Friday, January 5, 2018

One Century Ago: What Cold Really Looks Like

Local headlines recently proclaimed that the Hampton Roads area is experiencing perhaps the coldest new year it has experienced in a century.  Thousands of "nonessential" workers at military bases across the Hampton Roads Region are off for the second day in a row (myself included, although I'm still on deadline for this blog post and other projects).  Many of them are busily documenting the snowdrifts and other winter wonders deposited by the recent "bomb cyclone" that made it all possible.  But what did the winter of a century ago look like to the Sailors and other photographers who were working then?  

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum recently acquired photographs taken by a young gunner's mate floating on the York River that show just how cold it got one century ago. Compared to the arctic blast of January 1918, which froze battleships into place off Yorktown and made the majority of the Chesapeake region practically impassible, the so-called "bomb cyclone" that swept through the area this week was a mere inconvenience.

Thanks to a young Sailor named Ernest A. Washburn, who was serving aboard USS Rhode Island (BB 17), we now have a better idea what the York looked like during that epic cold snap.
Two photographs taken from USS Rhode Island (BB 17) have been combined to show the monitor Tallahassee (BM 9), which served during the war as a submarine tender, and the battleship Texas (BB 35), frozen in at the location near Yorktown, Virginia, known as "Base 2" in January 1918. (E.A. Washburn Collection, Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
The battleship Virginia (BB 13) waits out the weather on the York River in January 1918. (E.A. Washburn Collection, Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
When not on patrol or in the midst of training the teeming multitudes of prospective engineers and gunners passing through Hampton Roads during the First World War, the bulk of the Atlantic Fleet, made up mostly of ships that sailed with the Great White Fleet ten years before, was bottled up behind anti-torpedo nets at "Base 2" on the York River, just off the old Yorktown Battlefield.  The area was also home to "Camp Mayo," a tent encampment serving as a provisional headquarters to the fleet while the naval operating base at Sewells Point was under construction.

One of the young officers tasked with gunnery training aboard the newer superdreadnought Texas (BB 35), future Vice Admiral Bernhard H. Bieri, recalled in an oral history he gave to the U.S. Naval Institute:
They took the whole fleet into the York River, behind the submarine nets, in early 1917.  We spent the winter of 1917 in the York River and the Chesapeake Bay.  The Germans were prowling in the Atlantic and sinking ships all over.  So we had nets up, and they put us back of those barriers in the Chesapeake Bay, where we carried out our target practices. The river and the bay froze up very hard.  We had some of the old battleships that were used as icebreakers. 
Meanwhile, Sailors at the the newly-opened naval training center at Sewells Point, about 36 miles southeast of Yorktown, were facing even more extreme living conditions than those marooned on the York.  Water pipes that had just been installed in brand new barracks began bursting and the steam plant designed to support hundreds of new recruits with hot water failed. 

Roger B. Copinger, an officer candidate from Maryland who was waiting for classes to begin at the Officer-Material School, established at the former Pennsylvania Exhibition Hall on the base, later recalled what the winter was like for him and his shipmates:

Shortly after we reported the weather became even colder. The overhead steam pipe froze, and as a result we had no heat in the barracks or hot water in the showers. We slept in our clothes, and our week end liberty became not only a relaxation but a necessity. We would usually make for the Navy Y and a hot bath, or if we had the required funds, we would team up, and three of four of us would get a room at the Neddo Hotel on Plume Street near Granby.

Chesapeake Bay from the Capes to Baltimore was frozen, and while channels in the lower portion were kept open, shipping from the Potomac north was at a standstill. The Navy finally ordered the USS Ohio to try to break out a channel in the upper Bay, but the task turned out to be too much for the old battleship, and she was likewise frozen in.

When we had a few minutes before or after classes we would walk out on the ice which extended from in front of the Pennsylvania Building almost to the channel. This was dangerous because of the thin places or holes, so we were finally ordered to discontinue this activity.
Copinger, who ultimately rose to the rank of commander while serving in Hampton Roads during the Second World War, also reported that several Sailors on their way to Sewells Point for classes in early January were diverted to downtown Norfolk to stand guard over the remains of the Monticello Hotel, which had burned on New Year's Day, 1918.  

Longtime Norfolk photographer Harry C. Mann recorded the aftermath of the Monticello Hotel fire, after which a fire engine remained frozen in place.  At far left, merchants can be seen removing whatever wares they can salvage. (Library of Virginia Digital Collections)
Construction projects at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, just south of the city of Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, as well as the new mine assembly plant at St. Juliens Creek Annex, about a mile south of the shipyard, also ground nearly to a halt.

The construction site for Dry Dock 4 at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, January 8, 1918. (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)
The dangerous conditions did not prevent these workers from venturing out to the new power plant construction site at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on January 8, 1918. (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)
Despite the conditions, the nation was in the midst of war, and the work went on.

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