.


__________: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. “Backstory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. [music]