The Great Blizzard Of ’88

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At fifty-eight years of age, Roscoe Conkling was still a strapping figure of a man, proud of his strength. The former senator, presidential aspirant, and kingpin of Republican politics in New York State neither smoked nor imbibed. He exercised and boxed regularly. So when William Sulzer, a young lawyer who had an office on the same floor as Conkling’s in a Wall Street building, could not find a cab, Conkling decided to leave for his club, two and a half miles away, “on my pins.”

 

At fifty-eight years of age, Roscoe Conkling was still a strapping figure of a man, proud of his strength. The former senator, presidential aspirant, and kingpin of Republican politics in New York State neither smoked nor imbibed. He exercised and boxed regularly. So when William Sulzer, a young lawyer who had an office on the same floor as Conkling’s in a Wall Street building, could not find a cab, Conkling decided to leave for his club, two and a half miles away, “on my pins.” The Fastest Commuter in the East

The deserted streets outside were clogged with fallen telephone and telegraph poles and blocked, as Sulzer recalled, “by great mountains of snow.…We could hardly see Trinity Church, or the buildings on Broadway.” Conkling led the way, telling Sulzer to follow in his footsteps. Struggling against a fierce, bitterly cold wind, the two men reached the Astor House a few blocks away. Sulzer gave up and urged Conkling to join him in seeking refuge inside the hotel. But Conkling refused and continued on his own:

“It was dark, and it was useless to try to pick out a path, so I went magnificently along shouldering drifts.…I was pretty well exhausted when I got to Union Square, and, wiping the snow from my eyes, tried to make out the triangles [pathways that crisscrossed the park] there. But it was impossible. There was no light, and I plunged right through on as straight a line as I could determine upon.…

“I had got to the middle of the park and was up to my arms in a drift. I pulled the ice and snow from my eyes and held my hands up there till everything was melted off so that I might see; but it was too dark and the snow too blinding.…”

It took Conklihg twenty minutes to wrestle free from the huge snowdrift, coming “as near giving right up and sinking down there to die as a man can and not do it. Somehow I got out and made my way along.” Covered with snow and ice, he finally reached his club and collapsed inside the lobby. It had taken him three hours to get there. He had fought his way through the worst snowstorm in the history of New York City, the Blizzard of 1888.

There have been snowfalls that were greater, hurricanes with winds that were stronger, cold waves when temperatures plummeted lower, but never a combination of the three that was so devastating. The blizzard caught the entire Northeast by surprise, and for nearly two days isolated the nation’s largest metropolis.

Spring had been in the air as the weekend of March 10-11 began. The winter had been the mildest in seventeen years. On Saturday the Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson Circus had arrived in New York from its winter headquarters and that night staged a two-mile-long torchlight parade through lower Manhattan. Robins were sighted by bird watchers, trees were budding, crocuses were up. Walt Whitman turned in a poem to the New York Herald , where he was staff poet; he called it “The First Dandelion” (“Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging…The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.”). The city’s major department stores were planning spring sales to begin on Monday. And John J. Meisinger, buyer and manager of Ridley’s department store on Grand Street, was the laughingstock of the city. On Friday Meisinger had purchased for the “ridiculous low price” of $1,200 a carload of unclaimed snow shovels; a Herald reporter happened on the story and called it “Meisinger’s Folly.” The shovels were delivered to Ridley’s on Saturday, the warmest day of the year; temperatures were in the fifties.

 

Thousands of miles apart two major weather fronts were headed toward the Northeast. The first, a winter snowstorm from the West, had been spawned in the Pacific and was now racing across the continent on freezing winds at the rate of six hundred miles a day. At the same time a warm, moist air front born in the Gulf of Mexico was moving northward from Georgia.

Experts at the meteorological headquarters of the Army Signal Corps in Washington—a forerunner of the modern Weather Bureau—knew about both storm systems: the western snowstorm had already hit Minnesota, and gale winds from the warm front had been recorded in parts of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. But they believed both systems would either dissipate before nearing the eastern seaboard or else blow themselves out harmlessly at sea.

The Washington office and its substations around the country routinely shut down from 10 o’clock Saturday night until five o’clock Sunday afternoon. Before closing up his office on the top floor of the Equitable Building on Broadway, Sergeant Elias D’fcnn, chief of the New York substation, reviewed telegraphed reports from Washington and the latest reports telephoned, telegraphed, or sent by carrier pigeon from observers along the coast. Dunn predicted that Sunday in New York would be “cloudy followed by light rain and clearing.” He rechecked his findings with the Coast Guard, telephoned his forecast to night editors at the city’s newspapers, and went home.