The Great Blizzard Of ’88

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As the day wore on it became clear that travel in the city itself was next to impossible. The Wall Street Exchange closed down when only thirty members showed up and only 15,400 shares had been traded by 12:30; more than 360,000 shares had changed hands the previous Monday. At the city’s seventy banks, only a small fraction of the $63 million in normal daily deposits was received. As a result cashiers refused to certify checks but, in what was believed an unprecedented action, extended all outstanding loans. Without judges and jury members, the courts closed down. The city prison, the Tombs, was filled to overflowing with men and women who had committed themselves as vagrants; the prison clerk offered to free everyone, but “they all declined with thanks.” At City Hall, Mayor Abram Hewitt sent word that there would be no daily conference of department heads; it was an unnecessary gesture—none had appeared anyway.

The fashionable midtown department stores fared poorly. Only one customer showed up at B. Altman & Company all day; she bought a spool of thread. Macy’s closed down at noon, but its female clerks were afraid to venture home in the blizzard, so Macy executives let them sleep on cots in the furniture department.

Those that did venture out found walking difficult. “There was a fierce cyclonic wind prevailing as we made our way uptown,” said Arthur B. Goodkind, who with three friends had decided to head home, “but good cheer and humor kept us going nicely until we reached 86th Street. At this point, one of the wider streets in the then uptown part of the city, we encountered our greatest difficulty. A goodly number of people were standing on the corner, trying to cross over, but the gale-like wind pushed them back at every attempt. A bright idea occurred to someone who had witnessed marching prisoners. He advised that we form in single line, each man with his hands on the shoulders of the man ahead, so that those who once had crossed might drag the others along. It was in this fashion only that we were able to do what in other conditions would seem to be the absurdly simple business of crossing a citv street.”

 
 
 

Those who dared to brave the blizzard wore a strange assortment of clothes—blankets draped from their heads, huge rubber boots, trouser legs tied around their ankles, carpeting bundled over their feet. One youth got some straw wine-bottle covers from a restaurant and bound his feet in them. Another was able to purchase a striped bathrobe and wore it home as an overcoat.

Stores that stocked cold-weather gear sold out quickly. After selling the forty-five dozen pairs of gloves he had put aside for the following winter, one Broadway shopkeeper ingeniously cut apart ten dozen suits of woolen underwear. Each leg was tied with a string at one end and then sold as a pullover cap. The shopkeeper moaned that he had only ten dozen ear muffs on hand: “they were gone as quickly as snow on a summer’s day,” he said.

Cabbies were getting unheard-of fees for trying to make their way through streets clogged with abandoned wagons, streetcars, and dead horses. And saloons, noted a Herald reporter, were “running under full head.” “Whiskey has the call,” an East Side barkeep said. “The next most popular drink to-day is hot rum.” Those in the know, however, stuck to the “car driver’s drink”—ale with red pepper; it was supposed to make you warmer faster and last longer.

Everywhere, it seemed, strangers were helping each other out. It was not unusual to find people rubbing each other’s ears to thaw them out. And the number of rescues was amazing. A World reporter happened to be on Sixth Avenue when he saw a young woman fall unconscious into a snowbank; he carried her into a nearby drugstore where she revived. A police officer spied a butcher’s cart near Eighth Street and Second Avenue, its horse collapsing from exhaustion. In the seat was the driver, leaning forward, his head on the dashboard, the reins slipping from his hands. The policeman rubbed the driver’s face with snow and with the help of a passer-by got him to walk until he was fully conscious. The driver woke up surprised; he thought he had been at home asleep, safe and sound.

A poorly clad fourteen-year-old messenger boy was found by a porter, crying and exhausted on Thirty-fourth Street, his trousers frozen to his flesh. A university student was trying to find an open grocery store on Third Avenue when he noticed a bundle of clothing in a snowbank; it was a little girl whose father had given her a basket and sent her out to beg. Father Daniel C. Cunnion of the Church of St. Raphael on West Fortieth Street was on a sick call when he saw a hand jutting from the snow; it turned out to be one of his Sunday-school children who had been sent out to get some food.