The Great Blizzard Of ’88

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Streetcar service closed down as the cars ran off their tracks, or the horses could not make any headway. The cars were abandoned where they stood. Walter Hall, a driver on a line that ran from Ninety-ninth Street to the Bowery, gave up just short of his destination. He ordered his passengers out, sent his horses off to a stable with a boy, and found some coal in the neighborhood to stoke his little stove. When two men with a keg asked for shelter inside the car, Hall took them in and the three stayed in the car for three days, “living,” said Hall, “on beer and pretzels.”

Commuter service from the suburbs also broke down early. Samuel M. Davis, telegraph operator for the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad at Spuyten Duyvil, just north of Manhattan, was on duty when the 6:4o Croton local reached the Spuyten Duyvil Cut, 150 feet deep and five hundred feet long. The train ran smack into a thirty-foot-high snowdrift and could not move forward or backward. Two minutes later the Peekskill local chugged to a halt behind it, then two trains from the West. Within two hours seven trains were strung out behind the Croton local. There were two butcher and grocery shops in town, and Davis “bought everything they had that was eatable- bread, sugar, flour, milk, cured hams, bologna and all the sandwich stuff they had.” For the next two days, Davis, his wife, and his mother baked bread and made sandwiches and coffee that they lugged up to the passengers aboard the stalled trains.

New York was the focus of the blizzard, but for a radius of a hundred miles around it—at sea, upstate, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and parts of New England—similar conditions prevailed.

In Westchester County, nearly five thousand passengers sought shelter at the Mount Vernon station when forty trains, commuter and long distance, were trapped by snowdrifts. To the south, between the northern end of the Central’s tunnel at Ninety-sixth Street and Harlem Junction, six more trains were stalled. Grand Central Terminal itself, as one reporter noted, “looked lonely.” In the yards behind it “long lines of passenger cars were stretched throughout its length, but they looked desolate.…The snow had blown into the great covered area and gave a chilling and forbidding air to the place.” Asked whether the New York Central would be able to maintain any service, Chauncey M. Depew, its president, groaned: “Trains! Why we don’t even know whether we’ve got a railroad left!”

Other railroad lines suffered the same fate, and the number of wrecks was appalling. The Central’s Chicago express had been rammed from behind at Dobbs Ferry by another express, the cars telescoping; fortunately, no one was killed. But three people died when a Pennsylvania Railroad train hit a freight that had jumped its track near Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and blocked all traffic east and west. A Jersey Central local, running “wildcat” without orders from station to station, picking up commuters bound for New York, ran into the rear of a stalled train. Later, a Jersey Central snowplow trying to push through a drift collided with a snowbound train; three people were killed and six others injured. A Lehigh Valley Railroad brakeman was never seen again after he headed out into the storm to flag down a train.

The greatest losses were suffered at sea; nearly two hundred ships were wrecked or disappeared. Nine of New York’s pilot boats foundered in the harbor or lower bay. Another, the Starbuck , cruising off the coast waiting to guide ships into port, her running lights veiled by heavy mist, was hit by the British steamer Japanese off Barnegat, New Jersey, when winds of a hundred miles an hour tossed the Japanese out of control. Five of the Starbuck ’s crew were lost.

Typical was the experience of the three-masted schooner R. H. Heniman , bound for New York from the tropics for provisions before heading up Long Island Sound to Boston. Unable to maneuver in the wind, the Heniman made for New London, Connecticut, and had its lighthouse in sight, but was forced out to sea. “The Captain ordered us to abandon our quarters forward and to move into the cabin,” one of the seamen recalled. “For three days it snowed. As it grew colder and colder, we could not stick it out on deck more than an hour at a time. One could hardly face the wind as it cut like a knife. We wore all the clothes we could put on. It was necessary to lash the wheel fast and to keep only one man on deck at the time as a lookout for other vessels which might run us down. As our good little vessel plunged and rolled around, a large comber stove a hole in our lifeboat, bending one of the heavy iron davits on which the boat hangs across the stern. We had to cut the boat adrift with everything in her. When abreast of New London we were in company with 12 to 15 schooners bound eastward. Of them all we were one of the few that reached harbor safely.…”

Among the ships that did get through was one carrying immigrants from Lithuania. When a passenger named H. N. Davidsohn emerged into the storm, he assumed that this was the normal climate of the area, and sourly concluded that he might just as well have emigrated to Siberia.