The Great Blizzard Of ’88


The “light rain” became a downpour as Sunday dawned. When Dunn returned to work that afternoon it was evident something highly unusual was in the offing. He could not raise Washington on his telegraph.

The outer edges of the two storms converged near Lewes Harbor at the mouth of the Delaware River by Cape Henlopen. The gracefully curved harbor, protected both by its location and a breakwater, was a favored port for coastal vessels. Although Sunday had been a gloomy day, the barometer remained high until afternoon, when the first vessels began to seek the harbor’s shelter from rapidly increasing winds. A heavy downpour followed, and then at midnight an eerie calm set in. The wind died down, then shifted to almost the opposite point of the compass, blowing in from the west-northwest, the only unprotected side of the harbor. The velocity of the wind increased steadily, the thermometer fell abruptly, and snow began to fall. “It sounded to me like the noise of distant thunder coming nearer and nearer,” a captain said.

Hurricane-like winds and blinding snow struck with incredible fury. Anchors broke, rigging and sails were packed with ice and snow, rudders and tillers froze. Vessels ran aground, collided, foundered, while their crews tried desperately to reach safety. One sailor, lashed to the shrouds, froze to death, while his crewmates waited futilely for rescuers to reach their vessel by lifeboat. A schooner laden with a cargo of ice from Maine ran aground, sprang a leak, and soon was itself a solid mass of ice; pounded by the wind, the vessel was knocked to pieces. Two other vessels were driven from their anchors and swept out to sea. One, a coal barge, disappeared entirely; of the other, a bark, only spars, timbers, and cabins were later sighted. Thirty-five of the fifty vessels in the harbor were destroyed; three bodies were washed ashore.

In New York the rain changed to snow shortly after midnight, the temperature fell rapidly, the wind rose sharply. By six o’clock Monday morning, March 12, as the first city residents were preparing to go to work, the thermometer stood at 23 degrees and was still falling; winds averaged thirty-six miles an hour, with gusts as high as eighty-four miles an hour. Driven by the fierce winds, the snow in freakish fashion piled up on one side of some streets, leaving only a slick coating on the other. As the day wore on, the temperature dropped to five above zero, and winds climbed to an average of forty-eight miles an hour—and no respite was in sight.

At the height of the storm in mid-afternoon, the anemometer perched twenty-five feet above the Equitable Building’s east tower broke. One of Sergeant Dunn’s assistants, meteorologist Francis Long—a veteran Arctic explorer and survivor of one expedition that had been trapped for three years near the North Pole—offered to repair it. Dunn demurred at first; Long was a heavy man, and the anemometer had just clocked the wind at seventy-five miles an hour. But Long insisted. As Dunn and several other aides braced the thin pole, Long shinnied up it to the top and fixed the instrument, thus enabling the weather station, said Dunn, to preserve “the principal record” of the storm.

What seems amazing is that anyone even contemplated going to work that morning. But in a time before “workers’ benefits” and “job security,” clerks and laborers were afraid to lose a day’s pay. Bankers and stockbrokers were worried about notes and loans due; shopkeepers felt obliged to open their doors for their employees—and besides, most people did not realize the extent of the storm. If they could get out of their homes, they headed for work. For all—rich and poor, young and old—it was a new experience. A blizzard, after all, was common enough in the West, but a phenomenon of such proportions had not struck the Northeast before.

“It was as if New York had been a burning candle upon which nature had clapped a snuffer, leaving nothing of the city’s activity but a struggling ember,” the New York Evening Sun declared. ”…The city’s surface was like a wreck-strewn battlefield.” Of the fifteen mail trains due in New York that Monday morning, only four had arrived by 12:55 P.M. , when the city became, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the outside world. All the clocks that ran by electricity in Manhattan had stopped at precisely 12:07 P.M. when the regulator wire broke. Phone and telegraph wires were, like the mass-transit services, aboveground. The wires became coated with ice, poles broke, lines got entangled. Surveying the wreckage, a phone official found 150 poles down on Tenth Avenue, as many fallen on two other West Side streets, and dozens more in other blocks.


One by one the city’s four elevated railroads slowed to a halt, their tracks too slippery with ice to provide traction. One train on the Sixth Avenue El took six hours and twenty-five minutes to cover only two blocks. At the height of what was normally the morning rush hour a Third Avenue El train, drawn by a small locomotive called a “dinkie” and pushed by another in back, rammed into a stalled train at the upgrade just outside the Seventy-sixth Street stop; an engineer was killed and fourteen people injured. Thousands of passengers were stranded high above the streets. Enterprising men ran up ladders to the cars and charged the passengers as much as two dollars apiece to climb down.