Sunday, January 24, 2016

Blizzard of 1888 
As a reminder that there have been other blizzards in the northeast, I am sharing this article I wrote for The Encyclopedia of New York State, edited by Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), p.190.
Perhaps the most famous snowstorm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888 is sometimes referred to as the “Great White Hurricane.” The storm deposited as much as 50 inches of snow from northern Virginia to Maine. In all 400 deaths were attributed to the Blizzard of 1888 and almost 200 ships were lost. There are no adequate figures to reflect the monetary losses, but the entire northeast was immobilized for a week. Buildings, rail lines, and telephone and telegraph lines sustained heavy damage.  
The Blizzard of 1888 began as an inauspicious low pressure system off the coast of North Carolina. When the system drifted eastward on Sunday March 11, the National Weather Service (NWS) estimated it would continue its path out to sea. As a result, the NWS predicted moderate rain and winds for the Atlantic coastal region from Virginia north to Maine. The NWS lacked oceanic monitoring facilities and had no way of knowing that instead of following its predicted course, the storm had moved due north. Furthermore the storm gained power on the open Atlantic and the barometric pressure dropped dramatically. The storm had turned into a cyclone.
Sunday, March 11, 1888 was a mild day on land with spring-like temperatures in the mid-fifties. Ships at sea were the first to feel the effects of the storm. Captains piloted their ships as best they could to the most accessible safe haven. At Lewes, Delaware, a port hub of the Pennsylvania Railroad, ships started arriving into the harbor at nightfall just as the storm did, creating chaotic and dangerous conditions. In all thirty-five ships were destroyed in the harbor. In the late afternoon rain started falling in Washington, D.C., and by evening, the downpour was torrential. During the night the rain turned to snow. Rain also began to fall in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and across New England. No one sensed that a major blizzard was imminent.
When the northeast awoke on Monday morning, March 12, they were startled to see a blizzard. Strong, bitterly cold winds blew frozen shards of snow horizontally, reducing visibility, and making it nearly impossible for man or beast to walk in the conditions. The snow downed telegraph and telephone wires, cutting the east coast, including Washington, D.C. off from the rest of the nation as well as from each other. Trains could not pass through accumulations of almost 50 inches of snow or the drifts which could be as high as 10 or 12 feet. Up and down the eastern seaboard commuters were stranded, including the New York City elevated trains which were stuck on the tracks with passengers helplessly trapped inside. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, DC, and New Haven, Connecticut were all incapacitated by the blizzard, which reached as far inland as Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Business virtually halted and essential goods and services, such as daily coal or milk deliveries, could not be made. Rural homes were equally affected, with the occupants locked in by the snow unable to get out or tend to their animals. Cases of extreme kindness, such as residents helping stranded commuters, were mixed with incidents of extreme greed, as in the case of carriages giving rides in New York City for 50 dollars.    
For most areas affected by the blizzard, snow fell continuously for about 24 hours, and once it stopped, repair crews were dispatched to fix the downed telegraph lines and get the railroads running again. It would be another 48 hours before the trains were moving, even on a limited basis. The storm continued across the Atlantic. Although the system, which the Europeans referred to as “the American Blizzard,” hit England and Germany its energy had dissipated and it caused only losses of livestock.

The Blizzard of 1888 was one of the most important natural disasters in American history and there were several significant outcomes. First, telegraph lines were moved underground to prevent another national breakdown in communication. Second, New York City realized that the elevated train lines were too vulnerable to the weather to meet the demands of the national commercial and financial center and began the process of constructing a subway system. Finally, the NWS realized that it needed better oceanic and atmospheric monitoring, and placed stations in Nassau, Bahamas, Bermuda, Newfoundland, as well as on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best reads of 2015

I read so many good books this past year. Here are some of my favorite reads from 2015. 

Best book: 

James Morton Turner, The Promise of American Wilderness (2012). This is my kind of book! Turner does not give an intellectual discussion of wilderness. Instead, he examines how political process of the 1964 Wilderness Act shaped the definition and concept of wilderness. From this angle, wilderness has had many diverse and varied meanings over the last fifty years. Coming from an urban/suburban environment, I have always had great difficulty identifying with very precise meanings of wilderness. As a kid growing up in Queens, Forest Park felt as much like wilderness to me as Hetch-Hetchy Valley did to John Muir. The fact that the Act left some wiggle room in a definition of wilderness, essentially putting it in the eye of the beholder, gave it great strength and flexibility. This, however, created some conflict, which is at the heart of The Promise of American Wilderness. Turner chronicles not only the debate between those who wanted to protect wilderness and those who did not, but also the complex disagreements among different environmental groups and as well as between national and local organizations. There needs to be more work like this. The Promise of American Wilderness was my best read of 2015.  

Honorable mentions:

Leon Fink, The Long Gilded Age (2015). So much for Rebecca Edwards etal. and the Long Progressive Era. Fink reminds us that the economic system of the Gilded Age was hotly contested ground between labor and management. Their struggles shaped the socio-economic system as it emerged. He makes a case for contingency in that outcomes could have varied. In my humble opinion, Fink's workers had much more of a fighting chance than say those that Steven Fraser depicts in The Age of Acquiescence (2015). Fink also shines an international perspective on the era, and makes the case that labor would have benefited from doing so as well. For example, he argues that during the Homestead strike, American workers should have sought allies with British unions. Denying Andrew Carnegie his respectable safe haven in Skibbo Castle and applying public pressure on him in Great Britain could have yielded positive results. This is just one example of Fink's use of contingency that will surely generate thought.  

Elizabeth Sanders, The Roots of Reform (1999). I see this as something of a complement to David Sarasohn's The Party of Reform (1989). Both seek to turn the Progressive Era on its head. In the latter case, the author roots the reform spirit of the era in the Democratic Party, not the Republicans. Sanders further roots the reform movement in the agrarian/populist tradition, not the urban middle class. It was the farmers, she argues, who drove the Progressive movement. They had a broad vision for a democratic society, which was at odds with the much more narrow, restrictive, and conservative scope of the Gompers labor movement. 

Richard White, Railroaded (2011). Long ago I read an essay by Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) that argued that among the transcontinental railroads, only the Great Northern was a success because it did not accept any subsidies from the Federal government. The other railroads were corrupt, poorly managed boondoggles that survived only because the government propped them up. Rand was making a libertarian case against state interference in business. White likewise argues that the railroads were nothing more than a fraudulent scheme, although he comes at it from the left with a strong post-2008 perspective. Playing with house money and supported by public bailouts, White argues that the transcontinental railroad system was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme to route money from the public treasury into the pockets of select investors. And they were select investors who conned others (including their former pals) when it suited them. The amoral, apolitical railroads backed whatever best served the financial interests of their investors. As where previous generations of historians saw the completion of the transcontinental railroad as a triumph of American progress, White sees a complicated, bloated, unnecessary, and unsustainable system that sapped the treasury for decades. It was, in short, a national tragedy in his telling.     

Mark W. Summers, Ordeal of the Reunion (2015). Summers is one of my favorite historians. He is a master dealing with sources and he has a great sense of humor. Summers is one of the few historians who really does make me chuckle out loud.  Summers makes a case that Reconstruction was more of a success than we tend to view it. He argues that the primary purpose of Reconstruction was to bring the union back together after the war without slavery or a slave power. In this, he stresses, it succeeded. There really was little political will even at the height of Radical Reconstruction to completely re-make southern society. Ordeal of Reunion examines the importance of the west (as a source of conflict and investment that drained the north of political and economic will), the economy (especially the Panic of 1873 which devastated the south, especially freedmen), and corruption (which was a real problem in some Reconstruction governments). This will give me a new perspective for when we get to Reconstruction in class much later this spring. 

Lastly, non-History:

Thomas Merton, The Seeds of Contemplation (1962). I picked this up in September after seeing Pope Francis's speech before Congress. As a Catholic I had some passing knowledge of Merton, but I had not read anything he had written. Seeds is a powerful book. It is not something one reads start to finish. Instead, one reads it slowly a paragraph at a time. I have spent weeks contemplating a single paragraph in this remarkable book.