NYC Winter Throwback: The Blizzard of 1888

Over the weekend, while everyone was soaking up the sun, I was thinking about how we should be up to our knees in snow rather than baring our knees in shorts. In fact, there was one particular snowstorm on my mind: the Blizzard of 1888.

To tell you the truth, the Blizzard of ‘88, aka the Great White Hurricane, wasn’t the worst snowstorm in NYC’s history in terms of snowfall (that goes to the Blizzard of 2016 with its record-breaking 27.5 inches of snow), but the storm’s 45 mph winds and its 50-foot snow drifts made such an impression on NYC weather history that people are still talking and writing about it 100+ years later. Plus it produced the craziest stories!

Blizzard_1888_Grand_Central_NY
Via Wikimedia Commons

The way the storm started caught New Yorkers by surprise. In the days before the storm, it was unusually warm and raining heavily

, but by March 11th, the temperature suddenly dropped and the sky switched from pelting rain onto the city to burying it in snow. The snow was coming so fast that anyone far from home didn’t have much of a chance to make it back. Hundreds of people sought refuge in boarding houses and hotels, and even bars, which to me sounds like the best place to ride out the Snowpocalypse. But there were many others who weren’t that lucky. Letters from the time report of people being stuck on elevated rails within and outside of the city. Unable to move any further via train, some passengers’ only option was to shimmy down the ladders put up by good samaritans and find shelter until the snow stopped.


Unsurprisingly, with New Yorkers being stubborn and unwilling to submit to nature, there were people who thought that they could walk through waist-deep snow and 45 mph winds and be alright. Spoiler: they weren’t. One of those people was New York politician Roscoe Conkling, who thought that he could walk the three miles from his office on Wall Street all the way to The New York Club near Madison Square Park. According to Politico, in two hours Conkling made it up to Union Square before he conked out in a blanket of snow. Surprisingly, he didn’t die there. Instead, he died in his own bed two days later after contracting pneumonia. Personally, I like to think he died of embarrassment, because of how mercilessly the newspapers mocked him after hearing about his stroll in the snow. Either way, Conkling wasn’t alone: he was just one of NYC’s 200 reported casualties of the Great Blizzard. Across the Eastern Seaboard, over 400 people would die because of the storm. Moral of the story: nature doesn’t mess around.

 

There’s so much more I could say about the Blizzard of 1888, like how the storm’s damage to the city’s infrastructure contributed to the development of our underground communications and transportation systems, or how long it took to cleanup up all of that snow, or how New Yorkers refused to tolerate anyone who tried to take advantage of the food and fuel shortages that followed the storm. These stories and more can be found here and here and here.

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