The Great Blizzard of 1888, which struck the American Northeast, became the most famous weather event in history. The ferocious storm caught major cities by surprise in mid-March, paralyzing transportation, disrupting communication, and isolating millions of people.
It is believed at least 400 people died as a result of the storm. And the "Blizzard of '88" became iconic.
The massive snowstorm struck at a time when Americans routinely relied on the telegraph for communication and the railroads for transportation. Having those mainstays of everyday life suddenly disabled was a humbling and frightening experience.
Origins of the Great Blizzard
The blizzard which struck the Northeast on March 12-14, 1888, had been preceded by a very cold winter. Record low temperatures had been recorded across North America, and a potent blizzard had pummeled the upper Midwest in January of the year.
The storm, in New York City, began as a steady rain on Sunday, March 11, 1888. Shortly after midnight, in the early hours of March 12, the temperature dropped below freezing and the rain turned to sleet and then heavy snow.
The Storm Caught Major Cities By Surprise
As the city slept, the snowfall intensified. Early Monday morning people awoke to a startling scene. Enormous drifts of snow were blocking the streets and horse-drawn wagons couldn't move. By mid-morning the busiest shopping districts of the city were virtually deserted.
The conditions in New York were atrocious, and things were not much better to the south, in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. The major cities of the East Coast, which had been connected by telegraph for four decades, were suddenly cut off from each other as telegraph wires were severed.
A New York newspaper, The Sun, quoted a Western Union telegraph employee who explained that the city was cut off from any communication southward, though a few telegraph lines upstate to Albany and Buffalo were still operational.
The Storm Turned Deadly
Several factors combined to make the Blizzard of '88 particularly deadly. The temperatures were extremely low for March, plummeting to nearly zero in New York City. And the wind was intense, measured at a sustained speed of 50 miles per hour.
The accumulations of snow were enormous. In Manhattan the snowfall was estimated at 21 inches, but the stiff winds made it accumulate in huge drifts. In upstate New York, Saratoga Springs reported a snowfall of 58 inches. Throughout New England the snow totals ranged from 20 to 40 inches.
In the freezing and blinding conditions, it was estimated that 400 people died, including 200 in New York City. Many victims had gotten trapped in snowdrifts.
In one famous incident, reported on the front page of the New York Sun, a policeman who ventured out onto Seventh Avenue and 53rd Street saw the arm of a man protruding from a snowdrift. He managed to dig the well-dressed man out, but he was dead and frozen. Identified as a wealthy businessman, George Baremore, he had apparently been trying to walk to his office on Monday morning and collapsed while fighting the wind and snow.
A powerful New York politician, three-term U.S. Senator and Tammany Hall adversary Roscoe Conkling, nearly died while walking up Broadway from Wall Street. At one point, according to a newspaper account, he became disoriented and stuck in a snowdrift. He managed to struggle to safety, but damaged his health and died a month later.
Elevated Trains Were Disabled
The elevated trains which had become a feature of life in New York City during the 1880s were severely impacted by the horrendous weather. During the Monday morning rush hour the trains were running, but encountered numerous problems.
According to a front-page account in the New York Tribune, a train on the Third Avenue Elevated line had trouble climbing a grade. The tracks were so packed with snow that the train wheels "would not catch but just whirled round without making any progress."
The train, consisting of four cars, with engines at both ends, reversed itself and tried to go back northward. As it was moving backward, another train came up speeding up behind it. The crew of the second train could barely see more than a half-block ahead of them.
A horrendous collision occurred, and as the New York Tribune described it, the second train "telescoped" the first, slamming into it and compacting some of the cars.
A number of people were injured in the collision. Amazingly, only one person, the engineer of the second train, had been killed. Still, it was a horrifying event, as people jumped from windows of the elevated trains, fearful that a fire would break out.
By midday the trains stopped running entirely, and the episode convinced the city government that an underground rail system needed to be built.
Railroad passengers across the Northeast faced similar problems. Trains derailed, crashed, or simply became immobile for days, some with hundreds of suddenly stranded passengers.
The Storm at Sea
The Great Blizzard was also a noteworthy nautical event. A report compiled by the U.S. Navy in the months following the storm noted some chilling statistics. In Maryland and Virginia more than 90 ships were recorded as "sunk, wrecked, or badly damaged." In New York and New Jersey more than two dozen ships were classified as damaged. In New England, 16 ships were damaged.
According to various accounts, more than 100 sailors died in the storm. The U.S. Navy reported that six ships were abandoned at sea, and at least nine others were reported as missing. It was assumed the ships had been swamped with snow and capsized.
Fears of Isolation and Famine
As the storm hit New York City on a Monday, following a day when shops were closed, many households had low supplies of milk, bread, and other necessities. Newspapers for the few days when the city was essentially isolated, reflected a sense of panic, publishing speculation that food shortages would become widespread. The word "famine" even appeared in news stories.
On March 14, 1888, two days after the worst of the storm, the front page of the New York Tribune carried a detailed story about potential food shortages. The newspaper noted that many of the city's hotels were well-provisioned:
The Fifth Avenue Hotel, for instance, claims that it is beyond the reach of a famine, no matter how long the storm may last. Mr. Darling's representative said last evening that their immense ice-house was full of all the good things necessary for the complete running of the house; that the vaults still contained coal enough to last until the 4th of July, and that there was on hand a ten days' supply of milk and cream.
The panic over food shortages soon subsided. While many people, especially in poorer neighborhoods, probably did go hungry for a few days, food deliveries resumed as the snow began to be cleared.
Significance of the Great Blizzard of 1888
The Blizzard of '88 lived on in popular imagination because it affected millions of people in ways they could never forget. All weather events for decades were measured against it, and people would relate their memories of the storm to their children and grandchildren.
And the storm was also significant because it was, from a scientific sense, a peculiar weather event. Arriving with little warning, it was a serious reminder that methods for predicting the weather were in need of improvement.
The Great Blizzard was also a warning to society in general. People who had become reliant on modern inventions had seen them, for a time, become useless. And everyone involved with modern technology realized how fragile it could be.
Experiences during the blizzard emphasized the need to place critical telegraph and telephone wires underground. And New York City, in the late 1890s, became serious about constructing an underground rail system, which would lead to the opening of New York's first extensive subway in 1904.