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The Great Blizzard of 1888
March 12, 2008 10:42 AM   Subscribe

According to the breathless headline in the New York Times, it was "THE WORST STORM THE CITY HAS EVER KNOWN. BUSINESS AND 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." It became known as The Great Blizzard of 1888, and it occurred on this date, March 12, 1888.

The Great Blizzard of 1888, also called The Great White Hurricaine, was a classic nor'easter. It raged for 3 days and completely paralyzed New York and New England, dumping more than 40" of snow and leaving several million residents in several states without access to food, stores, or transportation. It also had at least two notable lasting effects: because the storm wreaked havoc on New York City's burgeoning but vulnerable spiderweb of power and telegraph wires, it helped spur New York City's decision to place those wires underground, and it also lead the city of Boston to develop its subway system.
posted by mosk (38 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thank God, that's all it was. I thought it was INTL CAPS LOCK DAY ALREADY.
posted by psmealey at 10:46 AM on March 12, 2008


This write-up hurts my eyes.
posted by oddman at 10:47 AM on March 12, 2008


God they knew how to write a headline back then.

"Ho, No!" SNORT What, they're charging you for each character out of your paycheck?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:50 AM on March 12, 2008


The Great Blizzard of 2007 was on August 9th, about 3pm. It was hooot outside and the Oreo(r) flavored ice cream treat from Dairy Queen really hit the spot.
posted by birdherder at 10:55 AM on March 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Boston has a subway system? I mean, I know there's a few subway trains and all, but it can hardly be called a system. Especially if you count the green line *cough*lightrail*cough*.
posted by Eideteker at 10:57 AM on March 12, 2008


Some images of said blizzard.

A few years ago, after a blizzard of our own, I learned about this blizzard. I found pictures of how they used to clear the streets (which I can't find now, dammit), which was basically just a gang of men with shovels and a long line of horse-drawn carts. Now I think of that image every time I shovel my driveway. What a nightmare.
posted by DU at 10:58 AM on March 12, 2008


It caused great discomfort! GREAT DISCOMFORT!
posted by brain_drain at 11:02 AM on March 12, 2008


DU:

Couldn't find your pictures, but I found this:

New York and other cities responded in several ways. They hired horse-drawn carts and shovelers to work in conjunction with the plows, hauling away the plowed snow and dumping it into rivers. This not only cleared the mounds of snow, but provided thousands of temporary jobs throughout the winter season. In an effort to curtail the use of salt, which many still protested, streets and icy bridges were coated with sand instead. To appease all sides, New York in the 1880s built elevated steam railways along the major routes of the city, high enough that they would not be affected by the drifts. Still in operation today, these elevated tracks proved very successful, and carried travelers through all but a few of the most severe storms. Prior to the invention of the subway, the elevated trains were often the only transport service available in storms that halted all ground travel.

posted by nzero at 11:07 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for linking to the images, DU, I didn't think of that. They really convey the magnitude of the resulting snowfall.
posted by mosk at 11:07 AM on March 12, 2008


Here's one, anyway.
posted by nzero at 11:10 AM on March 12, 2008


And somehow, a hundred and twenty years later, that freak of weather has managed to get its shit together and take over the videogame industry. Brand New Day!
posted by cortex at 11:12 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


There are several in the NYPL digital collection, here.
posted by Phlogiston at 11:13 AM on March 12, 2008


It raged for 3 days and completely paralyzed New York and New England, dumping more than 40"

Come on! It was 1888. They weren't going that far anyway.
posted by psmealey at 11:13 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


We are in HURRICANE BRITAIN right now!!!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:15 AM on March 12, 2008


Nice post! For previous NYC-blizzard commentary (2003 vintage), complete with crackpot anti-global-warming derail, visit this thread. (That was a fun storm; I was still living in NYC then and had the day off from work.)
posted by languagehat at 11:16 AM on March 12, 2008


I really love the one with the stockbrokers standing, befuddled, in the middle of piles of snow with wires overhead. WHERE'S YOUR MESSIAH NOW, STOCKBROKERS OF 1888?
posted by DU at 11:16 AM on March 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


If the means of production and distribution were down how were they out writing, printing, and selling newspapers?
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:22 AM on March 12, 2008


Ironically enough, the front page of NYT online is all caps again, perhaps in commemoration of the anniversary.

So, in this Great Blizzard of yours, how many governors resigned on account of whores? That's what I thought. Some blizzard!
posted by bicyclefish at 11:39 AM on March 12, 2008


The Times' centennial story from 1988.

A collection of newspaper stories of the day (focusing on transit).

Reminiscence from the North Adams (Mass.) Transcript.

Incidentally, the word blizzard, though in use since the 1850s, did not become truly popular until the severe winter of 1880-81 (1881 N.Y. Nation 184 "The hard weather has called into use a word which promises to become a national Americanism, namely ‘blizzard’. It designates a storm (of snow and wind) which men cannot resist away from shelter"); the storm of 1888 gave it another boost.

If the means of production and distribution were down how were they out writing, printing, and selling newspapers?


I presume they had their own generators for the presses; as for the rest, legwork, man, legwork!
posted by languagehat at 11:44 AM on March 12, 2008


In 1888, they knew what it was like to suffer. Where they say 'great discomfort', modern papers would be screaming about 'THE ULTIMATE TRAGEDY!' or some such bullshit.

Interestingly, they tended to be a bit hyperbolic about 'best evers' and 'worst evers', which we've gotten away from, but they wildly understated physical challenges from a modern perspective. Being cold and in pain just weren't that a big a deal, where with us, well... hangnails aren't quite headline worthy. Yet. :)
posted by Malor at 11:58 AM on March 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


I was going to say that the presses were probably manual-cranked, but I see from Wikipedia that electric presses were invented in 1837, so.... that's a good question.
posted by Malor at 12:01 PM on March 12, 2008


When you click through the headline is longer than the article. Awesome.
posted by GuyZero at 12:33 PM on March 12, 2008


A few weeks ago we got nearly 18" of snow in a single day. It took me more than two hours to snow-blow my driveway.

I was pissed.

This helps to put that into perspective.
posted by quin at 12:44 PM on March 12, 2008


The headline is peculiar, to say the least. I mean, if you live in or near NYC when this happens, you already know aboutt the snow unless you're in a coma. Different times, different customs. Maybe it was common to pick up headlines and turn em into wire dispatches, I don't know. That's how it reads to me, is like a telegram.
posted by Mister_A at 12:45 PM on March 12, 2008


quin: "A few weeks ago we got nearly 18" of snow in a single day. It took me more than two hours to snow-blow my driveway. ... This helps to put that into perspective."

On the other hand, I bet you snowblowed more than everyone in 1888 combined.
posted by Plutor at 1:18 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


TRAGEDY!
When the feelings gone and you cant go on

ITS TRAGEDY!
When the morning cries and you dont know why
Its hard to bear
With no-one to love you youre
Goin nowhere
posted by elpapacito at 1:25 PM on March 12, 2008


Amen, malor. We barricade ourselves in our homes, and hoard Theraflu when the media reports about SARS, bird flu, and that lawyer guy that had drug resistant TB who went to Europe, but they handled with cholera, smallpox, typhoid, polio and scarlet fever, with aplomb and eloquence (at least if the films of Ken Burns are to be believed).
posted by psmealey at 1:27 PM on March 12, 2008


2006 blizzard set the record for most snow dumped on NYC, though. I had an appointment and had to trudge from mid-town down to the Bowery early in the morning. That was surreal. There was literally just me walking down the middle of the avenues at one point, waist-deep in fresh snow.
posted by meehawl at 1:27 PM on March 12, 2008


As a native Left Coaster, I was introduced to this storm via the weirdly charming children's book City of Snow. I say "weirdly charming" because the book is a long free verse poem about a century old blizzard; not typical kid lit material. Nonethless, our son loved it, and I suppose that book is the underlying inspiration for this post.

Thanks, LanguageHat, for your additions; they round out the thread very nicely.
posted by mosk at 1:53 PM on March 12, 2008


There is often confusion when discussing the "Blizzard of '88" because there were two remarkable, but separate events. The Northeast blizzard of March, and (the one that is still legend around these parts) the Jan. 12, 1888 event that was also called "The Schoolchildren's Blizzard". Stories from that storm were remarkable. The day began balmy and it struck with unbelievable force and intensity. It was "a perfect storm" and affected Texas to North Dakota plains states.

These were the early days of the National Weather Service and communications systems being what they were, there was no "national weather picture" such as those we take for granted today.
posted by spock at 2:17 PM on March 12, 2008


Thanks, LanguageHat, for your additions; they round out the thread very nicely.

And thank you for the Amazon link—I just ordered City of Snow for my four-year-old grandson!
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on March 12, 2008


Huh... I was in Boston all of last week, just returned home yesterday. Heard all about Paul Revere, the boston tea party, the Molasses Disaster, etc.... There was even a bit of "we had the first subway in America" bragging going on, but nothing about the blizzard which helped propel its construction. I suppose in a city rich with history, you gotta edit the tour guide spiel.

(On Boston: awesome city. I'm a bit jealous of any MeFites living there. I'd move there in a heartbeat... if only I could afford to live there. Christ, property is expensive.)
posted by C.Batt at 2:27 PM on March 12, 2008


Good page on the Children's Blizzard of '88 (Jan. 12):
http://www.islandnet.com/~see/weather/events/childrensblizzard.htm
See also the 4-1/2 star book: The Children's Blizzard.
posted by spock at 2:41 PM on March 12, 2008


I'm confused; this article takes place in New York of the 1800s, but there don't appear to be any giant negros running around.
posted by jonson at 3:27 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Combining yesteryear and today, we get the headline SNOW BLOWS, SPITZ QUITS.
posted by Frank Grimes at 8:04 PM on March 12, 2008


To appease all sides, New York in the 1880s built elevated steam railways along the major routes of the city, high enough that they would not be affected by the drifts

Oh, yeah, that solved everything. (The elevated trains were built to separate traffic and let trains cross town quickly, not for snow and ice concerns, which even today cause delays.)

When you click through the headline is longer than the article. Awesome.

Actually, there's a PDF of the entire article -- the blue button, lower left. All of the NYT up to around 1921 is free like this.
posted by dhartung at 11:44 PM on March 12, 2008


THIS IS A GOOD POST. THANK YOU FOR THE INTELLIGENT DISCUSSION.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 12:38 AM on March 13, 2008


C.Batt: "Huh... I was in Boston all of last week, just returned home yesterday. ... nothing about the blizzard which helped propel its construction. I suppose in a city rich with history, you gotta edit the tour guide spiel."

I think this is a little backwards. These articles are giving the blizzard a bit too much credit when it comes to the creation of the Boston subway system. The primary motivation was that the streetcars that were in common use in Boston in the second half of the 19th century were hampered by (and contributed to) severe congestion all over the city. One of the other light rail lines built around this time was the Boston Elevated Railway (which ended up becoming the parts of the Blue, Red, and Orange lines that are now above ground). If the blizzard had been a significant part of the motivation for eliminating streetcars, the El would have been a thoroughly idiotic solution.
posted by Plutor at 7:53 AM on March 13, 2008


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