“When the people began to stir to go about their daily tasks and vocations, they found that a blizzard, just like those they have been accustomed to read about as occurring in the far West had struck this city and its environs and had held an embargo on the travel and traffic of the greatest city on the continent. What the presence of a blizzard meant was soon manifest.”
– New York Times; March 13, 1888
So said the Times of the ravages of the blizzard which which dumped 20 to 60 inches of snow the North Eastern United States between March 11 and 14 in 1888. “The Great White Hurricane” as it was called in some quarters, or simply “The Great Blizzard of ‘88” as it was known to the New Yorkers who took the brunt of it, put New York into a stranglehold shutting down train, horse and foot traffic for four days and kept some people trapped in their homes for nearly a week.
The Storm Gathers and Then Lets Loose
That Sunday, the weather had seemed unseasonably mild, with heavy rain coming down. But then the temperatures began to drop quickly and that rain turned to snow. Winds that blew from the west and the north at speeds of 100 MPH bringing huge gusts of snow and ice. In one report, by 4:00 pm “The snow came up so fast that five minutes sufficed to obliterate the footprints of a man or a horse in the streets.”
Snow drifts of six to ten feet had by midnight shut down rail lines between cities (the image at the top shows efforts to clear the Grand Central Depot) and also caused fire-alarm systems to malfunction, thus causing many homes and businesses that caught fire during the storm to be lost. People found themselves snowed in form the lowliest slums to the most fashionable neighborhoods, such as Park Place (pictured above).
“It’s death out there….”
New York City began to shut down completely on Monday, the 12th as nobody could get where they needed to go. The Custom House and the Stock Exchange wee both closed. Price gougers began charging exorbitant fees to move: “Twenty dollars was paid for a conveyance from Astor House to Madison Square'” reported
“Harper’s Weekly”, “and forty dollars for a cab from Wall Street to the Fifth Avenue Hotel.” The infamous political boss, Roscoe Conkling (left) refused to submit to the snow and nearly paid for his insolence with his life. He began striding into the teeth of the storm at 6:00 pm moving from Wall Street to Twenty-fifth Street and the New York Club. Struggling against hurricane-force winds he pushed himself for two miles until he reached an unlit Union Square. There, he sunk into snow up to his armpits. He managed to free himself and after a struggle of nearly four hours, finally reached his club, nearly frozen and dead. “It’s death out there…” he gasped. “People are dying everywhere… I saw bodies sticking from the snow… I was almost in their number!”
“The sleet came and blinded men’s eyes…”
Still the snow continued to blow in huge drifts. In Brooklyn nine families were obliged to sit and freeze as the wind blew the roofs off of their houses. Hundreds of victims were taken to hospitals wherein many died from exposure. According to “Leslie’s”, “The
hospitals and station houses were filled with sufferers from frostbite or broken limbs.” And still the snow came on with howling winds and ice: The New York Sun reported on March 13 that “Dusk came and then darkness, and the wonderful visitation was still in progress. Still the streets were banked high with rifts of snow, still the wind roared and howled and bellowed and flung itself against the city’s walls, still the horse cars were cut off their tracks and the pillared roads were idle, still the wagons were few, the women were obliterated from the outdoor scenes, the pelting snow and sleet blinded men’s eyes, the cold wind numbed man and beast, the uproar of wild voices continued.”
Electrical Lines Come Down Under the Weight of Ice
Thousands of feet of electrical wires for everything from telegraphs to telephones to electric lighting were weighed down by snow and ice and lay useless to the irritation of the Times. Progress had boasted of “…our superior means of inter-communication.
Before the fury of the great blizzard they all went down, whether propelled by steam or electricity. The elevated trains became useless; so did the telegraph wires, the telephone wires, the wires for conveying the electric lights, the wires for giving the alarms of fire. And, worse than useless, they became dangerous.” The paper of record testily concluded: “It is hard to believe in this last quarter of the nineteenth century that for even one day New-York could be so completely isolated from the rest of the world as if Manhattan Island was in the middle of the South Sea.”
March 14 – the Snow Finally Turns to Powder
At long last, by March 14, the snow turned into a light, powdery shower, people were able to come out of their dwellings. They began to build bonfires in the streets, which of course overwhelmed the sewer systems for several days creating small lakes from melted snow at several points throughout the city. “The sun was a splendid and efficacious ally…” according to one writer. But the Blizzard and the troubles it had caused with the veritable forest of overhead wires were not forgotten. Over the next few years after considerable political wrangling, the poles and the wires all came down and were buried underground. According to the website “Virtual New York”:
“The Blizzard of 1888 was not directly responsible for the movement to bury city’s electrical hard wiring; the movement to bury the wires dated back to well before the storm and continued for two years after it. But the events of that frosty and dangerous March week dramatized the problem, and contributed significantly to the developing movement to bury the wires, once and for all.”
“Darkest Hours” by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, 1976
Grand Central Depot =
Park Place =
Boss Conkling =
Leslie’s Illustrated =
Wires Weighed Down by Ice =