Much of the US is suffering under a “polar vortex,” which has plunged temperatures into single digits and wind chills well into negative numbers. Here on the west bank of the Hudson River the temperature is around 4 F with a wind chill of negative 14 degrees F. Fortunately, the forecast is for more seasonable weather in a few days. So as we huddle in the cold, it seems worthwhile to look back at even colder winters where the east River, the Hudson and much of New York harbor simply froze.
Despite tidal currents that can run up to four knots, New York’s East River has frozen at least a dozen times between 1780 and 1888. The East River isn’t actually a river. It is a tidal strait tidal strait connecting Upper New York Bay to Long Island Sound. Nevertheless, it froze often enough so that after the particularly hard winter of 1866-1867,there was a public outcry that lead ultimately to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
On the other side of Manhattan, the Hudson River has frozen solid at least three times — 1720, 1780 and 1821. During the American Revolution, British troops were put on high alert when the Hudson River in the Upper Harbor froze solid and there were rumors of an attack by American soldiers ready to march across the ice from Staten Island. When the river froze over in 1821, enterprising New Yorkers set up taverns on the ice in the middle of the Hudson river, half-way between Manhattan and Hoboken, NJ to serve the thousands out for a walk across the frozen waterway.
River ice also brought tragedy. In 1815, Robert Fulton and a friend, Addis Emmet, were walking home from a social event one evening on the frozen Hudson River when Emmet fell through the ice. Fulton attempted to rescue his friend but was soaked in the icy water. He contracted pneumonia and then tuberculosis, and died at the age of 49.