New York’s Deadliest Winter: The Great Blizzard of 1888

Struggling to make it through another snowy New York winter? Be grateful you’re not experiencing the Great Blizzard of 1888!

Also known as the Great White Hurricane, this epic snowstorm paralyzed transportation, disrupted communication, and isolated millions of people for up to a week. It was also the deadliest winter storm in U.S. history: More than 400 people perished in the blizzard, 200 of them in New York City alone.

Caught by Surprise

In the early hours of March 11, 1888, as northeasterners slept, a steady rain turned to sleet and then heavy snow. Although temperatures the day before had hovered in the mid-fifties over much of the area, residents awoke to a startling scene: Enormous snowdrifts blocked the streets; horse-drawn wagons were immobilized.

To make matters worse, telegraph wires snapped. Which means that all the major East Coast cities — which had been connected by telegraph for four decades — were suddenly cut off from each other.

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The Capital Region of New York began to see heavy snowfall in the early hours of Monday, March 12. Within 24 hours, more than two feet of snow had fallen. Two days later, Saratoga Springs was buried in a whopping 58 inches of snow. Troy received 55 inches, and Albany got 45. Drifting was a serious problem, as 50-mph winds buffeted the area.

In fact, snowfall records were set all over the Northeast that day. Throughout New England 20 to 40 inches piled up, and New Haven, Conn., got 45 inches.

In the Big Apple

New York City ground to a virtual halt in the face of massive snowdrifts and hurricane-strength winds. (At the time, approximately one in every four Americans lived in the area between Washington D.C. and Maine.)

By Tuesday, March 13, snow drifts in the city had reached the second story of some buildings. Nevertheless, many residents trudged out to New York’s popular elevated trains in an attempt to get to work. They didn’t make it very far, as many of the trains were blocked by snow and unable to move. That left about 15,000 New Yorkers stranded on the trains for hours on end. (Stories were told of enterprising individuals with ladders offering to rescue passengers for a small fee.)

Intense winds and ice on the tracks resulted in numerous accidents for those trains that were able to move at all. Railroad passengers across the Northeast faced similar problems. Trains derailed, crashed, or simply became immobile for days, some with hundreds of suddenly stranded passengers. From Pennsylvania northward, railroads ceased operations.

The Problem with Power Lines

At that time, New York City had thousands of telegraph, telephone and power poles holding up webs of wires overhead. Some of these poles were almost 100 feet tall and carried up to 20 wires each. These came crashing down under the force of the wind and the weight of snow and ice. They ignited fires and left twisted, sizzling piles of debris on the snowy streets.

With communication severely compromised, people had no way of knowing the extent of the storm or what was to come. Before the storm was over, the city was lit only by gas and candlelight.

Simply walking the streets was perilous, due to extremely strong winds and dangerously low temperatures. Wall Street was forced to close for three straight days, when only 30 people out of 1,000 showed up for work. Residents were collapsing in snow drifts and dying. New York Sen. Roscoe Conkling was among the victims.

When the East River froze over, some brave souls attempted to cross it on foot. That  proved to be a terrible idea. Tides changed and broke up the ice, stranding them on ice floes in the middle of the river.

For most cities affected by the storm the most immediate problem was how to clear the streets. Snow drifts were simply too tall for horse-drawn plows to move through. In many areas (such as Saratoga), tunnels were dug through the snow to allow residents to pass.

The Mother of Invention

In addition to its horrendous death toll, the Great Blizzard of 1888 caused $20 million in property damage to New York City alone (about $725 million in today’s dollars).

The great blizzard provided visible evidence to officials of the dangers posed by above-ground power lines. In the wake of the storm, telegraph, electric and gas lines were ordered to be moved below ground.

Cities like Boston and New York also began making plans to move public transportation underground, as well. Boston began laying subway tracks in 1895, opening the country’s first subway system in 1897. New York City followed suit in 1904. That system is still in use today.

Legendary Status

For generations afterward, all weather events were measured against the Great Blizzard of 1888. Northeasterners would relate their memories of the storm to their children and grandchildren.

The iconic snow storm was memorable for another reason, too. For perhaps the first time, millions of Americans who relied on modern technology for their daily lives realized how fragile it could be.


Saratoga Living

Earth Magazine

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