Yesterday’s post on the scarves and “leg sweaters” on the horse statues prompted CAA member Eric Sanders to write. He told me that he and a couple of friends had enjoyed the story and photos … and that one of his knitting friends had made him a nine-foot-long scarf. Which, as you would imagine, would be perfect for this cold weather we’re all having.

He also sent a link to a story that makes our current cold weather and snow seem downright manageable by comparison.

This story appeared in last Sunday’s edition (Feb. 6) of The Star-Ledger newspaper, out of Newark, New Jersey. 

Blizzard of 1888 Makes Our Winter Woes Look Like Tempests in a Teapot

by Amy Ellis Nutt (The Star-Ledger)

Cattle froze where they stood. “A veritable rain of sparrows” fell dead from the eaves of buildings onto the sidewalks, according to one hotel guest watching from his window.

Commerce stood still, thousands were stranded in the snow, wind and ice.

The headline said it all: BLIZZARD WAS KING

The date was March 13, 1888, and the story in the New York Sun told a tale of desperation that nearly 123 years later is familiar to all New Jerseyans who have weathered a month of storms: “The Metropolis Helpless … Plays, Trials, Funerals all Postponed. Fifty Train Loads of Passengers Stuck on the Main Lines.”

There have been bigger snowfalls, stronger winds and lower temperatures, but never the devastating combination of all three, over such an extended period of time, and affecting so many people — ten states and a full quarter of the population of nineteenth-century America.

So if you think this winter has been bad, picture the Saturday March morning when no one suspected the horror that was coming.

Sunshine bathed much of the East Coast that day with temperatures reaching into the 50s, according to weather records. It had been a mild winter, and the New York City newspapers noted that, a week before the official start of spring, daffodils were already in bloom and robins had been spotted in the trees in Central Park.

As businesses shuttered on a balmy evening, a small team of U.S. Signal Service officers, the forerunners of today’s weather service, received the last forecast of the day from headquarters in Washington, D.C. All indications were for “fair weather, followed by rain” over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

The New York City weather station closed shop at 10 p.m. Saturday. In observance of the Sabbath, it would not reopen until 5 p.m. the next day.

What the Signal Service officers could not know was that the weather would change with shattering force in the intervening seventeen hours. A warm low-pressure system from the south was about to turn away from the Atlantic and rumble its way north, instead, up the coast. At the same time an arctic air system was churning down from the north.

Fifteen million Americans living between Maryland and Maine had no idea the two massive weather systems were about to collide just off the coast of New Jersey.

Sunday morning, March 10, broke gray and rainy. Dark clouds clung to a low, smothering sky and the air was filled with electricity. Years later, a New Jersey minister wrote anonymously that it “was as if the unholy one himself was riding in on those clouds.”

By 3 p.m., rain began to fall in the metropolitan area and, as the temperature plummeted, it turned to sleet. Just after midnight the wind picked up, the sleet turned to snow and the dry, light snow began to pile up.

It did not stop for nearly three days.

In 1888, much like today, the country was mired in a recession. Because employees were often paid by the hour, when New Yorkers and New Jerseyans awoke Monday morning to snowdrifts outside their doors, many of them still tried to make their way to work.

Some died trying.

Two-thirds of the nearly 2,500 workers who had shown up for work at the Singer Sewing Machine plant in Elizabeth were dismissed at 1:20 p.m., but three, trying to walk several blocks to the train station, were overcome and collapsed in the snow and died. Three others, all young men who lived across the sound in Staten Island, tried to row back home, but were blown off course. Two died and the third, James Marshall, 17, would have his frostbitten hands and feet amputated two days later, according to the Sun.

In Milltown, a man went to get a doctor for his sick wife and was later found frozen to death. When neighbors eventually reached the house, they found the man’s wife had also died.

Street trolleys blew over. Horse-drawn carts were abandoned. And 15,000 railway passengers were stranded on New York City’s elevated tracks. Chain-like collisions occurred when locomotives stalled unable to tunnel through the drifts. At least a dozen railway workers were killed.

In Camden, at low tide, the high winds blew the water right out of the Delaware riverbed. One ferry, full of passengers, became mired in the mud in the middle of the channel.

In Brooklyn, it was reported that three funeral processions on their way to Greenwood Cemetery were stopped by the drifts and the hearses abandoned.

Glass from shattered windows and bricks from chimneys blown apart by the wind, showered anyone passing below.

Julius Hollander of Boston was visiting his parents in New York City and later wrote that he “found the snow on one of the streets was so deep it had to be tunneled to get across.” And in Jersey City, postman William Galway wrote that the day after the storm, at the corner of Palisade Avenue and Elliott Place, he walked up a bank of snow and sat down on top of a lamppost.

Forty-five inches of snow fell in New Haven, Conn., and twenty-two inches in New York City. The highest reported drift was fifty-two feet in Gravesend, Long Island.

In 1888, all the city’s communication systems — telephone and telegraph — were above ground, as were many of the gas and water lines. A citywide web of overhead wires was destroyed by the wind and ice and by Monday all of New York’s 6,900 telephone lines were dead. The city’s 10,000 bars, however, stayed open until the liquor ran dry.

Memories of the Great White Hurricane, as it came to be known, were shared by thousands of members of the Blizzard Men of ’88, a club that met annually for many years.

More permanent reminders were the many babies born around the time of the storm who bore unusual names like Snowflake, Snowdrop, Snowdrift and yes, even Blizzard.

At least four hundred people died in the 1888 storm, and many bodies were not found until the snow melted.

Were a similarly devastating mix of snow, wind, and bitter cold to strike today, the loss of life would almost certainly be a fraction of what it was in those dark meteorological days, when the science of forecasting was in its infancy.

“We shouldn’t be caught unprepared for those sorts of storms,” said state climatologist David Robinson, who called that winter season 123 years ago “horrific.” “We have satellites, we have radar, we have ground observations, and we have forecast models that can find these storms a week before they’re generated. It certainly gives the authorities a heads-up.”

Even so, Robinson said, the weather has a way of tossing knuckle balls, and a degree or two can make the difference between a gentle snowfall and rain that freezes on contact, turning roads and sidewalks glassy.

“We have to remember it’s still nature out there,” he said, “and nature’s not tamed or fully understood.”

What was clear from the catastrophe that hit the Eastern states more than a century ago was that Americans, by and large, are resilient even in the most dire situations.

The female entertainers of the Lily Clay Gaiety Company certainly were. Stranded in the Jersey City train station on their way to a show in Reading, Pa., the women made the best of it for three days by breaking out the cards on Monday. An all-night poker game became an all-day poker game on Tuesday, according to the New York Sun, with the women using gumdrops and licorice bought at the station’s candy store for chips.

The marathon game continued, hour after hour, with spirits high, and only ended by necessity — when the players finally ate all the “chips.”


To see a photo of a wagon being dug out of the snow after the 1888 blizzard, click here: