The Great Blizzard Of ’88

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Others were not so lucky. The old woman who sold flowers in front of the Herald offices dropped dead from exposure. A woman in her fifties was found unconscious at Fulton Street and Broadway; she was carried into a liquor store and died ten minutes later. A two-hundred-pound malt-andhops merchant who suffered from chronic asthma tried to walk to his office from Fifty-seventh Street; a few blocks on he fell into a snowdrift, his weight pulling the snow over him, and was dead when discovered several hours later by two patrolmen. Later, a medical student working at the Star to help pay his tuition volunteered to try to reach Coney Island to check out rumors that its famed Brighton Beach Hotel had been swept out to sea; he was able to hitch a ride on a transitline snowplow, found the hotel intact, and then hired a horse and sleigh for the return trip. He was found unconscious in the snow, his nose, ears, and feet frostbitten; he died before the week was out.

Nancy Sankey-Jones remembered seeing a man try for an hour and a half to cross Ninety-sixth Street. “We watched him start, get i way across and then flung back against the building on the corner. The last time he tried it, he was caught up on a whirl of snow and disappeared from our view. The next morning 7 horses, policemen, and his brother charged the drift and his body was kicked out of the drift.…”

Hundreds of horses perished, too, as well as enormous numbers of sparrows. The sparrows were the city’s bane—hundreds of thousands of them nested on trees and on building ledges throughout Manhattan—and they died in the storm, beating their wings helplessly against windows and jam- ming ventilator shafts trying to seek shelter. Some were eaten by hungry people, for shop supplies dwindled rapidly and the fear of shortages of milk, bread, and meat spread throughout the city. Prices for food boomed- eggs going for forty cents each, the poorest beefsteak for thirty cents a pound, butter for sixty cents.

Fortunately for the more than four hundred children and nearly two hundred mothers at the New York Infant Asylum, a supplier had made an error shortly before the blizzard. Instead of delivering a consignment of twelve dozen cans of condensed milk, he had left off twelve gross. The condensed milk was mixed with barley water and “greatly to our surprise,” said the resident physician, Dr. Charles G. Kerley, “the marasmic and difficult feeders, struggling along on diluted sterilized milk, took on new life, began to smile and gain in weight.”

 

With outside sources cut off, a shortage of coal also became a widespread fear. Augustus E. Cron, a nineteenyear-old deliveryman for a West Eighth Street grocer, recalled how his employer had the good fortune to have ten tons of coal on hand. Men came from all over, begging for coal, “some men with silk hats on even, and gladly paid as much as a dollar a pailful.” Cron made deliveries’, too, working until midnight, but four times he had to cut the buttons off the coats he wore because the buttonholes were frozen stiff.

More immediate than the danger of starving or freezing to death was the possibility of uncontrollable fires. With several hundred alarm boxes out of order, fire department headquarters ordered all engine houses to have four horses ready to hitch to steamers and two to hose carts at all times. In many places, piles of snow insulated hydrants and kept the water lines from freezing, but maneuvering through the choked streets was another matter. Answering a summons, one hook-and-ladder company got stuck in a huge snowbank at Twenty-third Street and Eighth Avenue, and even the harnessing of six horses to the wagon failed to budge it.

The concern over fires seemed confirmed when a major one broke out in an old four-story building on Laight Street that housed a paper-box factory and was adjacent to tenements inhabited by immigrants. Streams of water pumped at the building froze on contact with the walls and never reached inside. A waitress at the Old Hygienic Hotel & Turkish Bath across the street recalled:

“We were serving dinner to patrons and many strangers. The place was packed as many people could not get home. When someone cried fire we looked out and sure enough there it was. The fire engine had an awful time getting around.…Ice everywhere, water was taken from the swimming pool. When the firemen got the fire plug working there were rivers of water in rooms, hall, and down the stairs. All the windows on the lane side were broken from the heat and as the men came down from the roof their clothes were solid ice. We weighed their hats at 20 lbs. apiece. We tried to give them hot coffee but had to thaw out the mustaches of those who had them.…” By a stroke of fortune, no one was injured in the blaze.