Spring 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 of any type was no match for this weather. The elevated trains grounded to a halt. Commuter trains were buried
Slender wires turned into huge cables by an ice-storm. credit: NOAA Photo Library
under 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 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:
- The Blizzard of '88 Mary Cable
- Blizzard! The Great Storm of '88 Judd Caplovich; edited by Wayne W. Westbrook
- The Blizzard of 1888 Tracee de Hahn
- Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America (also available in e-audiobook) Jim Murphy
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.
Some 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 exist or have had their appearance altered. If you also have a current photograph, please send it along.
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