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The Blizzard Of ’88

June 2021
1min read

by Mary Cable; Atheneum; 198 pages.

A true blizzard, in meteorological terms, is not just a lot of snow. It must combine heavy snowfall, bitter cold, and a fierce wind.

Such a storm was the Blizzard of 1888, which struck the eastern seaboard of the United States on March 12 after several days of springlike weather. By the end of the first day practically every overhead wire—telephone, telegraph, and electric—was down, and an Albany newspaper noted that “New York is as remote from us as Tokio.” The death toll on land was greater than three hundred, and more than a hundred seamen died as 198 ships sank, were damaged, or were driven ashore.

Snow is not soft and pretty in a blizzard. It consists of sharp particles of flying ice that sting and cut, and people who were outdoors during this blizzard came in with bloody faces as though they had been in a battle. In cities, police pulled people out of drifts and rubbed their ears (“heroically if misguidedly”) to prevent frostbite. Women, weighed down by long, snow-collecting skirts, were in particular danger. Some people tried to revive freezing horses by pouring brandy down their throats. (Staff members of the New York World —who may have had a slug themselves—saved the life of one horse by leading him up a flight of stairs into the newsroom. They had to use a block and tackle to get him down the next day.)

Train service was totally stalled during the blizzard. In some cases passengers were stranded for as long as three days on trains caught in drifts they couldn’t batter their way through. Brave souls left the coaches to scout for food and fuel, sometimes successfully and sometimes fatally. People in New York, particularly those walking under the elevated tracks, reported being hit by small ice balls, which turned out to be frozen sparrows.

Not everyone was miserable. Saloons did a flourishing business throughout the days of the blizzard, providing food and drink and sleeping space for their customers on floors and billiard tables.

In this captivating day-by-day account of the famous storm, Mary Cable speculates about why the Blizzard of ’88—not the nation’s only such storm—has always ranked in folk memory with public disasters such as the Johnstown Flood and the sinking of the Titanic . Newspapers regularly compare storms to the Blizzard of ’88, and until they all gradually died, a Society of Blizzard Men and Blizzard Ladies met annually to swap storm stories. She concludes that this blizzard caused such a sense of isolation and “paralyzing anxiety” because, to the late nineteenth century’s optimistic urban population, it pointed out that their booming, highly organized social order was basically vulnerable.

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