The Blizzard of 1888

by Tom Seymour

Snowdrifts, in some cases, reached 50 feet, essentially burying smaller houses and trapping residents inside for the duration. The U.S. Army Signal Corps in Washington, D.C., gave out the following forecast: “Fresh-to-brisk winds, with rain and fair weather throughout the Atlantic states.” Photo courtesy Maine Historical Society

The snowstorm later named “The Blizzard of 1888” was the most powerful recorded blizzard in American history. It certainly was the most memorable.

Light snow began falling up and down the East Coast on the afternoon of March 11, 1888. Up until that point, people were thinking of an early spring, because temperatures had already reached the 50-degree mark. No one had anticipated a record-breaking, history-making storm of such unheard-of proportions.

By the following morning, snow depths had reached 18 inches in parts of New York and New England. And it kept on snowing. Over 33 inches of snow had accumulated by midnight on March 13. Snowdrifts, in some cases, reached 50 feet, essentially burying smaller houses and trapping residents inside for the duration. The blizzard left land and wandered out to sea after giving East Coast cities a 96-hour pounding.

Perfect Storm

The great blizzard may well deserve the classification of a “perfect storm.” Two strong weather systems were set to merge, with disastrous results. A mass of super-cold arctic air sliding in from Canada and a mass of warm air emanating from the Gulf of Mexico combined just off the New Jersey coast. This brought a wind shift that ushered in hurricane-force winds.

The light rain, which most considered a harbinger of spring, turned to snow as the temperature dropped. Waves quickly grew to over 15 feet as the winds dismasted ships at sea, ripped vessels from their anchorages and drove freighters aground. Some vessels were upended as the above-water sections became so heavily encrusted with ice that they turned over.

And yet, the country’s major weather station, operated by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Washington, D.C., gave out the following forecast: “Fresh-to-brisk winds, with rain, will prevail, followed by brisk westerly winds and fair weather throughout the Atlantic states.”

Talk about getting it wrong. The predicted “fair weather” turned instead into a blizzard with wind speeds at times hitting 100 miles per hour and subzero temperatures. The east coast from Virginia to Maine was paralyzed. Telegraph and telephone contact was interrupted as wind and driving snow snapped lines. Food deliveries were rendered impossible because of the mountains of snow that filled roads and fire stations were rendered impotent and unable to respond to fires. Water and gas lines, which at the time were above ground, froze solid and repair was not possible until well after the blizzard. Property damage reached $25 million.

Storm Consequences

Main St.,Thomaston, Maine, March 1888. Clearing city streets and sidewalks required people with shovels, since the only snow plows were mounted on the nose of railroad locomotives. Photo courtesy Maine Historical Society

Clearing city streets and sidewalks required people with shovels, since the only snow plows were mounted on the nose of railroad locomotives. And even these were often rendered impotent because the snow depth was so great. As ironic as it sounds, many railroad engines were so badly stuck in snow that the only recourse was to resort to shoveling by hand in order to free them.

Some trains derailed because of heavy snow. Fifty trains were stranded for days between New York City and Albany and on Long Island New York and Connecticut. Many passengers died in their efforts to walk to safety. In New York City, the elevated rail line was immobilized. One elevated train derailed, killing many of the passengers and crew.

New York and New Jersey made use of their immigrant populations to shovel snow. Some 17,000 people shoveled 24 million yards of snow from metropolitan streets. Contemporary photos show people and their snow shovels standing by mountains of hand-shoveled snow.

The toll on human lives was tremendous. Nine hundred people in all lost their lives to the storm, many of them frozen to death. Of these 900 (numbers vary on this one and 900 was the maximum number of deaths mentioned. Some sources mention 400 deaths) deaths, losses at sea accounted for 100 of them. A total of 200 vessels ran aground.

The big cities weren’t the only places to suffer from the great blizzard. Troy, New York, saw 55 inches of snow and Keene, New Hampshire, suffered 36 inches. These totals do not reflect drifts, which were many times the actual snow depth. Some drifts reached an unheard-of 50 feet.

Maine, too, got hammered by the blizzard, but for Mainers a snowfall of 20 inches was inconvenient but not crippling. The bulk of people in Maine and northern New England lived in rural areas and the main occupation was farming. Farmhouses were built with an ell connecting house to outbuildings. This allowed farmers to tend to their stock without having to go outside.

The worst of the snow fell on an area encompassing southern and western New York, the southern end of Vermont, south-central Connecticut, extreme northern New Jersey and south-central Massachusetts. There, snow piled up on the level to depths of 40 inches. Central New York, central Vermont and southern New Hampshire, western Massachusetts and the rest of Connecticut saw depths of 20 – 40 inches. Northern and central New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, the balance of New York except the extreme western part, eastern Massachusetts, northern and central sections of Vermont and New Hampshire and parts of western and southern Maine saw 10 – 20 inches.

In a New York City suburb, a man recorded walking a mile from his home on snowshoes, to buy groceries. Not realizing how tall the drifts were, he suddenly got a full dose of reality when he noticed that he was walking over the tops of 60-foot trees.

When melting began shortly after the blizzard, flood-prone areas were inundated. In the cities, snow removal crews had no choice but to push the snow into the sea, compounding the flooding problem. It was well into April before signs of the great blizzard began to dissipate. Nonetheless, it was reported that one mountain of snow remained until July.

Lessons Learned

At the time of the 1888 blizzard, telegraph wires were hung on poles in New York City. Poles snapped in the hurricane-force winds, disrupting communication. New York and Boston were thrust back to the days before electronic communications.

Also, disaster also befell New York’s telegraph system. Changes were later made and telegraph, water and gas lines were buried rather than hung on poles. Several catastrophic events prior to 1888 put the idea of removing poles and burying lines on the front burner, but unfortunately no action was taken.

It required a natural force like the great blizzard to finally convince city governments that moving train lines underground had merit. The poles finally came down in the early 1890s. And public transportation followed suit. Boston began construction on its subway system in 1895 and the city’s subway system, the first in the nation, opened on September 1, 1897. New York City opened its subway system in 1904.

The great blizzard of 1888 left an indelible mark on the northeast. No one who lived through it ever forgot it and groups of survivors met on an annual basis until no one was left.

The great blizzard left its mark in history books. But even today, so many years later, we must never forget that what happened once could happen again. But let’s hope that a repeat performance is many years away.