'When Denny went to Towson'

BACK STORY

December 27, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Last weekend's snowstorm brought to mind the name of Alexander J. "Denny" Dennistone, the plucky New York native who gained eternal Sun fame for braving a howling 1899 blizzard to make sure his customers received their newspapers.

The three-day blizzard, which swept up the East Coast and pounded Maryland from Feb. 11-14, brought life to a standstill.

The storm dumped 21.4 inches of snow on the city and surrounding area, on top of 11.7 inches from a Feb. 5-8 blizzard.

"Baltimore is buried under the greatest depth of snow known here since the weather bureau was established in 1873," reported The Sun.

"Milkmen gave up and grocer wagons surrendered. The great white wall blocked intercourse. Streetcars staggered, stumbled and quit. Wires and trees were down in every direction," reported the newspaper. "There was, to employ the vernacular, nothing whatever doing."

Trains operating on the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Western Maryland Railway were snowbound as passengers jammed city stations, hoping against hope for trains that didn't arrive or depart.

Even the delivery and movement of the mail ground to a halt. Streetcars and sweeper cars were frozen in their tracks. Those who attempted to navigate city streets thought better of it once out in the fierce storm.

However, this wasn't the case for Dennistone, whose Sunpaper route extended from North Avenue to Towson.

Dennistone, who was 40 at the time and lived in a rowhouse at 2221 Barclay St., reported to the newspaper's "mailing room" in the wee hours to gather that day's edition of The Sun.

At 1:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 13, 1899, Dennistone, accompanied by a subcarrier, bravely set out from the Sun Iron Building at Baltimore and South streets with a wagonload of papers that he was bound and determined to deliver in Towson.

"While everything else was stopped, a lithe, wiry little man with his face full of wrinkles, bundled up and overshod, with his head held low, breasted the storm and piled though the drifts like a human snow plow," reported a 1914 Sun account of Dennistone's exploits.

Clip-clopping up and battling a deserted York Road, Dennistone and his subcarrier plowed their way through drifts. At times, they were thwarted by snow that had accumulated under the wagon's undercarriage, requiring intense shoveling.

At Govans, halfway through their trek, the storm-battered horse gave, as did Dennistone's helper.

"You take the horse back to Baltimore," yelled Dennistone, above the roar of the storm. "I'm going on to Towson."

While not quite in the same category as the survival ordeal of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Dennistone, believing in his mission, forged ahead.

"The thought was that Towson was his objective and he was going there," according to a 1922 monograph, "When Denny Went to Towson," published by The Sun. "All the hell in Brown's mule could not have kept him from Towson."

Setting out on foot, Dennistone, his papers under his arm, made his way through the trackless landscape, snow up to his waist.

He surmounted shoulder-high drifts, and when he could not walk through a drift, he lay down and rolled over them.

Nearing exhaustion and aching in every joint and sinew, Dennistone, according to the 1922 monograph, maintained his determination by repeating over and over, "I have started for Towson, and that is where I'm going."

Word had reached Towson that the lone courier was struggling northward to the county seat with newspapers. When he staggered into view, several residents who had gathered to greet him gave him a rousing welcome.

At 4 p.m., a triumphant but weary Dennistone reached the courthouse - some 16 hours after having set out from downtown Baltimore.

"At Towson, the citizens welcoming him on the Courthouse steps gave a vote of thanks and called him a hero. Nobody was very much surprised though, because as one of the veteran carriers of The Sun put it, 'it would take more than one blizzard to stop Denny,' " according to the 1914 Sun article.

"Readers of The Sun got their papers that day - a little late, perhaps, but they got them; and when Denny reached home, soaked and chilled to the bone; he sat down to his dinner with the easy conscience of a man who had finished a day's work."

Dennistone, who often talked for the remainder of his life about his snowy walk to Towson, was still a Sun carrier when he died in 1918. He was 59.

"Before he was sent to the hospital, Mr. Dennistone made all arrangements for continuance of his service, and up to the moment of his death, was interested in its details," said his Sun obituary.

The Blizzard of 1922, better known as the Knickerbocker Storm, took its name from the Washington theater whose roof collapsed under the weight of the heavy snow that killed 98 people.

As the blizzard barreled into the state, the spirit of the late Denny was invoked. Signs were suspended from the ceiling of The Sun's mailroom that were meant to inspire carriers about to enter the storm: "Remember, When Denny went to Towson."

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