The Big Freeze

  • By Bryan Mims
  • Photography by Matt Hulsman

For about 10 days in 1917 and 1918, the waters from the Great Dismal Swamp to the Outer Banks iced over, trapping humans, animals, and boats. Eastern N.C. lay paralyzed, waiting for the thaw.

The Big Freeze

Three men are aboard a sailboat named Clem, its flat wooden bottom and flaring wooden sides just right for plying the tidewater shallows. The men are dredging for oysters on a raw day in late December, the sky itself the color of dried-out oyster shells, bulging with the guarantee of snow. The new year, 1918, is three days away, and these three oystermen are nearly finished with their catch. Pretty soon they’ll point Clem, a boat known as a sharpie, upriver to New Bern, some 25 brackish miles distant.

At the helm of Clem is J.E. Taylor, the boat’s owner, along with Louis Elliott and Edward Salter, all from Sea Level, a waterside hamlet true to its name. On this indented coast of squiggly, squishy shorelines, salt water is the lifeblood. It’s a realm where the rhythms of speech are as distinctive as a crosscurrent: High tide is spoken hoi toid. But here, on a latitude more southerly than Death Valley; here, where the warm Gulf Stream waters ensure balmy weather suitable enough for alligators and Spanish moss; here, on this Saturday four days after Christmas, no person’s skin is sufficiently calloused or caked with enough mud to defend against such searing cold.

This whole month has been cold. Subzero temperatures plunged the eastern half of the country into a polar purgatory. Somewhere in North Carolina, the mercury dropped to 21 below. Fall was cold, too: Areas as far south as central Florida were hit with frost, and earlier-than-usual snowstorms dumped snow across much of the central United States. The three men aboard Clem are wise to the whims of the weather. They’re watermen, after all, keenly aware that nature can be unnaturally capricious, indifferent to seasonal norms calculated by the human mind.

Before setting out, they had no seven-day forecast to consult, no computer models to foretell of the impending ice invasion. But they do know just about every slough, bay, gut, inlet, cove, bend, ditch, tributary, estuary, and spit of sand along the wide-open mouth of the Neuse River. Over there is Turnagain Bay. Way over there to the east, across West Bay, is North Bay, then Cedar Island Bay, then Portsmouth Island, then the ocean. Look yonder to the north, across Pamlico Sound, and that’s where the Pamlico River empties out, right around Swan Quarter.

By now the snow is falling, the wind chill cuts like a miscast fishhook. The sound becomes a fury of flakes and whitecaps. The snowfall and the curtainfall of clouds on the horizon blot out all that’s familiar — the only things that are recognizable are marsh grasses and pine trees. The men know of a place called Henry Hill’s Harbor, along a remote peninsula with a shoreline crooked enough for a federal indictment. There, across from Raccoon
Island, they throw down their anchor to wait it out.

A life-altering decision

J.E. Taylor’s brother later wrote an account of the men’s ordeal for the Carteret County News-Times in December 1974. The author, the late Allen Taylor, describes how it snowed all that Saturday night, and by Monday night the boat “was held firm in an icy grasp.” The men shelter themselves from the winter tempest inside the boat’s cabin, which can fit only four people in a sitting position. They have a two-burner oil stove that they use for cooking and for melting ice from their water barrel. Temperatures during the day barely break out of the low teens. “The men watched, hoped and waited through the week,” Taylor writes. “The freeze became worse instead of better, ice forming around their boat four or five inches thick.”

By now they have a grim decision to make: Stay with the boat to freeze or starve to death, or strike out across the ice, which could very well be a death march itself. The world they know looks like an alien planet, lonely and cold, far from the warmth and glow of the sun.

And they are utterly alone.

A hard freeze

As the new year comes, creeks, rivers, and entire sounds along the North Carolina coast are morphing into great rinks of ice. Away to the north, around Elizabeth City and Coinjock and Currituck Sound, on down toward Manteo, the ice is sturdy enough to drive a Model T across. One account from the Sunday Advance in Elizabeth City tells of a sewing machine salesman “named McIntosh” who arrives in the area during the big freeze. His car is weighted down with sewing machines, yet he threads his way, rubber versus ice, all the way around Camden Point, up the North River, and into Currituck County.

He’s hardly the only one to tempt the deep freeze with internal combustion. An oil man named Miles Clark drives his “heavy automobile,” as the old newspaper dispatch spins the tale, around Elizabeth City “on the hard frozen streams.” The streams writhe through this region like tentacles of a squid, and no real estate is fully beyond their grasp. Absent a bridge or ferry, you don’t drive far before the tyranny of water vetoes your travel plans. But during this sheer wonder of a winter, water is suddenly stripped of its power to impede, and you can overrule it behind the wheel of Henry Ford’s touring car, spinning your wheels on aqua firma.

Drive through the region nearly a century later, and the old-timers will tell about the old-timers who told of the big freeze. Stop at a gas station in Jarvisburg, knock on a door in Swan Quarter, crack open a conversation at an oyster bar in Belhaven, and there’s an oh-yeah familiarity. People don’t speak of it the way they do Hurricane Floyd or Isabel, of course, because none of them were alive in the age of Model T’s on ice. The big freeze belongs solely to history now, having melted beyond any living memory.

Pay a visit to Alex Leary’s house right off N.C. Highway 343, just up from a wide spot in the road called Old Trap. He’s 70 years old, a former high school history teacher, and is now the official historian of Camden County. He spouts local lore like air bubbles in a frozen bay. Leary speaks in the classic Down East accent the three men aboard Clem surely would have spoken. He sits doine to spend toime talking about the oice of that historic winter. In his own lifetime, he’s seen the Pasquotank River freeze bank to bank. He’s seen the edges of the sound harden enough in 1958 to put a sedan on top and get it to go zero to 100 in two seconds. “It would just be spinnin’ like the devil,” he says. He recalls abnormally icy winters into the 1970s, but the arctic assault between 1917 and 1918 was a phenomenon that has yet to repeat itself. “I heard that the river froze anywur from eight to 10 inches thick,” he says. He prefers understatements to soaring superlatives when adding commentary: “Now that’s cold weather.”

Consider that it’s roughly 15 miles from Camden Point south to the mouth of the Alligator River — that’s about the widest spot in Albemarle Sound. “What the old people said, the Albemarle Sound literally froze over,” Leary says. And by this he means the entire sound, shore to shore, was hardtop. “I have never, ever again heard of the Albemarle Sound freezing over. How thick it was out there in the middle, I do not know, but the old-timers said that the sound froze over. That had to have been a cold winter.”

The placid and motionless appearance of ice belies its destructive force. And it only marshals more strength as the days skate by with temperatures far below freezing. It encases everything like concrete; the thicker it gets, the more pressure it applies. Combine that with breathtaking cold, and suddenly the things known to be sturdy and built to last can become brittle as bleached bones. The steel legs beneath the North River Lighthouse, built above the shallow waters beyond Camden Point, crack and collapse from the compacting ice. On January 4, 1918, the lighthouse keeper, Joseph Mercer, sends off a Western Union telegram to the lighthouse inspector in Baltimore, Maryland:

“Sir: The condition of North River Lighthouse
is dangerous to stay in. All five piles are broken
and it is just hanging. Will stay at Powells Point
until I hear from you. Will wire later.”

The lighthouse eventually falls into Albemarle Sound, but the water is shallow enough, and the building settles evenly enough, that it remains in use for another year, according to news reports. The ice also delivers a crushing blow to the Pasquotank River wharf, a long wooden platform running alongside the shore near Elizabeth City, where boats tie up and unload. In mid-January, two weeks into the big freeze, about 270 yards of the dock are destroyed, including the freight house. Familiar with these stories of crashing piers and cracked pilings, Leary says in his understated way: “That had to be a hard freeze.”

Lonely, frigid days

Inside the Neuse River Lighthouse, Capt. Jim Miller, 65 years old and dealing with a heart condition, is on duty when the big freeze sets in. He’s the assistant lighthouse keeper; the chief, a Captain Quidley, is taking some time off at home. With ice growing denser by the hour, Captain Quidley is growing ever more concerned about his assistant, out there alone, shining a light into a world gone comatose by the cold. Like the North River Lighthouse in Albemarle Sound, this structure is built on steel pilings above shallow water.

On the second morning of the great freeze, Captain Quidley and another man set out on foot for the lighthouse. They walk across the now-solid Broad Creek, pulling a boat on wheels loaded with supplies. The two men make it all the way to the mouth of Broad Creek, a distance of about three miles, but they don’t think they can navigate the next two or three miles to the lighthouse. Erring on the side of prudence, they secure the boat and walk back home.

As Dallas Mallison depicts in his essay in the book North Carolina Miscellany, the two men walk back to the boat the next morning and discover an air hole, or break, in the ice between them and the lighthouse. The break affords enough passage for them to row the boat to the lighthouse, where a grateful Captain Miller awaits. For several “lonely, frigid days,” as the narrative goes, the ice begins to break apart as the weather abruptly warms. Floating downriver are ice chunks up to 25 feet tall and 100 feet wide. They plow into the lighthouse supports like abandoned ships left adrift in a maelstrom. Only two of the five eight-inch steel pilings remain standing. “Wobbly and weaving, the unsteady lighthouse was almost ready to topple from its perch and join the ice in its dash to the sea,” Mallison writes. “The building almost literally hung suspended in air as the ice let up, disappeared, and the sea became a sea once more.”

One of the men in the lighthouse during the great thaw recalls the ice-choked water as more harrowing than a hurricane. “I tell you, I surely thought my time had come when those big icebergs were breaking against the walls of the lighthouse,” he’s quoted as saying in Mallison’s account. “It felt like one earthquake after another was hitting us, and I thought the very next minute would be our last . . . It was hell on earth, believe me . . . If anything could be worse than a hurricane, that was it!”

Walking on (frozen) water

Not far from the Neuse River Lighthouse, but too far to do any good, the three men aboard Clem make their decision. After nearly a week hunkered together inside the boat’s cabin, they will venture out toward home. But they have another decision to make: How to get there? Take the route over land, with its great expanses of marsh grass and ice-encrusted undergrowth — land thoroughly devoid of human habitation between here and home — or trek across the ice, with air holes waiting to swallow them?

They leave a note in the cabin outlining the two routes they’re contemplating. Friday, January 4th, 6 a.m.: They say a prayer and quote from the Gospel of Mark, the passage where Jesus is aboard a boat in the middle of a storm and asserts his authority over the thrashing elements:
“ ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” J.E. Taylor, Louis Elliott, and Edward Salter drive nails through the heels of their shoes to avoid slipping. They set out carrying what little food they have left, a frying pan, a hatchet, and a boat hook to gauge the thickness of the ice. They also bring along 10 yards of rope.

As Taylor’s brother relates the story decades later, Taylor holds the middle of the rope and leads the men in a V-formation — “as the wild geese fly” — so that if the leading man plunges through thin ice or an air hole, the other two men can pull him back out.

The men plod across New Stump Bay and Long Bay, southward, homeward. “As far as the eye could see was one unbroken sheet of ice,” J.E. Taylor told his brother of the trek. It takes the group six and a half hours to walk to Sea Level, about a dozen miles in a straight line but longer by their water route.

The men are home to watch the creeks, rivers, and sounds become creeks, rivers, and sounds again. Ebbing, flowing, swirling, lapping, splashing. Sunlight glinting on ripples never looked so beautiful. For the rest of their lives, they would never forget the season when the watery world they knew and loved stood deathly still.

Bryan Mims is a reporter with WRAL-TV in Raleigh. He loves the sound country, where he’s spent time boating, swimming, and drinking in the views. He prefers the sounds and rivers in liquid form. His most recent story for Our State was “From Manhattan to Magnolia Farm” (December 2013).

This entry was posted in Eastern N.C., January 2014 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to The Big Freeze

  1. Verna Austin Wall says:

    Thank You so much for this fascinating article!
    Your magazine has the best journalists/writers
    ever!!! My father, Julian Austin, Lighthouse
    Keeper, born in Frisco, NC, told me
    About the Great Freeze, and a car being
    driven on the ice. He also told me that
    Frisco was previously named Trent, and
    The story about the name change. I
    Truly love your Our State Magazine and
    wish you many more fine years of
    Publication. ( The Lighthouse Keeper’sDaughter)
    Your March 2014 article on Bodie Island
    Descendants’ Homecoming was awesome and
    Kudos to Lane DeGregory & Melissa Lyttle
    For their fantastic coverage of it !

  2. Bob Spruill says:

    Really glad I read this history story. It only confirms what my grandfather Albert Ross Phelps use to tell us about some one crossing the Albemarle Sound on ice in a mule and cart. He was born 1878.

  3. Cathy Muse Bunn says:

    Capt. Tom Quidley was my grandfather. He died in 1980 at the age of 98. We heard many great stories from him, including this one.

  4. Donnie says:

    Its interesting to note that this weather event was caused by a volcano. Mt. Tambora erupted and cooled the earth by 1 deg F! Just goes to show that we are affected globally. For more info check out the year without a summer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Without_a_Summer

    • Catherine Peterson says:

      Hi there…Just a little correction…the article is about the freeze in 1917-18. Mt. Tambora was 1816.

  5. joey nowarah says:

    I have heard lots of stories about the great freeze in 1917-1918 and about people driving across the Albemarle Sound in Model T cars. I do not remember about the freeze in 1958, but I did see the ice in Jan. 1977 at Albemarle Beach shore. Seems like the ice was over a foot thick. Wish I had taken pictures. I remember it never getting above freezing for over a week or more. So much for global warming as it has been very cold this year. Loved the article, very interesting and well written. thanks.

    • John Daniels says:

      No global warming, you say. This was a headline on WRAL.com today, 4/22/2014: Globe had 4th hottest March; US cooler than normal

  6. Mack Jones says:

    I remember my Grandmama telling me when I was little that people had driven across the river in Hertford way back when she first moved inland (from Colington) around 1917. Your article brings back memories of my time with her. Thanks.

  7. Diane Carraway says:

    We have always heard family members say that our great-grand uncle, Osborne Harris (1899-1924) from Vandemere, drove a Model T car across a river during the 1917 freeze. Recently we were delighted to come across an old article by Dallas Mallison that confirmed it:
    “Osborne Harris, a young man from Vandemere, drove a Model-T Ford across mile-wide Bay River.”

    “Osborne and two other Vandemere men (Lafayette Voliva and his son, Daniel Voliva) were caught on an oyster boat in Pamlico Sound off Brant Island at the mouth of Jones Bay when the freeze set in. The next day, the men walked the five-mile route over frozen Jones Bay to Hobucken.”

  8. EG says:

    Growing up in Edenton in the 1960’s, I heard about a time the Albemarle Sound froze completely and people drove across it – good to read the actual stories…

  9. Herman B. says:

    My grandmother was born in late 1800s.My father was born 1912.They told me a man drove a horse and buggy across the albemarle sound from Edenton to Plymouth. great read.

  10. T. C. Freeman says:

    This article was truly a great read. I have only called North Carolina home since 1971, when my father retired from the Air Force. I enjoy hearing and learning of the state’s history, particularly the coastal areas. I have never heard of the “Big Freeze” until I read your article. This is a testament of how tough early generations were and I thought this past “polar vortex” was tough!

  11. Frances A. Eubanks says:

    My mother, Clara Salter Gaskins, was born on Portsmouth to Annie Dixon Salter and Theodore Salter on December 30, 1917. Due to the freeze, the only official record she had of her birth was the family Bible.

  12. Ellen Cloud says:

    I was born on Ocracoke Island and heard many stories about the Great Freeze. My g-g-Uncle also from Ocracoke was a cook at Harbor Island Hunting Club off Cedar Island. After supplies ran out he walked across the sound to the Outer Banks and started walking to Portsmouth Island taking shelter in fishing camps on route.

  13. John R. says:

    Thanks for the great story about some very adventurous men. I enjoyed reading this and remembered my own adventures since the late sixties in the Outer Banks. :)

  14. Denise Evans says:

    I was born and raised in Currituck, NC. I remember my grandfather Woodrow Whitson talking about the Big Freeze. He told how the Currituck sound was froze over and people walked from Churches Island to Knotts Island. He also told how cars drove on the frozen water. My father Wilbert Whitson was a duck hunter, he and my grandfather owned Whitson Hunting Lodge. They talked about the freeze and how the duck population was abounded. How I miss them both and the stories they told.

  15. Shirley A. Wright says:

    Would like to have a copy of the entire article, someone please let me know how to get one, the outer banks is my familys favorite vacation place since 1975, we go as a family (of 25) once or twice a year, and are facinated be any history of the area-Shirley Wright, email oldshe@columbus.rr.com—–Would love to hear from anyone-my dad was born in 1917, but I don’t remember any talk in my family about the “BIG FREEZE” I am from Columbus, Ohio, far West side.

  16. I REMEMBER THE 1958 FREZE. I remember men dynamiting the ice at the bridge across the sound at Edenton to break up the ice. The fear was it might take the bridge pilars out.

    • Arnold Ball says:

      I grew up in Washington, N.C. and lived on the Pamlico River in the mid to late fifties. I remember the river freezing over and a car being driven on it near rhe shore. Over the years I have wondered if this was just my imagination, or a real event. I would like to know for sure.

  17. Vickie Groome says:

    Good story. The writing was excellent Mr. Mims.

  18. Harry Waters says:

    I remember my dad talking about the great freeze when he was a young boy and living at Thomas Point. He joked that the river used to be a foot deeper, but when the ice started to melt the ducks and geese who were trapped flew off with half the river frozen to their feet as they all left together….

  19. dallas gray says:

    I have heard my father (born in 1898 and mother born in 1904) speak often about the winter of 1917 & 1918 here at Stumpy Point with everything frozen over. People driving on the frozen sound with 100’s of ducks frozen in the ice.

  20. DC Carter says:

    This was a great story, those were real men back in the day . <

  21. Jane Phillips says:

    My father-in-law born about 1907 use to talk about when he was young the Neuse River froze over and he saw someone drive a car across it at Kinston.

  22. Mary Lois Williams says:

    I enjoyed this article very much. I hope others read it and realize that the weather we are experiencing is not the first time nor will it be the last time. So interesting. I remember hearing my grandparents and also my parents talk about ponds and lakes freezing over; but I had never heard about a freeze like this one.

  23. Elizabeth "Betsy" Bykerk says:

    Thank you for this article. My Mother was born on Ocracoke in September 1917 and live there until marriage to my Father in 1938. My Grandfather was the Post Master there at this time.

  24. Aaron says:

    Now that’s a “Polar Vortex”!!!

  25. J.C. Towler says:

    So well written. I’d never heard about this particular Big Freeze. Reminded one about how rugged life was and how tough the people had to be to survive unexpected situations.

  26. doc kraft says:

    I have fished this area in my youth (60s). And at low tide found areas to wade waist deep gigging for flounder. Was caught in storm one time and motor wouldn’t start. Was rescued by USMC copter just before washing out to sea..Waters could be just as rough as well as calm.

  27. Marsha Rominger says:

    Born and raised in NC, I cannot recall hearing about this. My own mother would have been an infant at this time. She and her parents lived in western NC where Granfather Byron Scott Marsh helped engineer the first paved roads through the Smokies. As a child, when we visited our grandparents, we would wonder at the tunnels and the curves and how they accomplished such an ambitious task.

    Thank you for sharing this story with me.

  28. Rose Griffin says:

    My father was born at Diamond City December 24, 1897. He moved to Harkers Island when he was about 4 years old. He told of the sound freeze and how he went with his father and brother pulling a skiff across Back Sound breaking ice to try to catch fish. They walked across to Shackleford Banks and said they did not fin a single place in the ice that was thin.

  29. Pingback: Deep Freeze Tomorrow - The Triangle Area - Page 5 - City-Data Forum

  30. Brenda says:

    That would be south end of Waterlily …on the Currituck sound.

  31. Brenda says:

    Loved this article ! Brought back memories of freeze in 58. I grew up on south end of Watering on Currituck sound. I remember seeing ice out past the piers.
    I’ve lived in New Bern since 65. My husband has told me many times of a “tale” his grandfather told him of driving a model t across the Reuse river where the old bridge use to be.
    I also have an old pic of three young people ice skating on the frozen Currituck sound..1918.

    • charlie says:

      I never knew who did it but I remember seeing the car tracks on the Neuse River between New Bern and Sandy Point (Bridgton) when it froze over. Not sue what year that was but it could have been ’65.

      Also, Capt. Quidley’s grandson is a friend of mine.

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