- Historic Sites
The Great Blizzard Of ’88
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
At fifty-eight years of age, Roscoe Conkling was still a strapping figure of a man, proud of his strength. The former senator, presidential aspirant, and kingpin of Republican politics in New York State neither smoked nor imbibed. He exercised and boxed regularly. So when William Sulzer, a young lawyer who had an office on the same floor as Conkling’s in a Wall Street building, could not find a cab, Conkling decided to leave for his club, two and a half miles away, “on my pins.”
At fifty-eight years of age, Roscoe Conkling was still a strapping figure of a man, proud of his strength. The former senator, presidential aspirant, and kingpin of Republican politics in New York State neither smoked nor imbibed. He exercised and boxed regularly. So when William Sulzer, a young lawyer who had an office on the same floor as Conkling’s in a Wall Street building, could not find a cab, Conkling decided to leave for his club, two and a half miles away, “on my pins.” The Fastest Commuter in the East
The deserted streets outside were clogged with fallen telephone and telegraph poles and blocked, as Sulzer recalled, “by great mountains of snow.…We could hardly see Trinity Church, or the buildings on Broadway.” Conkling led the way, telling Sulzer to follow in his footsteps. Struggling against a fierce, bitterly cold wind, the two men reached the Astor House a few blocks away. Sulzer gave up and urged Conkling to join him in seeking refuge inside the hotel. But Conkling refused and continued on his own:
“It was dark, and it was useless to try to pick out a path, so I went magnificently along shouldering drifts.…I was pretty well exhausted when I got to Union Square, and, wiping the snow from my eyes, tried to make out the triangles [pathways that crisscrossed the park] there. But it was impossible. There was no light, and I plunged right through on as straight a line as I could determine upon.…
“I had got to the middle of the park and was up to my arms in a drift. I pulled the ice and snow from my eyes and held my hands up there till everything was melted off so that I might see; but it was too dark and the snow too blinding.…”
It took Conklihg twenty minutes to wrestle free from the huge snowdrift, coming “as near giving right up and sinking down there to die as a man can and not do it. Somehow I got out and made my way along.” Covered with snow and ice, he finally reached his club and collapsed inside the lobby. It had taken him three hours to get there. He had fought his way through the worst snowstorm in the history of New York City, the Blizzard of 1888.
There have been snowfalls that were greater, hurricanes with winds that were stronger, cold waves when temperatures plummeted lower, but never a combination of the three that was so devastating. The blizzard caught the entire Northeast by surprise, and for nearly two days isolated the nation’s largest metropolis.
Spring had been in the air as the weekend of March 10-11 began. The winter had been the mildest in seventeen years. On Saturday the Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson Circus had arrived in New York from its winter headquarters and that night staged a two-mile-long torchlight parade through lower Manhattan. Robins were sighted by bird watchers, trees were budding, crocuses were up. Walt Whitman turned in a poem to the New York Herald , where he was staff poet; he called it “The First Dandelion” (“Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging…The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.”). The city’s major department stores were planning spring sales to begin on Monday. And John J. Meisinger, buyer and manager of Ridley’s department store on Grand Street, was the laughingstock of the city. On Friday Meisinger had purchased for the “ridiculous low price” of $1,200 a carload of unclaimed snow shovels; a Herald reporter happened on the story and called it “Meisinger’s Folly.” The shovels were delivered to Ridley’s on Saturday, the warmest day of the year; temperatures were in the fifties.
Thousands of miles apart two major weather fronts were headed toward the Northeast. The first, a winter snowstorm from the West, had been spawned in the Pacific and was now racing across the continent on freezing winds at the rate of six hundred miles a day. At the same time a warm, moist air front born in the Gulf of Mexico was moving northward from Georgia.
Experts at the meteorological headquarters of the Army Signal Corps in Washington—a forerunner of the modern Weather Bureau—knew about both storm systems: the western snowstorm had already hit Minnesota, and gale winds from the warm front had been recorded in parts of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. But they believed both systems would either dissipate before nearing the eastern seaboard or else blow themselves out harmlessly at sea.
The Washington office and its substations around the country routinely shut down from 10 o’clock Saturday night until five o’clock Sunday afternoon. Before closing up his office on the top floor of the Equitable Building on Broadway, Sergeant Elias D’fcnn, chief of the New York substation, reviewed telegraphed reports from Washington and the latest reports telephoned, telegraphed, or sent by carrier pigeon from observers along the coast. Dunn predicted that Sunday in New York would be “cloudy followed by light rain and clearing.” He rechecked his findings with the Coast Guard, telephoned his forecast to night editors at the city’s newspapers, and went home.
The “light rain” became a downpour as Sunday dawned. When Dunn returned to work that afternoon it was evident something highly unusual was in the offing. He could not raise Washington on his telegraph.
The outer edges of the two storms converged near Lewes Harbor at the mouth of the Delaware River by Cape Henlopen. The gracefully curved harbor, protected both by its location and a breakwater, was a favored port for coastal vessels. Although Sunday had been a gloomy day, the barometer remained high until afternoon, when the first vessels began to seek the harbor’s shelter from rapidly increasing winds. A heavy downpour followed, and then at midnight an eerie calm set in. The wind died down, then shifted to almost the opposite point of the compass, blowing in from the west-northwest, the only unprotected side of the harbor. The velocity of the wind increased steadily, the thermometer fell abruptly, and snow began to fall. “It sounded to me like the noise of distant thunder coming nearer and nearer,” a captain said.
Hurricane-like winds and blinding snow struck with incredible fury. Anchors broke, rigging and sails were packed with ice and snow, rudders and tillers froze. Vessels ran aground, collided, foundered, while their crews tried desperately to reach safety. One sailor, lashed to the shrouds, froze to death, while his crewmates waited futilely for rescuers to reach their vessel by lifeboat. A schooner laden with a cargo of ice from Maine ran aground, sprang a leak, and soon was itself a solid mass of ice; pounded by the wind, the vessel was knocked to pieces. Two other vessels were driven from their anchors and swept out to sea. One, a coal barge, disappeared entirely; of the other, a bark, only spars, timbers, and cabins were later sighted. Thirty-five of the fifty vessels in the harbor were destroyed; three bodies were washed ashore.
In New York the rain changed to snow shortly after midnight, the temperature fell rapidly, the wind rose sharply. By six o’clock Monday morning, March 12, as the first city residents were preparing to go to work, the thermometer stood at 23 degrees and was still falling; winds averaged thirty-six miles an hour, with gusts as high as eighty-four miles an hour. Driven by the fierce winds, the snow in freakish fashion piled up on one side of some streets, leaving only a slick coating on the other. As the day wore on, the temperature dropped to five above zero, and winds climbed to an average of forty-eight miles an hour—and no respite was in sight.
At the height of the storm in mid-afternoon, the anemometer perched twenty-five feet above the Equitable Building’s east tower broke. One of Sergeant Dunn’s assistants, meteorologist Francis Long—a veteran Arctic explorer and survivor of one expedition that had been trapped for three years near the North Pole—offered to repair it. Dunn demurred at first; Long was a heavy man, and the anemometer had just clocked the wind at seventy-five miles an hour. But Long insisted. As Dunn and several other aides braced the thin pole, Long shinnied up it to the top and fixed the instrument, thus enabling the weather station, said Dunn, to preserve “the principal record” of the storm.
What seems amazing is that anyone even contemplated going to work that morning. But in a time before “workers’ benefits” and “job security,” clerks and laborers were afraid to lose a day’s pay. Bankers and stockbrokers were worried about notes and loans due; shopkeepers felt obliged to open their doors for their employees—and besides, most people did not realize the extent of the storm. If they could get out of their homes, they headed for work. For all—rich and poor, young and old—it was a new experience. A blizzard, after all, was common enough in the West, but a phenomenon of such proportions had not struck the Northeast before.
“It was as if New York had been a burning candle upon which nature had clapped a snuffer, leaving nothing of the city’s activity but a struggling ember,” the New York Evening Sun declared. ”…The city’s surface was like a wreck-strewn battlefield.” Of the fifteen mail trains due in New York that Monday morning, only four had arrived by 12:55 P.M. , when the city became, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the outside world. All the clocks that ran by electricity in Manhattan had stopped at precisely 12:07 P.M. when the regulator wire broke. Phone and telegraph wires were, like the mass-transit services, aboveground. The wires became coated with ice, poles broke, lines got entangled. Surveying the wreckage, a phone official found 150 poles down on Tenth Avenue, as many fallen on two other West Side streets, and dozens more in other blocks.
One by one the city’s four elevated railroads slowed to a halt, their tracks too slippery with ice to provide traction. One train on the Sixth Avenue El took six hours and twenty-five minutes to cover only two blocks. At the height of what was normally the morning rush hour a Third Avenue El train, drawn by a small locomotive called a “dinkie” and pushed by another in back, rammed into a stalled train at the upgrade just outside the Seventy-sixth Street stop; an engineer was killed and fourteen people injured. Thousands of passengers were stranded high above the streets. Enterprising men ran up ladders to the cars and charged the passengers as much as two dollars apiece to climb down.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’ ”
Whether Conkling enjoyed the jest is not known. He died early in the morning of April 18 of otitis media and suppurative inflammation of the mastoid cells with pulmonary edema- the last victim of the blizzard.