Tag Archives: New York City

Northeast Blizzard of March 11-14 1888

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.

Blizzard of 1888, Park Place in Brooklyn NY. March 14, 1888.
NOAA Photo Library
Public Domain

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).

Stereoview picture of Grand Street in New Britain, Connecticut, published by F. W. Allderige in 1888
Public Domain/Wikimedia

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

In Memoriam, PS General Slocum

General Slocum, date and author unknown. Image:Public Domain (National Archives)
General Slocum, date and author unknown.
Image:Public Domain (National Archives)

Today marks the anniversary of the tragic sinking of PS General Slocum on the East River in New York City. She was taking members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Church to a church picnic. It was supposed to be a wonderful outing for all and many children were aboard. Fire broke out, most likely in the Lamp Room, and then spread. Due to inadequate safety inspections, failure of Knickerbocker Steamship Company to maintain safety standards, and the ship’s captain, the safety equipment aboard was completely unusable. Ship hoses could not function due to age, most life preservers were so old they fell apart or were weighted inside, and lifeboats were inaccessible. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 passengers perished in the tragedy mostly from drowning. It was the single worst loss of life in New York City history until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Sadly many who died were children though sometimes parents or members of the extended family also perished. Some victims were never identified because there was no one living to do so. The funeral procession of the dead was witnessed by many and the small coffins caused many to cry. One notable incident was a man accompanied by his wife carrying a small coffin under his arms. He could not afford a funeral wagon and so was walking to the cemetery. Fortunately a man delivering flowers offered him a ride.

The subsequent investigation revealed the poor state of safety equipment on General Slocum. The company laid the blame on Captain Van Schaick  and the government inspectors for failing in their duties (who were likely bribed). It would lead to reorganization of the government agency responsible and tighter accountability of ship owners to safety regulations. Today that function is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the United States has one the toughest maritime safety regulations in the world.

General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City Image:Public Domain (Wikipedia)
General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City
Image:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

The Knickerbocker Steamship Company was fined and Captain Van Schaick would be imprisoned for several years. He was paroled in 1911 and in 1912 President Taft pardoned him. Many believed, although he was captain of General Slocum, the company was ultimately responsible for the tragedy. St. Mark’s Evangelical Church was part of the Little Germany community in New York. The loss brought many together to help the church and its members. However as people began to move away from the area, the Germans that had made up its base went with it. The church closed and is now a synagogue. A stone memorial to the victims of the General Slocum is  at Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan. Today there are those that get together to remember this terrible event in New York City history. Sadly all the survivors have passed away, the last one in 2004.

The movie Manhattan Melodrama(1934), which stars a young Clark Gable, has as its opening moments the events of the General Slocum which sets in motion the lives of the two characters the movie depicts. Not a bad movie for its time and worth looking at if you have the opportunity.

A memorial plaque placed near the former church of St. Mark’s on the centennial of disaster states:

This is the site of the former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1857–1940) a mostly German immigrant parish. On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the church chartered the excursion steamer, GENERAL SLOCUM, to take the members on the 17th annual Sunday school picnic. The steamer sailed up the East River, with some 1400 passengers aboard, when it entered the infamous Hell Gate passage, caught fire and was beached and sank on North Brother Island. It is estimated 1200 people lost their lives, mostly woman and children, dying within yards of the Bronx shore.

The GENERAL SLOCUM had been certified by the U.S. Steam boat Inspection Service to safely carry 2500 passengers five weeks before the disaster. An investigation after the fire and sinking found the lifeboats were wired and glued with paint to the deck, life jackets fell apart with age, fire hoses burst under water pressure, and the crew never had a fire drill. Until the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001,the Slocum disaster had been the largest fire fatality in New York City’s history.

Dedicated Sunday, June 13, 2004, by the Steam Centennial Committee.
The Maritime Indistry Museum
SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY

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Titanic Cliche of the Day: NY Post-Business Sank Like The Titanic

For once this is a nautical related cliché. Recently a new ferry service began on the East River to reduce people taking subways and buses. NY Waterway, a subsidiary of BillyBey Ferry Co, receives a $9.1 million subsidy from New York City for a three year pilot project. When it started up in June, ridership soared to 10,900 a day. According to news reports, the city is estimating 400,000 riders for the first year. That makes it about 1,095 passengers a day. So the high numbers at the start looked promising.

Except that it was for free until 25 June when the $4 fare kicked in. Then ridership began to tumble and according to the New York Post was down to 2,824 paying customers before the Fourth of July. Note that is above the estimated number of 1095 but still way down from the 10.900 when the service started for free. This prompted a writer for the New York Post to write:

Business sank like the Titanic on the new East River ferry service last week once passengers had to start paying.

Of course the ferry operator is not displeased. Despite the dropping ridership they claim ridership has exceeded expectations. Now usually when a business starts up and is unable to keep people coming back resulting in fewer sales, the effect is startling causing the business to correct things fast or close up. The fact traffic dropped significantly after the free trial ended means people would rather take the bus or subway rather than pay $4.00 to cross the river. Perhaps if they did not have that $9 million cushion they might look at the numbers a whole different way.

New York Post, $4 Fee Turns Ferry Into Ghost Ship, 4 Jul 2011

dnainfo.com, Ridership Drops After East River Ferry Starts Charging, 30 June 2011

dnainfo.com, East River Ferry Draws 12,000 Riders in First Two Days, 1 June 2011