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.