Despite the onslaught of some of the coldest temperatures recorded in two decades, the early winter weather of 2014 falls far short of many prolonged arctic blasts that have struck Hampton Roads in the past.
These historic cold-weather events gripped the region with conditions so severe and extended that ice floes jammed the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads as well as the area's rivers and creeks.
In his descriptions of the deep freeze of January 1780, Thomas Jefferson reported that "the Chesapeake Bay was solid from its head to the mouth of the Potomac."
Residents from Gloucester and Yorktown walked across the frozen York River, he added, while the Virginia Gazette published an account of "six loaded wagons (that) went over the James River, on the ice, from Warwick to the opposite shore."
In January 1857, similarly, the Southern Argus reported that the Elizabeth River had grown so solid from the cold that "belles and beaux, husbands and wives, parents and children all crowded the thoroughfare on the ice between Norfolk and Portsmouth."
The great winter of 1917-18 ranks among the region's frigid Big Three, too, piling up temperatures so low and unrelenting over a period of nearly two months that the sheet of ice covering Hampton Roads and its waterways completely shut down shipping.
A "coal famine" made things still worse in Newport News, where hundreds of men, women and children desperate for fuel had to be driven off by military police on Jan. 3, 1918, after they seized two carloads of the indispensable stone from the trains at the Chesapeake & Ohio coal pier.
"Newport News has been without an adequate supply of coal since last summer," the Daily Press reported, describing a disaster caused partly by the cold and partly by coal rationing and the diversion of rail cars at the start of World War I.
"Many of those who took part in yesterday's raid said they had to take the coal or freeze."
That dire threat emerged in the latter part of November 1917, when "Temperatures low enough to form ice on the various rivers of the state were general…and from that time on until February they remained low," the Meteorology Office of the War Department later reported.
"From the close of January until Feb. 6, freezing weather kept the ice intact."
By late November, the coal shortage had become so severe because of the frigid weather that the city of Newport News implored the state fuel commissioner for emergency help.
In Williamsburg, where the thermometer at the city water plant registered 9 degrees on the morning of Dec. 12, the scarcity was so great and the prices for what remained so high that "the poor find it difficult to keep from freezing," the Daily Press reported.
On Dec. 29, the temperature fell to 6 degrees in Hampton, where the impact of the cold was compounded by a 12-hour snowstorm. Two days later the thermometer at Fort Monroe dropped to 2 degrees below, and the extreme conditions made efforts to displace the coal shortfall with cord wood delivered by wagon or wheelbarrow nearly impossible.
That same New Year's Day in Norfolk, the arctic air not only tightened its grip but thwarted firemen as they attempted to fight a blaze that destroyed the landmark Monticello Hotel and Granby Theatre as well as two whole blocks of the city's downtown business district.
Three people died and many more were injured, the Daily Press reported, in a $2 million disaster that was made worse by near-zero temperatures, low-water pressure and frozen fire hydrants.
By Jan. 4, the ice had grown so thick that virtually all shipping in Hampton Roads had come to a halt, including the coal barges needed to break the fuel shortage.
The Old Bay Line steamers stopped running to Old Point Comfort, while the Old Dominion Boats could no longer make the trip to Richmond. Both the Old Point and Newport News ferries had shut down completely — with the ferry Virginia being the last to give up attempting a crossing.
At the crucial central power plant operated by the Newport News and Hampton Railway, Gas and Electric Co., the furnace room came within 1 ton of shutting down on at noon on Jan. 6. But using carts, wheelbarrows and other small vehicles, the company's desperate employees managed to boost its depleted stock to 100 tons at the last moment.
"Coal shortage nearly stops street cars," the paper reported.
Not until early February did the great winter storm of 1917-18 finally subside with the arrival of normal temperatures.
But by then it had carved out a permanent place in Hampton Roads' record books.
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads history stories and pictures at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
Online: Go to dailypress.com/history to see a gallery of archival photos documenting some of Hampton Roads' most historic cold-weather events.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun