White Hell – The Blizzard of 1888, (part two)
In the morning of March 12th as eyes opened in the anticipation of school, work, or chores, the city was not prepared for what they found. White-out conditions. The wind grew overnight to a sustained 50 miles per hour causing snow to fall horizontally and into great drifts. Visibility was practically nil, everything disappearing in violent veils of white.
|New York City in the blizzard
The city’s carts and trolleys could not operate, the snow was already too deep and falling too fast. Worse yet was the temperature. At 6:00am it was already below freezing at 24 degrees. By noon it dropped to 14 degrees. The heavy snow, coupled with the freezing temperatures caused snow to accumulate on everything, including the spider web of telegraph lines that crisscrossed the streets of the cities.
Understanding the intricacy of these telegraph lines is difficult because in our modern age we have nothing comparable. From the street, the sky in places was virtually blotted out by the chaos of these cables.
The telegraph was the main form of communication at the time. The telephone was a relatively new invention. Typically one New York City block might have four “telegraph poles” one on each corner. These polls were 5 stories high, higher than the average building. Each pole had cross beams that supported 5 cables on one side of the pole and 5 cables on the other side. A pole could have 15 such crossbeams. So a single pole could support up to 150 telegraph cables on each side of the street. On a level below these titanic poles were separate shorter poles that fed lines into street level structures. A block would typically have 4 of these as well but they may support only 12 lines each. Each one of these nearly two hundred cables per street was as thick as a cigar.
Snow settled on these cables and froze. The wind rocked the cables, now significantly heavier with ice. The poles, like disproportionate, child-made mockeries of trees, swayed and creaked.
|frozen telegraph lines
As Monday wore on, the snow showed no signs of stopping. The temperature grew colder and the winds did not cease. Some families had stockpiles of coal in their homes so they could stoke up their stoves to try to stay warm. Poorer families did not fare as well. Fires were started in desperation using whatever was flammable and some of these burned out of control. The Fire Service, unable to get vehicles to these fires, did their best to reach those in need, but they could not reach everyone.
Out on the Long Island Sound, the invader paused as if to consider its options. It turned to bring its dreadful eye over New York City.
As evening descended that Monday, snow and wind worsened, and snow drifts were already approaching two stories high in places. Homes sealed, streets impassable.
America had recently emerged from “The Long Depression”. Though economic growth was returning, it was slower than it had been for decades. Many workers were paid by the hour (no work, no pay) and therefore had reason to try to brave the storm. Yet transportation was at a standstill. The railroad lines were stuck which ultimately left some commuters trapped in railroad cars for days. The wind overturned carts and trolleys in the streets, then the snow buried them, the horses thankfully away in their stables. Despite this calamity many New Yorkers made the decision to walk to work.
One such was George D. Baremore, a well-to-do hops merchant who lived in relative luxury with his wife and two sons at 59th street and 7th avenue. George chose to brave the storm to get to his offices on Walter Street, over 3 miles away. In the 19th century a person’s best defense against the winter was wool in layers. A wool coat, worn in the rising snow, would get wet and heavy while the bitter winds would make it freeze, making it heavier still. It was also not uncommon for a man to own only a single pair of shoes. As prepared as means would allow, some, like George (better off than most), left their homes, bent again the wind, scarves trailing behind, dark fading blotches in a white hell. It is unknown if George ever arrived at Walter street, but it is known that he, like many others, never came home.
When night ended on Tuesday March 12th, there was no relief in sight. The storm had continued through the night. The invader stalled over land where it sat, dumping up to 4 feet of snow in some places. Telegraph poles toppled in wind gusts up to 80 miles per hour. In some places entire streets lost all their telegraph lines, the cables and poles covered in thick layers of ice as they crashed to the streets to join the overturned carts and frozen trolleys, quickly to be covered in the relentless snow. The City was a minefield. There was barely even a difference between day and night.
Neighbor helped neighbor when possible. The fit and entrepreneurial shoveled for people who needed help. The Fire Brigade was relentless in their efforts to get to people in need. The City Police made every effort to keep order in what was descending into a desperate and dire situation. Police joined forces with the Fire Brigade to rescue people trapped in their homes. Drifts of snow buried the first and second stories of many buildings. Many were trapped at work and on trains whose tracks disappeared under the surface of a new wintry world. Most businesses were closed though many bars stayed open. Streets and sidewalks were gone. Phone and telegraph was down making communication impossible. There were no food or coal deliveries. A lone sign high up in a snow bank read, “keep off the grass”.
In the early hours of Wednesday, March 14th the invader slumped away as inexplicably as it had arrived. Weakened and exhausted from hammering the northeast for over 48 hours it simply went into the Atlantic like a cat bored of playing with the mouse it had killed.
As the temperature began to rise and the winds died away and the snow gave way to clouds and eventually sun, there was a reckoning. The storm had thrown ships into one another in the harbors of Delaware destroying over 30 of them. The land trains through New York were piled into one another unable to make forward or backward progress. The elevated trains were perhaps the first to move again, but below on the streets, there were snow drifts that, in some places, reached over 5 stories in height, leaving entire building facades covered as if with a white sheet.
|trains were blocked by snow
While most were relieved that the storm was over for others the nightmare would go on. Families tried desperately, some with no success, to reconnect with those who had persistently walked out into bitter blinding storm. Some homes, it was discovered later, had not been able to heat sufficiently. Entire families froze to death. James Marshall on Staten Island lost both hands and feet to frostbite, having hidden behind a hay bail for three days. The two companions he had with him froze to death.
As the days after the storm wore on there was nowhere for all the snow to go. Soon bonfires raged in the streets to melt the snow, using fallen telegraph poles and destroyed carts for kindling. As the melting effort went on the bodies of children and adults were found, frozen, buried. All told, the invader took the lives of over 400 people and was named “The Great White Hurricane”.
As March neared its end and the snow was significantly reduced and life in The City regained a sense of normalcy, some new challenges were met. The incredible amount of destruction brought on by the Great White Hurricane did change New York forever. What to do about telegraph and telephone lines, snow removal, flooding, trapped trains and more all required a new perspective and innovation should such an event ever occur again.
Ultimately New York City buried most of its new phone lines. Telegraph was still a viable technology so those lines were mostly buried as well. Some streets ended up with no visible cables at all. The effect of having so much of the cities industry crippled by failures in communication and transportation pushed forward, with zeal, previously scoffed-at proposals to put New York City’s trains under the ground.
The invader pummeled New York City knowing no difference between the rich or poor, foul or fair, young or old. While the scenes of death were many, when the mountains of snow receded under the elevated train tracks at 53rd street and 7th Avenue a policeman found a lonely hand protruding from the snow. The hand was attached to George D. Baremore. Survived by his wife and two young sons, the merchant froze to his death in the middle of that normally bustling intersection, gold watch in his pocket, only six blocks away from home.