Great Blizzard of 1888: The Great White Hurricane

The Great Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, was one of the most severe recorded blizzards in American history. Snow fell from 10 to 58 inches and sustained winds reached more than 45 miles per hour producing snowdrifts more than 50 feet high. The storm paralyzed the East Coast from Chesapeake Bay to Maine and it seemed as if the U.S. came to a standstill. People were confined to their homes for up to a week. Railroad travel was almost entirely suspended and local trains ran with great difficulty because many engineers and fireman reported being blinded and unable to do their job. The storm also blew down trees, telegraph lines, and telephone wires making it difficult, if not impossible, to share information, prevent accidents, and get immediate help.

Great Blizzard of 1888.

Surface analysis of Blizzard on March 12, 1888 at 10 p.m. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the Great Blizzard of 1888 might have stopped everything, exactly how the word “blizzard” originated is unclear. Davy Crocket used the word twice in the 1830s, using it once to mean a rifle blast and again referring to it as a blast of words. The first time that the word was used to refer to a severe snowstorm was on 23 April 1870 when it was published in a newspaper in Estherville, Iowa. A year later Maximilian Schele de Vere, a Swedish-born professor of modern languages at the University of Virginia and a founding member of the American Philological Society, wrote in his book Americanisms that the term originated in America and referred “back to the German blitz; and its original meaning in the Western States seems to have been a stunning blow or an overwhelming argument.”[1]

Maximilian Schele de Vere. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

However the word originated, three weeks before the Great Blizzard of 1888 hit the East Coast Nebraska and the Dakota Territory were hard hit by a disastrous storm. Of this blizzard a feamle Scottish immigrant who had just arrived wrote:

“We landed here in such a storm as you could not picture to yourself … The next train that came was snowed up, so it is a good thing we got in in time. It has been a constant blizzard ever since. We are snowed up with six feet of snow in front and eight at the back, and in some places there are ten. … We have to make a hole through the heap each time we want to get out. The roof and walls of our bedrooms are covered every morning with a sheet of ice, and I sweep two dust-panfuls of snow off the walls of each room every morning. When I get up in the morning, my feet stick to the quilt lying above us ― in fact, everything one touches sticks to one’s hands. The water pail freezes solid. Just fancy having half an ox in the house without being able to get a bit of it; it cannot be cut even with a saw. It is simply a solid piece of ice. The summer kitchen had four feet of snow this morning which had blown through the crevices. It is so fine that it sifts through everything.”[2]

Although those in Nebraska and the Dakota Territory might have thought they knew what a blizzard was people on the East Coast had plenty to say after such weather after the Great Blizzard of 1888 hit. For instance, the Philadelphia Times reported that “at last we know just what a blizzard is ― a genuine, biting, blinding, freezing blizzard.”[3] Author Mark Twain, who at the time was visiting New York City, wrote “a blizzard’s the idea; pour down all the snow in stock, turn loose all the winds, bring a whole continent to a stand-still: that is Providence’s idea of the correct way to trump a person’s trick.”[4] There was also the following remark made by the Manchester Weekly Times, “The Great Blizzard of 1888 has left a mark which will not quickly be obliterated from the memory of any concerned.”[5]

Showing how it looked as the storm hit in New York City. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Other newspapers also mentioned the unprecedented event. For example, the Ceil Whig, an Elkton, Maryland paper, reported:

“The storm began on Sunday when rains fell all day and at night in torrents flooding streets and roads. Between 9 and 10 o’clock the rain ceased and snow began to fall. The flakes were large and close together and snow fell with such rapidity that the ground having been given a sleety surface was soon covered several inches deep. The snow continued most of the night and was accompanied by a very high wind. The ground, trees, etc. having been softened by the heavy rain [that] retained the snow. The heavy wind caused the snow to drift greatly.”[6]

One of the first train lines to arrive in Boston from New York was the Stonington “boat train” line, the same line that had been involved earlier in the 1 June 1880 tragedy involving it and its sister ship the Narragansett. In the case of the Great Blizzard of 1888, the Stonington left its moorings in New York City on 14 March 1888 at 7:30am. It was heading to Boston and when it landed numerous passengers reported on their blizzard experiences while in New York. For instance, a Mr. Everett stated:

“[Upon arriving in New York] I went to the Grand Union Hotel and gazed out upon the heaving, constantly increasing storm. The wind began to shriek and the snow to fly in blinding thickness. The snow was soon fully six inches deep and still falling rapidly. I went on the streets, and was nearly lifted off my feet. The snow had drifted, and in places, without any exaggeration, it was fully 18 feet deep. The wind was 60 miles an hour in velocity. In a few hours there was nobody on the raging streets except the reporters and a few cabmen.

All places of business were closed; horse cars were not thought of, and the elevated trains could not run. On Fifty-ninth Street I saw a young lady picked up by the wind and tossed many feet into a big snow pile. I rushed to her assistance and can tell you I had hard work in digging her out. … The hotels were, and still are, overcrowded. Thousands of people living right in the vicinity of the city are tonight sitting in the car stations, in the ferry houses and all public places, where they are freely admitted. The number of deaths and the amount of suffering cannot be estimated. … I saw trucks and all sorts of vehicles buried in the snow. … On the Third avenue elevated road in the darkness and wildness of the storm, one train clashed into another. Both were off the track, having slipped the rails in rounding curves. One engineer was killed, and his lifeless body fell to the streets below.”[7]

Many people caught in the Great Blizzard of 1888 sought shelter as they could not make it to their homes. Of these victims many were forced to sleep in hotels. In fact, people were said to be camping out in hotels as the blizzard raged. One of the hotels hosting storm victims was Astor House. It was located on the corner of Broadway and Vesey Street in what is now Tribeca of Lower Manhattan. It was reported that at it:

“[T]wo hundred cots were put up in the parlors and halls. Even, then chairs were grabbed eagerly and a well-situated one, with arms, commanded a handsome premium. One lady came in at about 8 o’clock, and, after dozing in a chair for several hours, was provided with a nice, large bath tub, and was very grateful the next morning for even such a bed. Twenty-five dollars was offered for rooms. … Fifteen employees of the Hanover bank camped out in one room. … Cots and sofas were brought into use and then hundreds of people had to be turned away.”[8]

Astor House. Date unknown. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Those unexpectedly caught on the streets during the Great Blizzard of 1888, reported what they experience. For instance, a William Creighton maintained that while he was making his way home in Brooklyn, he fell into a snow drift at the corner of Livingston and Nevins streets and found that he had landed on the top of tree. He reported that it was no easy task to extricate himself. Sergeant William F. Earley of the Seventeenth Precinct remarked that when he was walking from the Cypress Hills to the Seventeenth Precinct Police Station “he found himself up to his neck in snow drifts, but he fought his way gallantly and at last reached the police station almost frozen.”[9] There was also a John Fogarty who got drunk and then attempted to cross the icy East River at Wall Street Ferry and crashed through the ice. He was rescued, arrested, and fined $1.00 by the judge for his carelessness.

Numerous buildings disasters were also reported. For example, in Brooklyn the roof of the Robinson Stores caved in from the weight of the snow. Fortunately, no one was hurt but it did cause about $300 in damages. Five two-story buildings on Greene Avenue were unroofed during the storm and it was also reported that a chimney fell across some tenement houses on Front and Dock streets. There was also a problem with the steeple of the Presbyterian Church on the corner of Classon Avenue and Monroe street. It was seen swaying to and fro by the deputy building commissioner George Howell. He quickly notified church trustees, who had it demolished the next day to prevent a disaster.

Great Blizzard of 1888

How it looked on Main Street in Danbury, Connecticut. Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.

Numerous tragedies at sea and along the eastern coast were also described. Among the victims of the blinding storm were Alexander Bennet, John Lee, and another Singer Company employee who decided to cross Staten Island Sound on Monday, 12 March, in a small rowboat. It seemed a foolish thing to do as the wind was reportedly “blowing a gale.” Thus, it was probably no surprise when their empty boat was located far off course stuck in the ice with them nowhere to be found. There were also other reports that vessels and small tugs were beached along the Delaware Breakwater, and, moreover, from Chesapeake Bay throughout the New England area, more than 200 ships were either grounded or wrecked, resulting in the deaths of at least 100 seamen.

Many first-hand tales were also recounted by individuals affected by the howling blizzard. For instance, in Elizabethport, New Jersey, two employees of the Singer Sewing Machine Works reported on how the storm affected a dozen of their co-workers who decided to brave the storm and walk a quarter of a mile from the sewing factory to the railway station. On the way they found themselves blinded and badly frozen. Fortunately, all but one of them were rescued and “taken to Shibul’s Hotel with their eyes closed up with ice and their hands and feet and ears frozen.”[10]

One New Yorker who suffered the ill effects of the blizzard was a young messenger boy named Victor Spinaponti. He worked for the American District Company and had been given strict orders that he should not delivery messages any further than one mile from the office. However, a man entered the office and offered Spinaponti $2.00 to deliver messages with one going to East Fifty-seventh Street and the other East Sixtieth Street. Spinaponti couldn’t resist and delivered both messages but then failed to return. The following night he was found unconscious lying in a snowbank near Thirty-seventh Street with his ears badly frozen.

On Coney Island there were numerous reports of people caught in the storm and many were overcome by the white-out conditions. For example, according to the New York Sun, “two of these [victims] were employed by Bass, the baker. They became blinded and numbed, and were staggering almost insensible down a lonely street toward the sea when they were found by Police Sergeant M.F. Murphy and led to warmth and final recuperation.”[11]

The wind was also extremely strong in Coney Island and there were numerous injuries associated with it. For instance, an accident happened to Charles J. Kurth, the town counsellor, and his friend, John Federicks. They walked out of a store and “the wind lifted the porch from its bearings and flung it upon the two men. Both were knocked down. Kurth was injured in the head and hip. Fredericks was struck on the leg and arm.”[12]

Great Blizzard of 1888.

Scenes from Harper’s Weekly related to the Great Blizzard of 1888. Author’s collection.

Even worse than injuries were the numerous fatalities caused by the blizzard. One person who perished in the snow was 66-year-old Robert H. Masterson. He had a wife and five children and had boarded a train to go home. When it stalled between Mount Vernon and Williamsbridge, he and some other passengers decided to walk to the nearest train station. Unfortunately, during their trek Masterson somehow got separated from his companions and fell exhausted in the snow so that when he was found his body was “frozen stiff.”

In Watertown, New York, a farmer named James W. Fitzgerald went to the Village of Lorraine to buy groceries. He decided to imbibe some alcohol and did so freely at a local hotel bar so that when he left for home around 8pm, he was reported to have been drunk. He never arrived home and the following morning his wife informed officials, who sent out a search party. His horse was found in a field half frozen, but he was never discovered despite an exhaustive two-day search. It was supposed he was buried somewhere in the snow.

Although people might have been suffering and dying, they were not the only ones enduring the ill effects of the Great Blizzard of 1888. In New Jersey it was reported that on 14 March not a single live sparrow could be seen in the streets. Apparently, they had all frozen to death:

“[T]he snow drifts were littered with the frozen bodies of thousands of them. A boy picked up 150 dead birds under the ivy at Grace Church this morning.”[13]

The sparrows that did survive in New York reportedly sought shelter in the Gilsey House, Hoffman House, and other hotels. There they seemed almost tame and it was reported that one sparrow took food from the hand of a guest.

Great Blizzard of 1888

Headline from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the Great Blizzard of 1888. Author’s collection.

Because of unprecedented conditions, the Great Blizzard of 1888 caused a myriad of problems particularly for coroners and undertakers. Coroners were often unable to remove bodies in a timely manner and even if they did, the bodies could not get buried expediently. This result in extensions being given except in cases of “contagious disease.” Nonetheless, the required burials were exceedingly difficult and resulted in at least one undertaker abandoning his hearse so that in New York at One and Twenty-fifth Street the coffin and hearse could be seen protruding through the snow marking the temporary grave of the dead person.

Another story of how difficult interments were for undertakers happened in Brooklyn and is demonstrated by the following story:

“At 9:30 o’clock Monday morning a hearse from John II Newsman’s undertaking shop, in Court street, left 9 Willow street for the Holy Cross Cemetery. The undertaker protested against making an effort that seemed likely to imperil the lives of his men and at best was likely to end in failure. But the dead body was that of a servant, Mary Cramer, who had died of a contagious disease, and the burial was imperative. For three hours the hearse and two coaches struggled to make headway against the storm. When within half a mile of the cemetery, … the horses were unable to proceed. The body of the girl was taken into Garry Striker’s stable, and last evening Superintendent Curren, of Holy Cross, telephoned to the city not to bring any more bodies to the cemetery until the roads were cleaned. … Undertaker Ladley said to-day that he had four such delayed cases and that one of his burial wagons was blockaded at St. Mary’s hospital.”[14]

Snow tunnel on Main St. View of Main Street on 12 March 1888. Courtesy of Forbes.

Although coroners and undertakers might have been having problems, there were also issues for relatives of the deceased. For instance, six bodies that were to have been buried on 12 March had not been buried by 14 March. The delay, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, caused undue distress to relatives, who, “experienced great hardship for the last few days on account of having to keep their houses cool [to prevent the dead bodies from decaying].”[15]

Ultimately once the storm ended cities looked like war zones. Streets proved impassible, and sidewalks were often buried under drifts. Signboards were torn from the fronts of buildings, roofs were stripped off, and windows blown out. Everywhere people looked there were abandoned vehicles as owners had fled for their lives when the blizzard hit.

“Butchers’ wagons piled high with meat, milk trucks crowded with cans, grocers’ wagons, coal carts, street cars, were scatted in the mountains of snow in all directions. There were thousands upon thousands of … abandoned wagons and carts, some overturned, some lying across the street, some half buried in the drifts. Here and there they formed enormous barricades, which caught the snow and rolled it up in solid barriers.”[16]  

Great Blizzard of 1888

Fallen wires. Courtesy of cuny.edu.

People found that they had no choice but to dig out and strapping young men were reportedly seen everywhere snow shovels in hand, shoveling stoops, sidewalks, and streets. Yet, despite all the energy displayed to return life back to normal, some people began questioning why they lived in areas affected by such blizzards. They could not decide if it was prudent. Nonetheless, one Minnesota correspondent offered some advice to anyone worried about making the Northwest their home:

“It is no more fair … to condemn the climate of the North-west because of an occasional blizzard than it would be to condemn the climate of New York or Chicago because of the large death-toll in the summer months. The casualties of the late blizzard, great as they were, would not compare in number with the deaths occurring in some eastern city during the intense heat of the summer, and which may be traded directly to that as a cause. The country and its climate should be judged of as a whole, and viewed from this standpoint no one need be deterred from making his home in the North-west because of the Great Blizzard of 1888.”[17]

Shoveling out from the Great Blizzard of 1888 from Harper’s Weekly. Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] J. S. Farmer, ed., Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (London: John S. Farmer, 1890), p. 235.
  • [2] Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner, “The Blizzard and Life in the Far West,” March 31, 1888, p. 5.
  • [3] The Times, “The Great Blizzard,” March 18, 1888, p. 3.
  • [4] C. Clemens, My Father, Mark Twain (AMS Press, 1976), p. 54.
  • [5] Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner, p. 5.
  • [6] The Cecil Whig, “A Howling blizzard,” March 17, 1888, p. 3.
  • [7] The Boston Globe, “Passengers from New York,” March 15, 1888, p. 2.
  • [8] The Boston Globe, “Camping Out in the Hotels,” March 15, 1888, p. 2.
  • [9] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The Big Storm,” March 14, 1888, p. 4.
  • [10] The Boston Globe, “Died in Snow Drifts,” March 15, 1888, p. 2.
  • [11] The Sun, “To Coney Island at Last,” March 15, 1888, p. 3.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] The Boston Globe, “Death to the Birds,” March 15, 1888, p. 2.
  • [14] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 4.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] The Times, p. 3.
  • [17] Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner, p. 5.

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