The Great Blizzard that struck the Northeast of the United States on 11 Mar 1888 resulted in one of the most deadly blizzards to strike in the 19th century.. With massive snow drifts, powerful winds and 55 inches of snow in some places, virtually everyone between Washington D.C. and Maine was effected.
No one was prepared for the blizzard. March 10 had been a pleasant day with temperatures in the mid-50’s Fahrenheit. Arctic air from Canada collided with Gulf air on March 11 resulting in a massive temperature drop. Wind quickly began to churn and soon reached hurricane-strength levels in places like New York City. Heavy snow fell everywhere and in New York residents awoke on March 12 to find their city in a complete whiteout. The snow drifts were so high in some cases that they nearly reached the second story of buildings.
Despite this, many did try to get to work using the elevated trains. Alas snow drifts blocked the rails and so trains could not go anywhere. Getting off the platforms proved formidable in some cases as snow drifts blocked exits. Some took advantage of this to offer assistance with ladders for a fee. It is estimated up to 15,000 were stranded. But the problems in New York City multiplied. With telegraph lines, water mains and gas lines all above ground, they were covered with snow and ice made inaccessible. Telegraph lines snapped as well making communication with the outside world difficult impossible.
Getting to work on foot proved perilous as well. With so much snow and ice, many businesses could not open since no one could reach them. Only 30 made it to the New York Stock Exchange. It remained closed for three days. Many people also were injured walking and some fell into small drifts and died (including a New York state senator).
Outside of New York, it was just as bad. The wind and snow covered train tracks stopping trains. People had to endure freezing conditions as they awaited for assistance. Hundreds of boats were sunk due to the high waves and winds. Historic amounts of snow fell throughout the Northeast making it difficult for anyone to move about. Telegraph lines were knocked down as well cutting off areas from the outside world.
The storm resulted in $20-25 million in property damage. It took days to clear the railway lines of the snow drifts. Cities and towns had to deal with massive snow that had to be cleared and people were stuck in their homes in many places. Additionally emergency services such as fire and police were unable to respond or assist much in many places during this period. Fires in some places could not be put out as a result. Ships caught out at sea during the blizzard suffered badly; many that survived had to be fixed and lives were lost as well. Food deliveries were delayed since trains could not run for up to eight days until the snow was cleared from the tracks.
Broken telegraph lines had become a hazard in New York City and like the snow took days to clear. With the telegraph down, communication went down between Washington D.C. and the Northeast including Canada. This would begin the start of moving critical infrastructure underground. New York City would begin construction of a subway line, telegraph lines and other important infrastructure would be moved underground as well.
This was the second major blizzard that had hit the United States in 1888. The first one occurred in January1888 and is often called the Children’s Blizzard over the number of children that died in the midwest as a result of it. The Weather Bureau, run by the U.S. Signal Service, did not see this blizzard nor the one that hit the Northeast in March. With all the damage that resulted from the Northeast blizzard, it was clear a change would have to be made. The New York press criticized the bureau for not manning weather reporting stations 24 hours a day. That was changed after this event but did not mollify a lot of critics. In 1890 the Weather Bureau was removed from the U.S. Army Signal Corps and put under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would be moved over to the Commerce Department during the Roosevelt Administration. In 1970 it was moved to the National Atmospheric Administration and renamed the National Weather Service in 1970.
National Museum of American History