The Great Blizzard Of ’88


As night approached, the city became wrapped in almost complete darkness. The Metropolitan Telephone Company—which had sixtynine hundred subscribers in Manhattan, mostly businesses—had asked the electric companies not to start up their dynamos at night because their cables were so entangled with the lessinsulated phone wires. “These broken telephone wires would have carried the sparks in all directions into awnings, houses, stores and everywhere else,” a spokesman told a Tribune reporter, “and the effect would have been terrible.” Few gas lamps were working either. Only the lights from the windows of houses and saloons- or the little red lamps marking fire plugs—shed any glow on the snowclogged streets; the effect was eerie.

All the city’s hotels were packed. Doubling and tripling up of strangers was common. At the fashionable Astor House, two hundred cots were put in the parlor, halls, and even bathrooms —“the last-named apartments,” noted the Herald , “being quickly taken by the late arrivals…even standing room was at a premium in the evening.” Many businesses had the foresight early in the day to reserve rooms for their employees—the Astor had thirteen clerks from the Chemical Bank in one room, fifteen from the Hanover Bank in another. At Smith & McNell’s Hotel, which had 420 rooms, eight hundred people were taken in, a thousand turned away. The chief clerk at the Stevens House confided that he had felt “compelled” to rent out even the chairs.

With all travel halted, even the best hotels, which customarily sent their laundry to New Jersey, discovered that they were running out of clean linens. “Fastidious guests,” said the Times , “were surprised to be blandly informed by their waiters when they sat down to table that there were no napkins, and still more astonished when they found that one towel had to last for 24 hours at least.”

Undaunted by the weather or the difficulty of getting around, a few rabid theatergoers managed to find some entertainment. Five new plays were scheduled to open Monday night; none did. But three theaters did hold performances, and despite the blizzard, P. T. Barriurn had insisted on staging both his matinee and evening circus shows at the newly renovated Madison Square Garden. “If only one customer had come, I would have given the complete show,” he boomed. “My duty is to the public and nothing shall ever keep me from honoring that duty, except Judgement Day itself.” As it was, about a hundred persons attended each of the threeand-a-half-hour performances. The variety show at Tony Pastor’s Theater on Fourteenth Street, however, drew only four persons. One of them was Frank J. Pnster of Jersey City Heights. Stranded in the city by the storm, he and two friends bought 25-cent balcony seats for the show. There was one other man in the balcony. At 7:30 Pastor approached the footlights and asked if the four wanted refunds. Pfister called down to “go on with the show.” The show went on and, to Pfister’s surprise, “all the performers responded to our applause just the same as if the house was crowded.” Afterward, Pastor got out a case of champagne and sandwiches and treated the cast and his four customers to a party.

A block away at the Star Theater, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving played to a similarly sparse house in Faust . Of all, the best attendance was at Daly’s Theater, at Twenty-eighth Street, where 150 persons turned up to see Ada Rehan in A Midsummer Night’s Dream . “The weather was a far cry from a midsummer’s night,” said an observer, “but Ada—ah, glorious Ada—was a dream.”

Dawn Tuesday found the storm stalled off Block Island, near the entrance to Long Island Sound. The thermometer read five degrees above zero at 5 A.M. , the wind was still howling at fifty miles an hour, and the snow continued to fall, but not as much as on the previous day. Early in the morning an unusual incident occurred when an immense ice floe from the Hudson River floated back up the bay on the rising tide. The floe—six inches thick and covered with two inches of snow—turned at the Battery and slowly headed up the East River, but it was so huge that it got wedged between Brooklyn and Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge itself had been closed to pedestrians, and the cable cars that ran back and forth over it were then out of service. Soon hundreds of persons were crossing over the ice field instead. Several tugs appeared and finally the field was broken up, with five men left hugging cakes of ice and drifting out to sea. Three were on a piece as large as Washington Square, two on cakes no larger than a door mat. The tugs rescued all of them.