Object of the Month

“Very like old fashioned March”: the Great Blizzard of 1888

Madison Avenue and 40th Street, New York, during the Great Blizzard Photograph

Madison Avenue and 40th Street, New York, during the Great Blizzard

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This photograph of an unidentified young man shows the enormous drifts of snow deposited in the streets of New York City by the blizzard of 11-14 March 1888. The storm stretched from the Chesapeake Bay to Canada and left devastation in its wake, disrupting rail, telegraph, and mail service and causing hundreds of deaths and millions of dollars in property damage.

"A genuine March day commenced"

In a year in which a winter storm known as the "Schoolhouse" or "Children's Blizzard" had already claimed the lives of 235 people and thousands of cattle and other livestock in the Plains States, perhaps the residents of the Eastern seaboard could have been forgiven for thinking that winter was over when March dawned temperate, with crocuses already emerging. That belief (relief?) was soon to be shaken by a winter storm against which all subsequent storms would be measured. The "Great White Blizzard," as it is sometimes called, began on 11 March 1888 and raged for 72 hours, dumping up to forty inches of snow in New Jersey and New York and as much as fifty inches in parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Temperatures were in the single digits and the wind gusted to 80 miles per hour. Thanks to this driving wind, snow drifted as high as 30 to 40 feet.

First Hand Accounts of the Storm

The weather was a source of almost universal comment for diarists. The Massachusetts Historical Society's collection includes hundreds of diaries kept by individuals from all walks of life, including four that give us an interesting picture of this storm from different locales. Reverend Andrew Oliver found himself in the path of the storm in Springfield, Otsego County, New York. His entry for 12 March reads, "Blizzard!! A great snow storm & furious wind all day. Snow very deep & drifting badly. No street cars running." The next day he records, "Still very cold & windy. Mercury 7 abv. 0 at 7 … snow out front piled up i[n] t[he]street to a depth of 5 or 6 feet. No cars running & no trains in or out of t[he] city. Take a short walk. The streets present an extraordinary spectacle."

Lyman Worden, a farmhand in Barre Plains, Massachusetts, had a much less romanticized view of all that snow, writing on the 14th and 15th, "14. Shovel snow ½ day. Snow sticks to shovel and acts mean. Some big drifts 6 or 7 ft. deep. 15. Shovel snow. Road broke from Hamilton's to town. No pay for shoveling." In Dorchester, Massachusetts, where snow and rain had mixed, keeping the snowfall totals low, Henry Pierce recorded the news that "The storm of yesterday was very severe Heavy snows & R Roads blocked Telegraph wire down Said to have been the worst for eons."

Thomas Bradford Drew of Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the storm was merely a cold rain, recorded interesting stories despite being the least affected. On the 14th, he wrote, "A terrible snow storm raged in New York and Western Massachusetts day before yesterday, while we were having not much more than a cold rain storm. No communication has been recd, from New York City to Boston excepting by Atlantic Cable by way of London England!!!" He goes on to record the misadventures in travel of two acquaintances:

Lillie Briggs and Rita Smith started from Boston for Florida on Monday the 12th By Boston & Albany RR and the cars were stuck in the snow about six miles this side of Springfield and there they had to remain two whole nights and did not reach that city until this P.M. It was a hard experience for them. … Saturday 17th We had a letter from Lillie and Rita who are now in Springfield waiting to go to New York when the time comes to be sure of getting there. They said the nights on the snow bound train they were in were horrible.

"Cut Off"

Although Boston was spared the brunt of the snowfall, the effects of the storm were no less daunting. Cities and towns up and down the east coast really were "cut off," as the headline in the 13 March issue of the Boston Globe trumpeted. The storm knocked out telegraphic and postal communications and trains could not get through the drifts. Travel, even short distances, was nearly impossible until brigades of snow shovelers and horse-drawn snow rollers had cleared the streets. Supplies of food ran short as trains sat at a standstill for a week or more. The storm did lead to many infrastructure improvements, including the burying of overhead utility lines in major cities and the creation of America's first subway in Boston, Massachusetts, which opened nine years later.

For Further Reading

Caplovich, Judd. Blizzard! The Great Storm of '88. Vernon, Conn.: VeRo Publishing Co., c1987.

Thomas Bradford Drew diaries, 1849-1898.

Andrew Oliver diaries, 1859-1897

Henry Pierce diaries, 1822-1896

Lyman Worden diary 1888-1890