Sunday, March 11, 2012

White Hell—The Great Blizzard of 1888 Buried the East Coast

It took hundreds of men to dig out this locomotive buried in he snow in New York State.

Here in McHenry County, Illinois it will be in the 60’s today.  The crocuses are open and the daffodils are spike.  The trees are budding and the pussy willow has broken out.  Robins are back and the red wing black birds sing from last year’s cat tails in the fen nearby.  All the classic signs of full spring are upon us.
Coming after the year with no winter—we had only three half way decent snow storms and a couple of minor ones spread out since December.  Each time the snow melted away within days.  Most days got above freezing and I don’t think we had a temperature below zero all winter. 
So naturally, folks are talking about it as if we will not see a flake again or waken to ice in the bird bath.  Not so fast, sez I.  I remember some epic blizzards in late March and early April, including one that dumped nearly a foot of wet, heavy snow on what was supposed to be Cub Opening Day at Wrigley Field.  Of course it melted in a couple of days.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that nature can whoop us up-side the head still and laugh about it.
Case in point…
On March 11 the Great Blizzard of 1888 started—the  worst and most devastating snow storm in American history.  The East Coast was enjoying unseasonably warm and pleasant weather when heavy rain began moving in from the Atlantic.  Shortly after midnight on the 11th temperatures plummeted and the rain turned to snow. 
Snow lasted through the next three days as band after band of snow pelted states from Maine to Virginia.  The heaviest snow fell in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.  More than 50 inches fell across a wide region and sustained winds of more than 40 miles per hour with gusts up to 80, piled up drifts more than thirty feet high, burying homes and shops. 
Everything ground to a halt.  It took more than a week to dig out most cities—a job that had to literally be done by hand.  Temperatures were in the single digits by day and colder by night. 
At least 400 people died ashore and about 100 sailors died when more than 200 ships were run aground or wrecked.  With fire departments unable to respond, fires burned uncontrolled in several cities.  When the storm finally passed and spring weather started melting the snow, flooding was wide spread and devastating. 
Aren’t you glad you missed it?


  1. Isn't this the one that launched the movement to underground wires? I think I saw that on American Experience. Totally fits with the heaviness of March snows, making them much more destructive than the puffy stuff of colder months.

    1. This is 1888. Telephones are becoming a bit more common as a buisness tool in the major cities. Only the very wealthy have them at home, virtually no "long distance" service between towns at any distance. Electrification is barely getting started in big cities, mostly as municipal lighting and some limited industrial use. Again, limited to cities and only very limited use in retail shops, less in private home. Gas is still considered a lighting upgrade in many communities. So I don't think that damage to either telephone or electrical wires would have been disruptive enough to start consideration of buried wires. But the nation was heavily dependent of telegraph service, perhaps having the commercial and governmental hubs of the nation cut off by downed telegraph wires might have started a conversation.