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.
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