The Great Blizzard Of ’88


Gradually, the city struggled back to life. It warmed up a bit as the day progressed—from one degree below zero at 6 A.M. to 23 degrees at 3 P.M. — though winds still averaged forty-five miles an hour. The elevated railroads were able to start up on Tuesday, but street traffic continued to be badly bottled up. Getting rid of the snow was the major problem. Shovels were at a premium; Ridley’s department store chalked up a neat 50 per cent profit selling all the shovels that John Meisinger had bought for the store. The street-cleaning department estimated that below Forty-second Street alone there were a3,560,000 cubic yards of snow that had to be re- moved, that it would take two weeks to do so, and that twelve million cartloads would be required to dump the snow off river piers. The department hired more than seventeen thousand extra men at twenty-five cents an hour to shovel the snow, and tried to rent a thousand carts from merchants and teamsters. It was a laborious process. The clean-up operation began at Fourteenth Street and Broadway, near the department’s stables. Two cross streets were cleared first, so the carts could reach the piers. At the same time, homeowners and shopkeepers tried tunneling their way into the street, and when that didn’t work, some started bonfires to melt the snow. Youths were making modest fortunes shoveling sidewalks—anywhere from $10 to $25 a house was common.

Communication with the outside world was restored when a clever reporter for the Boston Globe found that he could send dispatches between Boston and New York via London by using the Atlantic Cable. Tuesday afternoon the United Press got a wire working between New York and Washington—a distance of 230 miles- by transmitting via Chicago and Pittsburgh, a distance of twenty-five hundred miles.

What amazed even-then blasé New Yorkers was the good humor that pervaded the city. Signs popped up everywhere on snowbanks: “Keep Off the Grass,” “This bank is closed indefinitely,” “It’s yours—if you want it,” “Don’t pick the flowers,” “Make us an offer.”

By Wednesday the worst was over. The temperature, only eight degrees at 3 A.M. , rose to 29 degrees by noon and the sun came out. The first mail train to reach New York since Monday, a Pennsylvania Railroad train from Philadelphia, arrived, as did the New York Central mail train from the Midwest that had been due Monday. By 6 P.M. , when the reading was 37 degrees and still climbing, Sergeant Dunn at the Signal Corps station forecast “fair and increasingly warm weather.” It now looked likely that the nearly five hundred dead bodies awaiting burial since the weekend could finally be interred; when funeral homes had run out of space for the corpses, many had been kept on ice.

By Thursday New York was virtually back to normal, though traffic jams continued to plague the city, and patches of snow remained in shaded sites until June. Mayor Hewitt was convinced now, he said, that the blizzard would have “one good effect…as it shows the necessity for an underground rapid transit railroad and for getting the wires under ground.”

Measured in actual inches of snowfall, the blizzard was not impressive- some sixteen inches had fallen on Monday, a little over four more inches on Tuesday. But other statistics were sobering: nearly one hundred persons lost at sea; as many dead in New York or in the region around it; $20 million in property damage in the city alone, and for the people who worked in it, some seven hundred thousand in all, $500,000 lost in wages. And for all of New York’s nearly one and a half million residents it had been an unforgettable experience, almost legendary, one to measure other storms by. Until as recently as 1969, when the few who were left were too old to meet anymore, a group of survivors known as the Blizzard Men of 1888 continued to observe the anniversary of the storm each year with a dinner at which they swapped anecdotes and rehashed the story of that dreadful day.


Oddly enough, during the storm New Yorkers kept referring to it as a Dakota blizzard. “It seems to have originated in Dakota, a Territory which threatens in our unceremonious nomenclature to be known as the ‘Blizzard State,’ ” a Herald editorial declared. “We may do Dakota injustice, which would be unfortunate on the eve of her admission into the family of States, but in the matter of storms she certainly comes off with a bad reputation.”

It was meant jokingly, of course, and Dakotans replied in kind. Typical was one of the several telegrams that were addressed to Mayor Hewitt:

“Huron, Dak., under a mild spring sun, sends her sympathy to blizzardstricken New York. If need you may draw on us for $50 to relieve the storm sufferers.”

Roscoe Conkling, whose trek to the safety of his club had received wide coverage in the nation’s press, also got a telegram, from the office of the Fargo Argus :“

The Dakota robins, sitting on orange trees, in blossom, join in thanks for your safe delivery from New-York’s snowdrifts…all join with me in congratulations to you and say: ‘Come to the banana belt, where every man is your well-wisher.’ ”