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Christmas 1878 and The Great Snowstorm

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Christmas 1878 and The Great Snowstorm

“On February 8, 1878, two young fellows with rolled up sleeves might have been seen in an upper room of the little old house of Anton Bussman, that stood near the present Town Hall, working off, on a little press, the [first] issue of The Lancaster Star. Paul Bussman and William B. Fuller had in some way picked up sufficient knowledge of the art of printing to enter in this humble way upon the great business of journalism. They were very smart, intelligent lads, with plenty of plunk, and enjoy the honor of starting an enterprise which [as of 1896] has kept on its feet for eighteen years, has gathered strength, and is destined undoubtedly to a long career of usefulness.

The Lancaster Star, in its first form, was a four page weekly paper, 10 by 15, and exhibited no one’s name as responsible for it. ... On March 1, 1878, it pinned at top of its editorial column the words, ‘P. Bussman, Editor.’ On March 20, 1878, ‘Will Fuller’ assumed entire control of it, and a request is made that all communications be sent to ‘The Star Printing Co.’ … On October 24, the day of publication was changed from Friday to Thursday, which arrangement has continued ever since.”[1]

Before its appearance, Lancaster had never had a newspaper of its own, and so, the Lancaster Christmas of 1878 was the first to be reported in newsprint. The December 19th edition of the Star, the last edition to appear before Christmas day, said little about Lancaster’s plans for Christmas festivities. The front page contained an article by the Lancaster Literary Society discussing the 1877 national railroad strike. Page 7, which contained “Local Matters,” noted that Christmas was next Wednesday, that store and shop windows presented a fine display of Holiday presents, and that Christmas service at the Episcopal chapel would take place as usual. Otherwise, Christmas festivities were absent from the newspaper’s pages.[2]

Days of the Week
Late December 1878 and early January 1879

Three days later, on Sunday the 22nd, it snowed, which continued into Monday. It snowed again on Tuesday the 24th, and on Christmas morning the snow was “as bad as ever” and “forbad all Christmas festivities.” The Star found a way to publish on December 26, and printed the following summary of the “The Great Snow Storm.”

The terrible storm which has just passed over us, or rather through us, will ever be an event in the history of Lancaster. It is probable that this section of the country never saw its equal. The oldest inhabitants have racked their brains and cannot remember when it was quite as bad as it was this week. And we are certain that as far back as we can remember snow never fell so thick and fast as it did last Tuesday [the day before Christmas].
The snow began falling about three o’clock Sunday afternoon and continued to come down at a terrible rate until about five o’clock Monday afternoon, when the sky cleared up, the sun shone a little, and it was supposed the storm was over. But it seems the storm-king was only taking a rest for a few hours to break upon us with redoubled fury, lasting until Tuesday evening, when it stopped snowing, and again we thought it was done, but Christmas morning found it as bad as ever. Although it did not snow much during Wednesday [Christmas day], the wind was very high and drifted the loose snow to a great extent. Wednesday evening it commenced snowing again and kept it up more or less all night. This morning prospects are much brighter, and although the wind is still blowing it is evident that the worst is over. It will probably be two or three days before our roads will be traveled, and many of the “cross roads” will not be opened this winter.
The snow drifted at a terrible rate; our roads were soon blocked entirely. People floundered about in all directions through the snow. Many houses were completely blocked up, and people had to remain content within doors. Some attempted to shovel their walks, but the snow filled them up as fast as they could clear them, and they soon gave up the useless task. Men might have been seen going from the brewery to the various saloons carrying large sacks containing kegs of beer. People who were out went on a trot when the drifts would permit it.[3]

These were only the first few paragraphs. This newspaper article from Thursday, December 26th was quite a bit longer, filling all four columns of the second page. After the above description of the storm, the editor wrote about the storm’s effect on local business.

The effect of the great storm on our business men must have been terrible indeed. Everything was dead during the few days when our merchants generally reap a rich harvest. Some of our stores were closed entirely and others might as well have been. Proprietors and clerks stood behind their counters with long faces. Many of our merchants had piled their counters and shelves with holiday goods, and will be obliged to pack them away until next winter at a great loss. For three long days we received no mails. Without our regular mails we feel as lonely as did Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. ‘Tis now that we know how to appreciate our great postal service.[4]

The Lancaster Star, as well as its successors The Lancaster Times and The Lancaster Enterprise, was a major voice promoting and encouraging commercial development in Lancaster. William B. Fuller was imbued with the Whiggish philosophy of progress. In that view society faced a perennial struggle between the friends and enemies of progress. William B. Fuller was among its friends. During the 1878 snowstorm he saw “sublimity in the spectacle of a great railroad company contending with the [snow] drifts, bringing all the resources of ingenuity, combination, and mechanical engineering to bear upon the difficult problem of opening and keeping open, the great highways of commerce.” It was well known within Whig circles that Protestants and Whigs were the perennial allies of progress while Catholics and Democrats perpetually formed obstruction.

Fuller devoted two full columns of the December 26th article to events that affected the railroads during the storm. Writing about the Erie Railroad, he said

Train No. 3, which arrived here at 12:15 on Monday last, could not get any farther on account of the immense drifts, and about ten passengers, among whom were two women and two children, were obliged to get along as best they could until late Wednesday afternoon. We imagine that sitting in a passenger car with scarcely anything to eat for over forty-eight hours is anything but pleasant. People living in the neighborhood of the depot did them many little kindnesses such as taking them pails of hot tea and coffee.[5]

And at the Erie depot we read,

The depot was the only place that showed any signs of life. It was crowded continually, night and day, with trainmen, people who were expecting friends, and a number of idlers. The railroad men took the thing very coolly, improvising trunks and boxes into card tables and amusing themselves with “seven-up,” while between games they kept the path open to the neighboring saloons.[6]

William B. Fuller then marveled at a new snow plow that had been recently invented and was tested Christmas morning on the Erie line. “It went from Buffalo to Attica in an hour and five minutes, which is only nine minutes slower than the fastest express train.” This new plow made way for the first train which came from Buffalo. Fuller considered the snowplow “a wonderful invention.”

Charles W. Fuller, William B. Fuller’s father, was born in Dorset, Vermont in 1834 and migrated to Lancaster in the 1850s. He married Amelia Bruce, another Vermont migrant, in September 1856 and their son, William Bruce Fuller was born in Lancaster on May 30, 1857.[7]

Charles W. Fuller was a prominent member of Lancaster’s business and political establishment. After arriving in Lancaster, he operated a marble business under the firm name of Fuller & Tayon. In October 1861 he became agent of the Erie Railway in Lancaster, a position he held for twenty-one years. In addition, he was elected Town Clerk in 1862 and served as Town Supervisor in 1877, 1878, and 1879. When the Bank of Lancaster was organized in 1894, Charles W. Fuller was appointed its president and held that position until his death on December 31, 1908.[8]

Charles W. Fuller was a member of the Lancaster Presbyterian church for nearly 50 years, and a “life long friend” of its pastor, the Rev. William Waith. At the 1909 funeral for Charles W. Fuller, Rev. Waith said that he “sprang from godly New England stock.” He and his family were baptized at the Lancaster Presbyterian church in 1862 and his son, William B. Fuller, grew up as a member of its congregation.[9]

On Christmas morning, 1878, because the snow was “as bad as ever,” Christmas festivities were differed until Sunday, December 29th. The next edition of The Lancaster Star was distributed Thursday, January 2nd, and here we can read about the Christmas festivities held on Sunday. The front page opened with a comment about everyone’s disappointment,

The holiday so long and eagerly anticipated by the children was this year, with us, a day so inclement and even terrible as to forbid all gatherings and festivities. Instead of the happy bells of yule we had the roaring tempest; instead of evergreens, and processions, and sleigh rides, and evening parties, the immense and unsightly drifts that blocked every walk and highway.[10]

Page 2 of the January 2nd edition summarized activities differed to Sunday. At the Presbyterian church,

Notwithstanding the hindrances and embarrassments from the late storm toward the close of last week, a few busy workers completed the Christmas decorations of the Presbyterian church; and on Sunday morning it presented a very cheerful and attractive interior.
Over the arch of the pulpit were the words, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come,” which words the pastor gave out as the text of his morning sermon.
In the evening were the exercises of the Christmas concert, which, not withstanding the bad condition of the roads, drew out a large audience. The church was comfortable and well lighted. … The singing was conducted by Mr. Harris, and sustained by a quartet consisting of Mr. Harris, Miss Ida Abbey, and Mr. and Mrs. Frank James. Two of the pieces were sung to music composed by Mr. Harris in the rendering of, with efficient assistance, was given by the Misses Clapp, Miss Grace L. Smith, Miss Tilla Bailey, and Mr. George Clark, Miss E. C. Waith accompanying.[11]

The Christmas Eve concert at the Lutheran church had also been postponed until Sunday.

The concert of the Lutheran Sunday School, which was to have taken place on Christmas Eve was postponed, on account of the storm, to last Sunday evening but it was not spoiled any by keeping. People began flocking into the church as early as seven o’clock, and before the exercises opened the house was comfortably full. Although the church had not been trimmed any, it looked very bright and cheerful. A pretty little Christmas tree stood in front of the pulpit, loaded with bright candy toys and a large number of wax candles. Quite a large tree had been cut for the purpose, but it was fast under a large snow drift and a smaller one had to be substituted. …
The choir numbers among it some of Lancaster’s best vocalists, and many of the schoolars [sic.] are excellent singers. The whole affair was splendidly managed and reflects great credit on the school and its teachers.[12]

The newspaper then commented that, at the Lutheran church, “Considerable dissatisfaction was expressed about the streets leading to the church not being opened. Sport street was entirely closed and had it not been that Mr. Martzloff shoveled for about three hours, Pleasant Avenue would have been in the same condition.” The newspaper had commented on December 26th that “Mr. Demangeot [the proprietor of Demangeot & Nuwer Brewery] put a force of shovelers on the road this morning and they have cleared the road from the brewery [on Aurora Street] to quite a distance up Railroad Street, toward the Central depot. If every one was as public spirited, our roads would be clear in a short time.” It would seem that between Thursday December 26th and Sunday December 29th Lancaster’s public spirit was, perhaps, waxing and waning.

Back on page one of the January 2nd edition of The Lancaster Star, the editor offered a philosophical and very Presbyterian view of the delayed Christmas of 1878.

Christmas, though not the oldest, is a very old Christian holiday. Neander tells us, that the feast first makes its appearance, as one generally celebrated in the Roman church, after the middle of the fourth century. Augustine mentions Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, and Whitsuntide as the only festivals which were regarded, in his times, as having the sanctions of the Christian church. He admits, indeed, that Christmas was observed, but considers it of later origin than those named, and less sacred.
The eastern Christians generally assigned the advent of Christ to the 6th of January, on which day they supposed both the birth and the baptism of Christ occurred, and in reference to both they called it Epiphany, or the manifestation of Jesus in his character of Messiah.
First and last there have been very protracted and acrimonious disputes about the time of the Saviour’s birth. Really there is no one learned enough to fix the day with certainty and precision, perhaps not even the year. So long ago as Clement’s time, the matter was earnestly debated and that writer names several months of the year upon each of which particular theorists had fixed as the true natal month of the babe of Bethlehem.
It is not likely that we at this late period of the world’s history can determine certainly what was so doubtful even then.
We can do something better than dispute about Christmas, and quarrel over it. We can join our neighbours and friends in the festivities, the rejoicings, the kind remembrances, and the acts of worship, with which the day is usually celebrated. It is not necessary to regard the day as holy in the sense in which the Sabbath is holy. There is no scriptural injunction about observing it at all. But surely there can be no harm, and there may be much good, in agreeing to set apart one day of the year for glad remembrance of the coming of Him who was proclaimed as bringing peace to earth, and good will to men.
The Puritans, in order to get as far as possible from Popery and Prelacy, eschewed the observance of Christmas as a hurtful superstition. But when some one brought good saintly old Bunyan a piece of Christmas mince pie in the jail on that day, to test him, he showed that his common sense was as reliable as his saintship. “Distinguo,” cried he, and munched his pie with great satisfaction. Let us all imitate the sturdy saint, drawing a line between the punctiliousness of superstition, and the joyousness of innocent festivity.

William B. Fuller, being raised a Presbyterian, may not have known that, for Germans, Christmas was traditionally less a day than a season, which lasted from Advent through Epiphany. A reflection, perhaps, of the uneasy relationship between Lancaster’s large German Catholic population and the native-born Protestant business leaders.[13]

Be that as it may, William B. Fuller offered one last reflection, albeit a Whiggish one, on “The Great Strom” which he printed in the January 9, 1879 edition of newspaper:

The holiday season of 1878-9 will be memorable to dwellers in this part of the country for the almost unprecedented violence of the weather that prevailed. With the night of December 22nd a storm arose which increased in fury for nearly forty eight hours, and did not abate until the 26th. Then there was a lull, in which, if we except the bad condition of the roads, all was pleasant until the day after New Year’s, when another storm blew up that had not spent its rage on January 4, the date of this writing.
This terrible weather, which, except in the city, utterly forbad all Christmas festivities, was attended with the usual embarrassments and distresses consequent upon the stoppage of the mails, the detention of trains, the blocking up of highways, and the accumulation of discomfort and hardship about the dwelling places of man and beast.
The motto with which Chester of Buffalo heads his business card, “I dye to live,” might, with a trifling change, have been adopted by every householder in the region, “I dig to live.” To get coal, wood, water, milk, and in many cases to get even egress from the doors, one was obliged to dig. And the worst was, that, an hour after the digging, it all had to be done over again.
Doctors had a rest; patients had to suffer; tramps could not even leave their cards. Many kinds of provisions on the rail had to freeze and spoil. Expected Christmas boxes did not arrive. Bluff old Santa Claus himself could not keep his engagements.
The nascent science of meteorology will have to make a prodigious growth before such disturbances as we have just experienced can be predicted a week. According to our understanding of the matter, about twenty-four hours is the extent to which the weather can be foretold with any approach to probability. The sweep of a storm traced; but where is the scientist whose prophecy of the weather ten days ahead would be worth on farthing? “Thou canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.” Yet many who would be ashamed to try this little problem, can tell very confidently that man was once a chimpanzee, and that Christ did not rise from the dead, and that man has no soul, and that it is foolish to pray, and that there is no God.
The storm forces upon our attention at once the helplessness and the might of human beings. In one view, what can be more weak than a frail man in the presence of the great forces of nature? The floods will drown him; the winters will freeze him; the winds will wreck his dwelling; the snows will bury him; the fierce rays of the summer sun will strike him dead; the exhalations of a few neglected sewers will sweep off thousands of his race. In the presence of a storm like that now raging, he is a pigmy, less powerful and enduring than some of the poor brutes that own in him their master. Yet, on the other hand, how wondrously he recovers himself, and, in the long run, how successfully he contends with nature’s blind forces! No sea so turbulent that he cannot sail over it; no rock that he cannot blast or drill; no chasm that he cannot bridge. There is an element of sublimity in the spectacle of a great railroad company contending with the drifts, bringing all the resources of ingenuity, combination, and mechanical engineering to bear upon the difficult problem of opening and keeping open, the great highways of commerce. Rage as Boreas may, man is sure to win in the end. Surely, he is something more than a “developed” chimpanzee.[14]

William B. Fuller published The Lancaster Star for only two years. He suspended its publication on March 5, 1880. At the time, he was only two months shy of his 23rd birthday. He told his readers that he was obliged to stop printing because there was no profit in the enterprise. The successor to the Star, The Lancaster Times, issued its first edition on May 26, 1880, under the direction of E.R. Vaughn and P.J. Gaudy.

Later in the 1880s, William B. Fuller moved to London, England as an agent in one of his father’s businesses and later opened his own confectionary business in England. William B. Fuller died in London on September 3, 1909, he was 52 years old.[15]


  1. Lancaster Times, October 8, 1896, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Times%2FLancaster%20NY%20Times%201894%20-1899%2FLancaster%20NY%20Times%201894%20-%207%201899%2012-28_259_2.pdf
  2. The Lancaster Star, December 19, 1878, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-1880%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-02-08%201880%2011-16_136_2.pdf
  3. “The Great Snow Storm,” The Lancaster Star, December 26, 1878, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-1880%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-02-08%201880%2011-16_143_1.pdf
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. A WikiTree page for Charles Winslow Fuller is at this URL: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Fuller-5840
  8. Charles W. Fuller obituary, The Lancaster Enterprise, January 7, 1909, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Enterprise%2FLancaster%20NY%20Enterprise%201908%2FLancaster%20NY%20Enterprise%201908%20%201911%20_158_2.pdf
  9. William B. Fuller obituary, Lancaster Enterprise, September 9, 1909, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Enterprise%2FLancaster%20NY%20Enterprise%201908%2FLancaster%20NY%20Enterprise%201908%20%201911%20_305_2.pdf
  10. “Christmas Day,” The Lancaster Star, January 2, 1879, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-1880%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-02-08%201880%2011-16_146_2.pdf
  11. “What we did during the Holidays,” The Lancaster Star, January 2, 1879, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-1880%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-02-08%201880%2011-16_149_2.pdf
  12. Ibid.
  13. This uneasy relationship is explored in Michael Nuwer, “The Failed Assimilation of German Immigrants in Lancaster,” forthcoming.
  14. “The Great Storm,” The Lancaster Star, January 9, 1879, https://fultonhistory.com/Newspapers%2023%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-1880%2FLancaster%20NY%20Star%201878-02-08%201880%2011-16_151_2.pdf
  15. The Lancaster Enterprise, September 9, 1909, op. cit .

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