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Cox’s Snow and the Persistence of Weather Memory

What tales will people tell about the Great I-95 Snowstorm of ’22? About the time an untold number of people, including a U.S. senator, spent a frigid, worrisome twenty-four hours on the interstate somewhere between Ruther Glen in Caroline County and Exit 152/Dumfries in Prince William County after a tractor-trailer accident in an unexpectedly heavy snowstorm snarled traffic for fifty miles. There are already stories of drinking snowmelt (or in Senator Tim Kaine’s case, Dr. Pepper), subsisting on granola bars, and walking dogs on the highway. But will it be so ingrained in people’s memories that they will measure time by this event? 

Cox’s Snow was such an event in antebellum Virginia. I can’t remember where I first encountered a reference to it, but it piqued my curiosity. I ran into Cox and his snow again in EV’s transcription of Reverend Ishrael Massie’s interview with the Virginia Writers Project’s Depression-era effort to interview people who had been enslaved in Virginia before the Civil War.

In the April 1937 interview, Massie gives his age in the form of a puzzle—one that he figured his interviewer, fellow Peterburg native Susie Byrd, would be able to solve. He asks Byrd if she knew how long it had been “since Cox’s Snow,” and says that he turned eight on March 8 of that year. Byrd asks, “Are you 88 years old?” correctly dating Massie’s age from what was also known as the Great Storm of 1857.

Much like the Johnstown Flood of 1889, Cox’s Snow was so famous in Central Virginia that it was still remembered eighty years later and used by old-timers like Massie as a marker of time.

What would be one of the worst snowstorms recorded in Virginia’s history began on Sunday, January 17, 1857. Edmund Ruffin, the noted proponent of slavery and states’ rights who had a plantation along the James River outside of Petersburg, noted in his diary “snow with strong wind & bitter cold.” The thermometer plunged to 3°F by 4 p.m. and a violent north wind drove the snow into deep drifts. “We could scarcely keep comfortably warm sitting by the fire,” he wrote, noting that he went to bed covered with six blankets, with two more over his feet, woolen night socks, and a woolen wrapper and still awoke freezing cold when the fire went out. (He solved that problem on subsequent nights by having one of his enslaved servants sit up all night to keep the fire burning.)

That evening, Dr. Joseph Cox, an esteemed local physician, and a friend were returning from visiting a patient in Peterburg. Unable to make it home in the storm, Cox headed for Clover Hill, the plantation of his brother, Judge James Cox, but his buggy got trapped in a snowdrift, some of which were later estimated at seven feet deep. Cox, and the horse pulling his buggy, froze to death a mere 700 yards from the entrance to Clover Hill. According to some accounts, his passenger, a Mr. Traylor, also perished, while others say he was severely frostbitten but survived what was thereafter known as “Cox’s Snow.” 

The storm shut down Central Virginia for more than a week, an occurrence that was met with as much incredulity as being trapped for a day on I-95 in the twenty-first century. “Such a snow storm I have never known before,” wrote Ruffin, noting that “there has been a general cessation of labor & business.” Walking or riding in the drifts was nearly impossible and mail and passenger trains remained mired in snow. “Such obstruction to traveling, even for a day, I have never heard before, in this region,” he wrote, noting that few people in Virginia bothered to keep sleighs but that the James was frozen solid enough to walk on.

The temperature plunged dangerously low again on January 23, with readings in Petersburg well below zero. There were reports of a family that froze in their wagon and of two African American men who perished while attempting to visit family members in other cabins. 

The thaw didn’t take place until January 28, a full ten days after the storm began. Mail, and with it the newspapers, began to trickle in, although Ruffin noted they contained “scarcely any news, except numerous accounts of the incidents of the snow storm & disasters therefrom,” including an account of passengers who had been trapped for two days and nights on a Central Railroad train six miles outside of Richmond. They were eventually “relieved, by carriages … sent with food”—maybe not granola bars and Dr. Pepper, but surely just as welcome.

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One thought on “Cox’s Snow and the Persistence of Weather Memory

  1. Two versions of the Cox’s Snow story are published in Virginia Folk Legends (University of Virginia Press) under the category “unusual events.” They were collected by Virginia Writers’ Project workers Susie Byrd and Claude Anderson who interviewed Jennie Patterson and Sis Shakelford in 1937

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