THE GREAT BLIZZARD OF 88 Part 2: THE GREAT BLIZZARD BURIES FATHER KNICKERBOCKER
Although the Blizzard of 88 paralyzed New England and much of New York State and New Jersey, the City of New York took the greatest hit, though not necessarily the greatest snowfall. The storm brought America's largest city (and technically its fourth largest city as well since Brooklyn was a separate municipality) to its collective knees and a dead halt as the snow filled the street canyons.
The Blizzard of 1888, New York City Courtesy US Library of Congress
The day prior to the blizzard's start (10 March), most New Yorkers were thinking of spring. Trees were budding in new leaf, grass was growing again. Many enjoyed a mild ( 45 oF / 7.2 oC) and mostly sunny Saturday. As the storm began to develop hundreds of miles (kilometres) to the south, New Yorkers woke Sunday (March 11) to cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid-30s. The high would reach 42 oF (5.6 oC) by noon, but temperatures begin to slowly drop thereafter. By mid-afternoon, as ENE winds blew off the Atlantic waters, rain began to fall. The meteorological observatory in Central Park recorded 0.65 inches (16.5 mm) of rain for the day. Then shortly after midnight, the rain turned to sleet (likely a mix of rain, snow and freezing rain) and snow as the wind shifted to the NW and the temperature began a freefall from 33 oF (0.6 oC) at midnight to 14 oF (-10 oC) at noon, and finally to 8 oF (-13.3 oC) by midnight.
Day 1: Monday 12 March
The blizzard raged through the night; contemporary reports suggest it was a fine, dry snow. The heavy snowfall during those hours, accompanied by wind reaching 50 mph (80 km/h), piled up snow unevenly in the city's street canyons. In places, southern sidewalks were swept bare of snow while huge drifts 15 to 20 feet (4.6 to 6.1 m) high buried northern sidewalks, often covering the stoops of the brownstone abodes on the usually sunny side of the street. When New Yorkers awoke that morning, many faced the daunting task of braving the elements to get to their work.
The time was one of economic depression, and anyone staying home for something as trivial as weather faced the loss of their job. Though many left home, few successfully reached their destination. According to the 24 March issue of Harper's Weekly: "Those who could open their front door in the morning, without admitting a snowdrift of a very respectable size, poked their heads out for a moment, and in a majority of cases decided to stay home for that day, and let business run itself."
Park Place, Brooklyn Courtesy US National Weather Service Historic Photo Collection
The storm winds slung the falling snow into into railway switches and doorways, packing it up against the doors and sifted it through window frames. They piled snow in tall drifts at street corners and molded it into hard mounds around elevated stations. To make matters worse for the morning rush, the storm increased in intensity between 7 and 9 am. Those out on the streets faced biting winds and blinding snow. Pedestrians were often blown off their feet and forced to crawl through areas where the urban canyon effect accelerated the wind flow. If the danger was not great enough from the direct attack of the elements, the storm added debris by shattering glass windows, breaking off chimneys and signs, and tearing off roof shingles. With a temperature of 22 oF (-5.5 oC) and winds around 50 mph (28 km/h), those exposed outdoors faced windchills of -3 oF (-19 C) by today's calculations. Many received frostbite on exposed skin as the chill deepened during the day. By noon, the windchill was likely around -10 oF (-23.3 C).
Under the weight of snow and ice and the force of the gusting winds, the lines and poles comprising the city's communications systems began to break. Before long, the city was virtually cut off from the rest of the nation, much to the consternation of the Associated Press reporters who sat on the biggest story of the year.
As the snow accumulated, the transportation system slowed, then stopped altogether. Both rail and road transport ceased for days. Trains could not move, even with the use of multiple locomotives. In New York City, rail transport ceased for days. With almost all transportation, save by foot, halted, many New Yorkers huddled in their homes facing dwindling foot and fuel supplies.
Commuter trains from the city's northern environs, came to Manhattan via a curved railroad cut near Spuyten Duyvil. In the early morning hours, a train from Croton pulling seven passenger cars plowed into a snowdrift across the middle of the cut and became struck. With the rail line blocked, eight other trains lined up behind the first, caught until the track could be cleared, which did not happen until Wednesday.
Elsewhere in New York City, a loaded passenger train on the Sixth Avenue elevated line failed to make the run from 18th to 14th Street, taking nearly six and a half hours to travel two blocks. Many passengers paid twenty-five cents to use a wobbly ladder placed by two enterprising New Yorkers to escape the stalled train. The ladder was too short to reach the platform and thus placed on two wooden boxes to gain the needed height. Despite the scary descent, the men had good business and walked away with over $100 in quarters. The practice spread along the elevated line, and fares reportedly escalated to $2 per person.
Harper's Weekly reported:
"At four o'clock in the morning the snow came so fast that five minutes sufficed to obliterate the footprints of a man or a horse in the streets. Car after car became stalled on the surface roads. At sunrise the city was snowed under. Nine o'clock saw the submission of the elevated roads to the irresistible storm. The switches were clogged by the fine snow, which was blown into the minutest crevices, and the tracks were overspread with ice. In the early morning there had been a collision on the Third Avenue road, and an engineer had been killed."
The article continued:
"The city wore a strange aspect. In such a great thoroughfare as the Bowery there was almost no life and movement saving such as the storm furnished. There was no roar and rattle of trains overhead, no clatter of hoofs and jingle of bells in the street below. The air was strangely darkened, something as it was at the time of an eclipse. Occasionally a vehicle or a man on horseback lumbered through the drifts, but locomotion was chiefly performed on foot. It was difficult to see, difficult to breathe, and difficult to keep the frost out of the ears. There was no going in and out of shops, which had been tightly sealed up by the snow. The drifts were littered with broken shafts and wheels, with barber poles, cigar-store Indians, and other fallen signs. Canvas awnings and signs that still swung snapped and creaked in concert with the whistle and swish of the sixty-mile wind and its icy freight. A stranded horse-car lifted its bulk here and there among the other wreckage, and the Bowery contained further in the way of abandoned vehicles two of Uncle Sam's red mail wagons and a huge truck piled up with eighty frozen carcasses of hogs."
On the Brooklyn Bridge, foolhardy pedestrians negotiated the bridge by dragging themselves hand over hand, clinging to the railings in the numbing gale. Fearing someone would be blown off the bridge or be caught on it and die of exposure, the police eventually closed the bridge to all traffic. In the freezing temperatures, an ice-bridge formed over the East River, and, with the Brooklyn Bridge closed, several thousand persons crossed on foot between New York and Brooklyn. Eventually the floe broke apart with the turn of the tide, catching five men on small fragments. A tugboat was summoned to rescue them from drifting out to sea.
View across the Brookyn Bridge during the Blizzard of '88 Courtesy US Library of Congress
Ironically, the early-morning edition of the New York Tribune reported the forecast for the day as: "clearing and colder, preceded by light snow." Most, however, did not see that Monday weather headline, "since their papers were buried underneath a mountain of snow." The New York Times proclaimed the storm was one which most New Yorkers had never seen before: "For the first time in their lives they knew what a western blizzard was."
Those who did make it to work that morning found no one there or no work to do, and most soon left to return home. But they found returning even more daunting. Horse-drawn streetcars lay abandoned in the streets, and the elevated railway had also ground to a complete halt. All but a few brave cabdrivers had given up, and those that did offer rides did so at exorbitantly inflated rates. "Twenty dollars was paid for a conveyance from the Astor House to Madison Square, and forty dollars for a cab from Wall Street to Fifth Avenue Hotel," according to Harper's Weekly. (Just to get an idea how outrageous that was, the $20-40 fare, would be equivalent to $450-900 in 2007; an average laborer earned $1 per day.) But more often than not, even the carriages and wagons could not negotiate the litter-filled streets. In addition to the wind-driven snow, many streets were clogged with fallen business signs, barber poles, cigar-store Indians, and downed or sagging overhead wires and poles.
Mass of telegraph wires line Wall Street as seen from New Street Courtesy US Library of Congress
As a result, hotels, lodging houses, and clubs quickly filled to capacity, in many cases turning ballrooms, parlors, and corridors into makeshift sleeping areas. Reportedly, the Astor House turned away 400 people who sought shelter. Others, including wealthy bankers and businessmen, found shelter in jail, sleeping on cots provided by the police. Another three hundred spent the night in Grand Central Station, some waiting for trains that never came. Over two dozen trains were stalled in the storm outside the city, including ten in northern Manhattan.
Schools closed. "The Custom-house, and the Clearing-house, the Sub-Treasury, the Stock-Exchange, and all the other exchanges were without business on the day of the blizzard, and were closed by noon. In the Produce Exchange only ninety-five members appeared upon the floor: the average daily attendance is seventeen hundred" (Harper's Weekly). On Wall Street, only 30 of 1100 traders made it to the Exchange floor. Just five stocks were traded, a total of 15,200 shares. Normal trading activity accounted for 150,000-200,000 shares per day. On Tuesday, only 2,000 shares changed hands before trading was suspended for the day. The few brokers who showed up that day, whiled away the afternoon with a makeshift game of baseball using a ball of yarn and a heavy cane.
City Hall had no mayor as Abraham Hewitt remained at home; court houses had no juries nor judges. Most stores and businesses never opened or quickly closed due to lack of employees and customers. Saloons were the exception as many men caught out on the street sought shelter therein. They did such record business that the police were kept busy administering to drunken pedestrians passed out in snowbanks.
The New York City Post Office had few letters to deliver as not many made their way into the building from local or out-of-town sources, and the letter carriers were sent home. In Brooklyn, more than twenty letter carriers were found unconscious in snowbanks having succumbed to the adverse conditions.
By nightfall, the city resembled a deserted arctic landscape, no street lights cut through the darkness nor reflected off the deep snow, now measured at 17 inches (43.2 cm) of accumulation. Those that did venture out faced life-threatening conditions. One policeman found four girls lying on the sidewalk near City Hall and pulled them to shelter in a hotel nearby. Some who had ventured out either became lost or collapsed from exhaustion and died in snowdrifts. One such victim was George Barremore, a 47-year old merchant who was found Tuesday morning dead in a drift just four blocks from his home.
Another victim of the storm was Roscoe Conkling lawyer, Republican Party kingpin, and former US Senator from New York. Conkling had pushed through the storm that morning for a court hearing on a high-profile case only to find out that the judge was snowbound and had rescheduled the hearing for Tuesday. The perturbed lawyer then returned to his Wall Street office where he worked until 6 pm.
Leaving the office, Conkling tried to hail a cab to take him home to the New York Club at Madison Square. When faced with a $50 fare, the tempestuous and stubborn Conkling refused and set out on foot for the New York Club in the company of William Sulzer, a young lawyer who would later become Governor of New York. They struggled up Broadway with Conkling breaking the trail to the Astor Hotel where Sulzer took his leave. Two miles (3.2 km) out, in storm and darkness, Conkling reached Union Square where he sank into the snow to his armpits. After a twenty minute struggle to free himself, the exhausted lawyer continued on his journey home. Eventually, after a three-hour trek, he finished the 2.5 mile (4 km) journey. Though an "athletic man for 59 years-old with trained muscles and a powerful frame," Conkling was spent from the ordeal and collapsed into unconsciousness once inside the door.
The next day, however, found Conkling back in courts against the advice of his doctors. He continued working until the end of March when he became sick in court with a high fever and pain. His doctors diagnosed an abscess in the inner ear. They ascribed the abscess, high fever and subsequent delirium to his struggle through the blizzard. On 17 April, the former Senator lapsed into a coma, dying at 2 am the next morning.
Day 2: Tuesday 13 March
The snowfall diminished overnight, tapering off to flurries by early Tuesday morning. The total snowfall for the two days would be officially pegged at 21 inches (53 cm) in Central Park, but Brooklyn measured 26 inches (66 cm). Outside the city, Mount Vernon received 36 inches (91 cm); White Plains, 32 inches (81 cm); and New Rochelle, 23 inches (58 cm). On Long Island, Babylon was buried under 36 inches (91 cm); Glen Clove, and Patchogue, under 33 inches (84 cm).
The front page of the New York Times·for Tuesday March 13 1888 read:
IN A BLIZZARD'S GRASP.
The worst storm the city has ever known.
Business travel completely suspended.
"New York helpless in a tornado of wind and snow which paralyzed all industry, isolated the city from the rest of the country, caused many accidents and great discomfort, and exposed it to many dangers."
If Day 1 could be called the "Day of the Snow," Day 2 would properly be called the "Day of the Shovel" as city staff and residents began the process of digging out of the huge mounds of snow. On many streets, the snow built up like ramparts with great piles of snow on either side of the roadway. Harper's Weekly commented that "Six-footers on one sidewalk could not see six-footers on the sidewalk opposite. It looked like miles and miles of white fortifications put up with no better purpose than to protect basement windows of houses that nobody meant to attack." In some areas, snow had drifted to second story windows, and everywhere wind-blown debris and abandon vehicles littered the streets.
45th Street and Grand Central Depot, New York, Blizzard, March 1888. Courtesy US National Weather Service Historic Photo Collection
To get around, some residents turned to skis and snowshoes, and horse-drawn and hand-drawn sleighs began the task of getting commerce restarted, at least within the city. One woman marvelled at the sight of sleighs passing over the snowbanks at the level of her second-story windows. By afternoon, the elevated railways again began to run.
"Ice, groceries, coal, meat everything except milk, of which there was none were delivered in sleighs. Broadway was full of fine sleighs. In the Bowery there was a great deal of tandem driving and horseback riding, all strictly in the way of business. Milk was the greatest want, though there were few eggs and little coal," reported Harper's Weekly. In a usual day, 600,000 to 700,000 quarts (litres) of milk were consumed in the city. What milk there was rose in price, grocers demanded and got 10-15 cents for a quart, a steep rise from the usual 2 to 3 cents.
Scene on 11th Street looking west Courtesy US National Weather Service Historic Photo Collection
Food, in general, was scarce in some parts of the city as many neighborhood stores usually restocked their shelves on Monday. The storm, however, had made delivery from the wholesale houses impossible. Meat, for example, was likely in normal quantities at the meat wholesalers, but they could not get the product to butchers. A few butchers tried to service their customers, few of whom made it to the shops. One enterprising butcher slung a side of beef over a horse and went up and down the street, cutting off slabs at customer's requests and charging them what the market would bear often double or more the usual price.
The storm particularly affected the slums in New York's East Side where immigrant families lived day to day, buying their coal and food daily and in small quantities. Many shops raised their prices, doubling the price of coal. The New York Times lamented that "Eggs sold at 40 cents, wretched butter at 60 cents, the poorest beefsteak called steak only by the most barefaced mendacity for 30 cents a pound." (40 cents is $9 today; 30 cents, $6.75; 60 cents, $13.50)
Though the storm caused hardships in obtaining provisions for the poor, it paradoxically also had a benefit for them. The city, and others such as street car companies and street cleaning agencies, offered any man or boy who could lift a shovel work at $2 or more per day, double the normal laborer's wage. The biggest windfall came to those who could find shovelling jobs from private homeowners and shopkeepers who paid as much as $10 a day ($225 today). The work of clearing the streets required thousands of laborers, and the work was still going strong on Friday, the 16th. City officials estimated that 20 million cubic feet (560,000 cubic metres) of snow covered city streets.
Four of the thousands of men and boys hired to shovel snow. Courtesy US National Weather Service Historic Photo Collection
Fire was a constant fear as fire departments could not respond quickly and when they did arrive, hydrants were often buried under mounds of snow. Fortunately only one major fire occurred the day of the blizzard and two on the 12th. In the worst on West 42nd Street, sixty families were forced into the street. Though the snowdrifts prevented the fire department from arriving on time to save the building, they did provide a cushion to residents jumping from upper-story windows to escape the blaze.
By late morning, a few ferries sailed to New Jersey, and when the elevated trains renewed service, some milk was able to be brought into the city from Newark and Paterson, New Jersey, and Jamaica, New York.
Though the snow has abated, the winds still blew, and the coldest temperatures of the week were experienced this day: a low of 6 oF (-14.4 oC) and high of 11 oF (-11.7 oC). Foot travel remained hazardous, compounded by the glaze of ice or polished snow on patches of wind-scoured pavement. Many people suffered injury after falling on the slick surfaces. Horses faired no better, and police reports indicated at least 20 were shot after breaking legs.
The New York Sun
Tuesday March 13th, 1888
BLIZZARD WAS KING.
The Metropolis Helpless Under Snow.
Hardly a Wheel Turns.
Business Knocked Flat as if By a Panic.
Plays, Trials, Funerals, all Postponed.
Fifty Train Loads of Passengers Stuck on the Main Lines.
Electric Lights Out.
Mighty Little News Got into Town or Got out of It.
Day 3: Wednesday 14 March
Day 3, according to Harper's Weekly, could be called "Bonfire Day." A novel approach to the problem of snow removal attributed by Harper's to "a Vase-Street store-keeper, who dug a hole in a snow heap and started a bon fire in it. Soon there was fire leaping up from snow heaps everywhere, and the gutters and sewers were working valiantly to carry the melted part of the city's burden to sea." The idea spread though hopefully not any of the fires and soon around the city fires burned to melt the adjacent snow.
Burning the snow, scene depicted in Harper's Weekly Courtesy US Library of Congress
At least no one suggested the solution reported, with tongue in cheek, by the White Mountain Republican: "The Mayor has issued a proclamation requiring each citizen to eat 10 cubic feet of snow a day until the roads are cleared."
Day 3 also saw the city reconnecting with the outside world. As the temperature rose to just above freezing in the afternoon, the barriers to travel were lowering. Wall Street resumed trading, milk delivers resumed, and trains ran on the Central and the Erie lines. Communications resumed with Boston by way of London, England.
The Final Days
With rising temperatures on 15 March, Day 4, a bright sun and the continuation of bonfires ate into the remaining snow. Soon puddles, then ponds, and finally lakes of meltwater began to appear. With nowhere to go, some of the water seeped into basements and flooded them. Brooklyn experienced the greatest flooding from the melt as the city was built on a series of hills and valley, making it vulnerable to flooding. By Friday the 16th, the cross-town street cars were again running, and some of the larger drifts had shrunk to just over 5 feet in height.
Hotel Martin, 9th Street Courtesy US National Weather Service Historic Photo Collection
As the snow melted, a number of the two hundred casualties in New York City emerged from the snowbanks. One was a twelve-year-old boy, thought to be a newsboy who had left the Howard House on Monday and not heard from since. An unknown man was dug out of a snowbank, alive but unconscious; he died in hospital. On Long Island, Samuel Randall, 80, went to the barn to feed the stock but because lost on his way back to the house. Two elderly women who were attending his sick wife went in search. They found him nearly frozen and tried to carry him into the house, but failed. They left him outside to save their own lives. In the morning when help came, he was found dead.
The storm took many tolls on New York City, Two hundred died at the hands of the storm and an uncounted number of injured. Property damage across the region was estimated at $25 million ($562 million in 2007 dollars) but losses to businesses were untallied. The New York City telegraph system was demolished, many of its poles and wires downed by the storm's fury. Western Union estimated damages at $100,000 ($2.2 million in 2007 dollars). Telephone and electric light wires suffered a similar fate. It was said that Mark Twain was in town and greatly angered by the storm as it caused the cancellation of a lucrative speaking engagement.
It would be many weeks before the deepest snow drifts finally disappeared; one tremendous drift lasted until July.
Mass of telegraph wires hand under weight of snow on Wall Street Courtesy US Library of Congress
City fathers assessed the resulting impacts of the blizzard and concluded that elevated roads and overhead communication and electric wires would not only be made useless by a severe storm, they became dangerous. As a result, the city moved closer to placing utility wires underground and replacing the elevated railways with a new concept: the underground railway or subway. The blizzard did not lead directly to these initiatives, all had been on the civic platter well before March 12, 1888, but it gave a needed push. In late January 1888, Mayor Hewitt had proposed that the city borrow the money to fund the construction of an electric subway. When Hugh Grant became Mayor in 1889, he too was committed to building a better rapid transit system. It was not until 1894 that a public referendum approved the allocation of public funds to build a subway system based on Hewitt's plan of six years earlier.
Outside Crandall's Toy Store, Pierpont St, Brooklyn, NY Courtesy US Library of Congress
For many children born during the blizzard, their parents named them in remembrance of the event with monikers such as "Snowflake," "Snowdrift," "Tempest," "Storm," "Snowdrop," and even "Blizzard."
The stories of the Blizzard of 88 in New York City are many, the event legendary. To preserve the memories of that storm, "The Blizzard Men of 1888" was founded as an organization to perpetuate the historical memory of the great storm. They met annually on 12 March for years; the last meeting was held in 1941. In 1939, Samuel Meredith Strong compiled a collection their reminiscences: The Great Blizzard of 1888. In it, Herbert W. Smith of New York City summed up the experience:
"I cannot tell of snowdrifts sixty feet high, I didn't measure them; but I do know that I walked over the tree-tops, and could not tell exactly whose land I was on, as the fences were not visible."