The Great Blizzard of 1888

Since we have been enjoying above normal temperatures over the past few days, it can be hard to imagine the immense blizzard that rocked the northeast 131 years ago. One of the most disastrous winter storms to ever impact the northeast U.S began late March 11, 1888 and ended in the early morning hours on March 14, 1888.

Nicknamed the “Great White Hurricane” or “Great Blizzard of 1888,” the monstrous storm dumped up to 55 inches of snowfall that resulted in snow drifts up to fifty feet in some instances. Approximately 400 people died, and transportation and communication were impossible in New York City for days after the event.

The atmospheric dynamics and near surface conditions were optimal for a blizzard of historic proportions to develop. A low-level boundary became stationary over the region for two days, likely responsible for the heavy snowfall. The looped path of the storm, depicted above, displays how the the storm was virtually stationary for two days.

Two days prior to the storm, the United States Signal Service (the predecessor to what we know as the National Weather Service today) noted that weather conditions over the Eastern United States presented little threat for the next two days, so citizens were largely left unaware and unprepared for this massive event (thank goodness for advances in technology and communication!) On Monday, March 12, 1888, citizens headed into the city for work unaware that conditions would begin deteriorating extremely quickly. Intense snowfall blanketed the tracks and snow drifts piled up quickly. One of the trains on the elevated tracks in the city completely derailed, and 75 trains became stuck in the snow or crashed (talk about the worst commute ever! Although, the 183 passengers stranded on snowy tracks for a day and a half in Oregon might beg to differ). By the time work let out, transportation was at a standstill and workers were forced to stay at work or walk home.

The storm brought the greatest amount of snowfall ever reported in Albany. 46.7 inches fell over the course of the storm, beating out the next highest snowstorm by 20.1 inches!
Five trains crashed as they tried to clear a path.

Many of the deaths associated with the blizzard resulted from people walking home from work or walking home from a stranded train on Monday. At the time, New York City had an extensive amount of electrical wires suspended above ground throughout the city, and virtually all electrical lines were brought down by the weight of the immense ice and snow. Continued snowfall and blowing snow then immediately buried the downed wires. Those walking home were electrocuted when stepping on recently buried power lines. The intensity of the snow and blowing snow buried many, and bodies weren’t found until up to a week later once the snow melted.

Downed power lines also caused many fires in the city that the fire department was unable to reach due to the towering snow drifts.

Fortunately, there were many innovations that were born as a result of this tragedy. The deadly elevated rail disaster led to the development of the subway system in New York City and in other cities. It also prompted the extensive renovation of Grand Central Depot (currently known as Grand Central Station). New York City also set a precedent for other major cities across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the United States when they buried all electric, telephone, and other communication wires underground to avoid another catastrophe like the one that fell upon The Big Apple that day. The Blizzard of 1888 was one of epic proportions, and will go down in history as one of the most significant blizzards to ever impact the United States.

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