White Hell – the Blizzard of 1888 (part one)
In 1888 the streets of New York City were as busy as they are today. Rather than imported cars, high performance bicycles, or joggers in lycra, there were horses pulling carts and trolleys along loud cobblestone streets amidst a crush of pedestrians.
It was March 11th, a Sunday in the City and the weather was pleasant. It was a seasonably comfortable 42 degrees at noontime, a promising prelude to a Spring that was only a couple weeks away. The waning Winter of ’88 had been a bad one for much of America. The high plains states had experienced a blizzard in January of that year which had killed over 200 settlers in South Dakota and Minnesota, most of them children. It was morbidly named “the Children’s Blizzard”. That once-in-a-generation storm was something America was looking forward to putting behind them, encouraged as they were by the appearance of the first daffodils of Spring.
The physiology of New York City was also different then. New York City was not yet the 5 borough metropolis we now know. Much of the The Bronx and Queens were their own separate counties then, and Staten Island was primarily forest. Brooklyn was independent of New York City and one of the three largest cities in America all its own. The concentration of New York City was primarily below 34th street, everything north of that fading into varying degrees of suburbs which in turn gave way to farms.
The sounds were different too. Iron-banded cart wheels bounced along cobblestoned streets, sometimes in horse-to-cart traffic jams. Barkers from their street stalls shouted over the racket of traffic. The grinding hiss of streetcars, their iron wheels on iron rails running in the middle of the streets, were also pulled by horses. In addition, the relatively new technology of the telephone raised voices in the Public Phone Houses where people clamored to use the new marvel connecting them to other people in other Public Phone Houses in the city and across the country.
Sunday afternoon turned to rain, but nothing significant. People went to bed Sunday evening with every expectation that Monday morning would be as Monday mornings were – a return to school and work.
But as darkness fell something snuck into the city. A storm so fast that it was not predicted at all. The entire northeastern portion of America was unprepared for this invader as it tore and shoved its incredible girth inland from the Atlantic. Its arrival would change the landscape of New York City forever.
Earlier, at dawn on Sunday March 11 a storm of no significant proportion was travelling in a northeasterly direction away from South Carolina. The military-run U.S. Signal Service (the precursor to the National Weather Service) was aware of the storm in the South but considered it insignificant. Meanwhile, the forecast for New York City’s Monday, March 12th promised, “fair weather followed by rain”. By the time the sun set over North Carolina that day, there was every indication that the storm was heading out to sea.
The jet-stream is a constant force of cool northern air that flows west-to-east. When, on occasion, it dips from the chilly North into the warm and humid South the clash causes a newly formed ‘weather system’. Because the jet stream is perpetual the chaos of the weather system gets spun like a top, its cyclonic action absorbing moisture from the warmer atmosphere giving it a heft that presses the sky into the land. Sometimes the swirling storm dumps rain then is spun off into the Atlantic ocean. There it may break loose of the jet stream and dissipate, or less commonly, begin picking up oceanic moisture and continue to grow. Most such storms burn out over the ocean and the mainland feels little of it, but rarely, changes in the jet stream draw a storm backwards where it returns to land from a northeasterly direction. This is what is called a “nor’easter” and they tend to be very violent storms.
On a handful of recorded occasions as the jet stream creates a nor’easter, it’s force will also draw freezing air southwards from the frigid north. Frozen air collides with the engorged nor’easter. There is no name for this phenomenon.
On March 11th, 1888, that nameless thing arrived. In the middle of the night, what would become the most terrible storm the Northeast ever saw, shoved itself over New Jersey, Connecticut, and, in particular, New York City. On the streets, the winds shifted and gathered in intensity. The drop in temperature caused the rain to change to sleet then quickly to thick wet snow.
The city that never sleeps, slept right through it.
END PART ONE – continue with White Hell part two