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Blizzard! The March Snowstorm of 1888

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A Policeman Rubbing Snow On The Frozen Ears Of A Passer-By During The Storm., Digital ID 809702, New York Public LibraryA Policeman Rubbing Snow On The Frozen Ears Of A Passer-By During The Storm., Digital ID 809702, New York Public LibrarySpring is ahead in the month of March. The anticipation is for the warmer weather to come and for Winter to leave. This was probably the same idea that New Yorkers and many others along the northeast seaboard believed during mid-March, 1888.

The weather forecasters reported slightly warmer temperatures and fair weather, followed by rain. Certainly, there would be nothing to worry about. This was a big mistake one hundred and twenty-three years ago...

The weather from March 11-14th, 1888, pounded the northeast with howling winds and bone chilling temperatures. The aftermath of the blizzard left New York with a paralyzed transit system, non-existent communications, two hundred dead in New York City from an estimate of four hundred casualties in the East.

This type of storm would wreak havoc today. The people of the 19th century enjoyed none of the modern technology that we take for granted. If you were lost in that blizzard, there would be no cell phone service to let your family know where you were stranded. You were on your own.

Transportation

Transportation of any type was no match for this weather. The elevated trains grounded to a halt. Commuter trains were buried  NOAA Photo LibrarySlender wires turned into huge cables by an ice-storm. credit: NOAA Photo Libraryunder mountains of snow. Newspapers of the day published many accounts as excerpted from these articles:

"About seventy-five miles of the Long Island Railroad system is still blockaded by the snow. The blockade is on the Port Jefferson Branch. The Locust Valley Branch was opened through to-day." Washington Post, Mar. 19, 1888

One of the fascinating facts about the "blockade" was that people walked across the East River to Brooklyn.

"The East River is almost entirely blocked with ice. A huge floe formed a natural bridge early in the forenoon and thousands of people crossed shore to shore. Not a train has come to New York over any road since last night.” Washington Post, Mar. 14, 1888

"This sort of travel kept up for an hour or so, several hundred people crossing from Brooklyn, and a few people crossing from New-York until the Brooklyn police authorities, fearful of a catastrophe and loss of life, put an end to any further attempts to cross." New York Times, Mar. 14, 1888

Communications and Related Issues

The aftermath of the blizzard destroyed much of the cables overhead. Reports about Brooklyn (an independent city until consolidated as borough in1898) illustrated the dire conditions at the time:

"The storm yesterday set Brooklyn back 50 years. Its great surface railroad system became useless, and its telephone service practically valueless. Its telegraph wires were torn down, and its main thoroughfares, where only electric lights are used, were left in darkness... At daybreak, or what should have been daybreak, the city resembled a hugh country village, and Fulton-avenue, from City Hall up, looked more like a deserted cowpath than the main business street of a big city." New York Times, Mar. 13, 1888

The snowdrifts blocked traffic coming and going. Newspaper headlines screamed the fear of famine because of concerns over a lack of food and coal. This blizzard effectively stopped everything.

The Aftermath

The aftermath and the future would see remarkable changes as a result of the blizzard of 1888. In the years to come, the landscape of New York City would change forever. Cables would be buried underground. And, the rumbling to build an underground subway system became a reality. An editorial about the aftermath of the storm was published soon after in the New-York Tribune commenting about the dangers of having the lines of communications exposed to the elements. And the building of a subway system received the following attention:

"The Brooklyn Bridge serves two cities as well, but everyone realizes to-day that tunneling under the Hudson and the East-River would meet a need which nothing else can. The city of to-day has been conquered by the elements for a time only because it has been content to develop on the surface and not at the roots." New York Tribune, Mar.18, 1888

Searching your Family History

Your own family history may hold information about surviving the Blizzard of 1888 and other significant weather events. Family manuscripts and records have the possibility of contemporary accounts of this and other significant storms of years past. Searching your family records, listening to oral history, reading diaries and letters could yield surprising results.

There is a lot more to learn about the Blizzard of 1888 then this brief blog post. The New York Public Library holds a wealth of resources to explore. The following sources should give you a start:

Update

The recent Winter storms serve as a powerful reminder that March can bring a surprising amount of snow and deadly weather conditions. As cited in this blog, New York City buried their power lines after the storm. The following photographs illustrate this point, for the power lines were snapped as if they were matchsticks. The photographs are credited to the Richard Rogers Bowker papers, New York Public Library.

 New York Public LibraryWest End Avenue (area) NYC. credit: New York Public LibrarySome notations indicate that these photographs were taken on (or near) West End Avenue, in the seventies. Does anyone know exactly where these photographs were taken? The buildings may no longer exists or have had their appearance altered. If you also have a current photograph, please send it along.

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Comments

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The Blizzard of '88

Alledgedly, my great grand father went to work that morning (they lived in lower Manhattan), but didn't return until one week later. We have had a lot of laughs about this over the years...but who is to confirm?

Oral history for the Blizzard of '88

It is probably true that your grandfather's x two did not return home for a week. Obviously, he found shelter and food. It does sound funny today that someone was trapped for a week. He was very lucky because a lot of people never made it home.

And yet...

...the newspapers managed to turn out editions. Some industries always seem to manage it.

Grandfather

My grandfather died during the horrible storm

Blizzard of 1888

My Grand Mother Ellen Corboy was 12 years old and lived in the city ,her father had to tunnel thru 14ft snow drifts to get out of their house,school did not reopen until April that year.

Blizzard of 1888

What a terrific story. I was watching the news about the massive blizzard that hit the Midwest two weeks ago. The snow drifts are reminiscent of the eastern blizzard of long ago. Most people probably don't realize that the blizzard of 1888 started on March 11,1888. Fortunately, your grandmother and great-grandfather lived to tell the tale. Thanks for sharing your story.

Weather in 1888

My grandfather was a recent migrant in his teens from Poland to the US sometime about 1886-1890. He told me about a time when he was quite young when New York Harbor froze over and he and hundreds of other New Yorkers walked across the harbor on the ice. Has anyone else heard this story? Did the Harbor freeze during the blizzard of '88? I'd love to learn more about this.

Blizzard of 1888

Hi Carrie: Your grandfather was telling the truth. The East River froze over during the Blizzard of 1888 allowing people to walk back and forth between Brooklyn and New York. In 2013, an article published in the Gothamist reported: "New Yorkers used to walk over the frozen rivers on Ice Bridges" The dates noted from 1813 to 1875. The year 1821 had an immense ice flow. Someone "built a temporary tavern on the ice of the North River, midway between New York and Hoboken and dispensed eatables and drinkables to travelers between the two states." http://gothamist.com/2013/01/24/new_yorkers_cross-frozen_east_river.php The term North River is no longer commonly used and refers to the southernmost portion of the Hudson River between New York City and northeastern New Jersey. This recent polar vortex froze up the Hudson River. The Coast Guard cutter broke up the ice to ease the flow of commercial traffic. Thanks for sending your comments.

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