Posts Tagged ‘Blizzard of 1888’

Chronicling a city “shrouded and mute in snow”

February 10, 2014

JosemartiMarch 11, 1888, a Sunday, had started out spring-like, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees by noon. But afternoon rain turned to evening sleet, then heavy snow overnight.

New York’s surprise blizzard of 1888 had set upon the city. Before the 60 mile-per-hour winds and blinding snow ended on Tuesday, 20 inches would blanket the metropolis, paralyzing the city for days and killing about 200 people.

During the blizzard, Jose Marti wrote. Marti (above photo) was a Cuban journalist who had moved to New York in 1881 after leading his country’s fight for independence from Spain.

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In exile, Marti wrote dispatches about life in New York for Spanish-language newspapers and continued his fight for Cuban freedom. He chronicled the “white hurricane” for the Argentinian paper La Nacion in searing, poetic language, capturing a city stuck without the communication and transportation systems it greatly depended on.

Blizzardmadisonave“[T]he first straw hats were just beginning to be seen on the streets of New York along with the glad, bright clothes of Easter, when the city opened its eyes one morning shaken by the roar of a storm, and found itself shrouded, mute, empty, buried in snow.”

“The snow was knee deep, and the drifts waist-high. The angry wind nipped at the hands of pedestrians, knifed through their clothing, froze their noses and ears, blinded them, hurled them backward into the slippery snow, its fury making it impossible for them to get to their feet, flung them hatless and groping for support against the walls, or left them to sleep, to sleep forever, under the snow.”

On Tuesday, a shaken city began to dig out. Trains that had been grounded resumed running, and residents set out to their workplaces.

“The elevated train, encamped for two days in sinister vigil next to the corpse of an engineer who set out to defy its gale, is running again, creaking and shivering over the treacherous rails that gleam and flash.”

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“This city of snow dotted with brick-red houses is terrible and astonishing, as if flowers of blood were suddenly to bloom on a shroud. The telegraph poles broadcast and contemplate the mess, their lines lying in tangles on the ground like disheveled heads.”

Blizzard14thst6thave“The city awoke this morning without milk, coal, mail, newspapers, streetcars, telephones, or telegraphs. . . . All businesses are closed, and the elevated train, that false marvel, struggles in vain to take the angry crowds that pack the stations to work.”

“The city is coming back to life, burying its dead, and pushing back the snow with the chests of horses and men, the ploughs of locomotives, and buckets of boiling water, sticks, planks, bonfires. And there is a feeling of immense humility and sudden goodness, as if the hand we all must fear has resting on all men at once.”

After the blizzard, Marti continued to write and push for Cuban independence, returning to Cuba in 1895. Later that year, he perished on the battlefield.

Blizzard of 1888 Bdwy at 31st St.

A bronze statue heralding Marti as an “apostle of Cuban independence” was dedicated in Central Park in 1965. On the pedestal, a plaque notes his literary genius.

[Photos: Library of Congress, New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library Digital Collection, New York Times]

Winters so cold, the East River froze over

January 13, 2014

Who wouldn’t love to see the East River temporarily become an ice skating rink?

Unfortunately, the river—or more accurately, tidal estuary—hasn’t frozen enough to make it walkable, let alone skate-able, since the 19th century.

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But back in the days before warmer winters and heavy ship traffic, it happened a handful of times.

After the Blizzard of 1888, an ice floe stretched from the shores of Brooklyn to Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge.

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With the bridge shut and ferries halted out of safety concerns in the harrowing wind and snow, people walked across the water in the morning before the ice began to crack, reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 13.

“It is asserted that nearly three thousand persons crossed on the ice , among whom were many women,” wrote the Eagle.

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An East River ice bridge hosted foot traffic in 1867 too.

Eastriverfrozencolor“As news spread that such a feat was possible, thousands left their business to gratify their love of adventure by a run across the newly constructed bridge, and for about two hours a torturous black line upon the ice marked the spot,” reported the Eagle on January 23.

A frozen river was also recorded in 1871, 1875, four years in the 1850s, and 1821.

And the East River, Hudson River, and all of New York Harbor turned to a sheet of ice during the brutal winter of 1779-1780 amid the Revolutionary War.

The “Great White Hurricane” changes New York

March 5, 2012

Think it’s unlikely that a late-winter blizzard will strike this month? That’s what New Yorkers assumed in early March 1888, when the city was also treated to unseasonably warm weather in the 50s.

Then on March 11, heavy rains fell. As the day turned to night, temperatures plunged, rain turned to snow, and fierce winds gripped the city.

The snow continued for 36 hours. By the time it was over, more than 20 inches buried New York. Trains had stopped running.

Telegraph and telephone wires snapped, and the city was paralyzed for days. More than 200 deaths are attributed to the Great White Hurricane.

But the terrible storm taught the city a few things. First, it showed officials that an underground transportation system was absolutely necessary, one that wouldn’t be brought down in a storm. It set in motion the creation of the New York City subway.

Second, the blizzard permanently cleared the city of the mish-mash of telephone and telegraph cables that marred so many streets. They were moved underground.

[Top photo: the snow weighs down telephone and telegraph wires. Middle, a street car stuck in the snow at Ninth Street and University Place; bottom: Park Place in Brooklyn, snowed in]

Lower Manhattan criss-crossed by wires

December 12, 2009

As this 1880s postcard reveals, New York streets in the late 19th century held messes of wires—telephone and telegraph wires like these as well as power lines.

The streets are much more attractive—not to mention safer—now that all the wires have to be buried underground. It’s a result of the Blizzard of 1888. That March storm dumped so much snow on the city, exposed wires and polls all over New York snapped like twigs, knocking out power and communication and paralyzing the city. 

Forgotten New York politicians: Roscoe Conkling

August 1, 2008

Roscoe Conkling, isn’t that a great name? Conkling was a New York political fixture in the late 19th century, first as a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and then later a member of the U.S. Senate. He was pro-Lincoln and pro-Grant in a city quite hostile to the Civil War.

Mr. Conkling’s statue sits at the southeastern corner of Madison Square Park. There’s significance for this: During the Blizzard of 1888, he decided to walk from his Wall Street office to his home on 24th Street. At Union Square, he fell in a snow drift, became ill, and died five weeks later. 

His family asked the Parks Department to place the statue near where he fell in Union Square, but he wasn’t deemed important enough. Madison Square Park must have been for B-list New Yorkers.