When March arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, there is a sigh of relief, especially if the Winter has been long and harsh. For March is the ending of Winter and the arrival of Spring.
However, Winter can surprise you with an onslaught to proclaim that it still reigns over the land. So it was on that March in the 19th Century when people were reemerging from arctic environs to greet glorious March.
People in the Northeast were enjoying the warm 50s while the winds up the far North were converging to push the warmth away as fast as a clipper ship heading for port. Now we know when arctic air collides with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, the setting is ripe for apocalyptic drama.
So the Great Blizzard of 1888 began. This White Hurricane of natural forces made humans realized how little control they actually had with forces exceeding their human abilities or preparations.
“Between 11 March and 14 March 1888, an intense cyclone battered the northeastern United States with an unprecedented combination of heavy snows, high winds, and bitterly cold temperatures. Twenty to 50 in (51 to 102 cm) snowfalls were common across sections of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England and accompanied by winds as high as 80 mph (36 m s”1 ) and temperatures close to 0°F (—18° C). Several photographs taken during the storm period are presented in Fig. 1. More than 400 individuals perished at land and at sea as the storm raged along the coastline for three days. All transportation came to a halt and thousands of telegraph lines were downed, severing communications between the nation’s largest cities and the rest of the world for several days. (See Hughes (1976) for a detailed discussion of the effects of the storm.) Despite having occurred nearly a century ago, the “Blizzard of ’88” is still used as a gauge to compare similar storms.” https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/1520-0477%281983%29064%3C1258%3AAAOTO%3E2.0.CO%3B2
“After a mild winter a western snowstorm and a southern warm front converged to create one of the worst winter storms in American history. The snowfall began on the night of Sunday, March 11, and by Monday morning 10 inches (250 mm) had fallen in New York City. The storm continued until the city was blanketed with 22 inches (550 mm) of snow. Other areas experienced as much as 40 to 50 inches (1,000 to 1,250 mm). Sustained high winds and temperatures far below freezing exacerbated the dangerous situation. In New York, winds averaged 40 miles (65 km) per hour and gusted up to 80 miles (130 km) per hour. The winds demolished power and telegraph lines and resulted in snowdrifts as high as 50 feet (15 metres). Still, many New Yorkers unfamiliar with blizzard conditions tried to go to work. As the weather worsened throughout Monday, workers were stranded in the streets, on trains, in elevated transit cars, and at their places of employment. Shops, government offices, courts, Wall Street businesses, and even the Brooklyn Bridge closed, and saloons, hotels, and prisons were overflowing with people who were seeking shelter.” https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Blizzard-of-1888
“Piano maker William Steinway woke up on March 12, 1888, and discovered “the most fearful snowstorm . . . I ever experienced” had buried New York City. Before the day had ended, he wrote in his diary, his carriage had become stuck three times and he had waded through knee-deep snow near his Gramercy Park home, having “a terrible time getting to my house at 6 p.m.” Returning from a canceled theater performance, his wife and two adult children came home covered in snow. And so began the day that people from Washington, D.C., to New England experienced the Blizzard of 1888, a weather event so fierce that it’s still a storm by which other East Coast storms are measured.” http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/blizzard-1888
Like then the weather of 2019 has become fierce like a wailing pack of banshees. Polar vortexes, tempestuous wild fires, wizened drought, torrential rains and the list continues for phenomena for which humans have no control and definitely no say in what transpires.
All of these natural occurrences knock the breath out of you. If one has experienced this unpleasant phrenospasm, one can identify with the onslaughts which are manifesting themselves on this planet traversing the cosmos.
As in 1888 Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1835 poem The Snow Storm, many could relate to its graphic imagery during the Winter of 2019.
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
G. D. Williams © 2019
The Great Blizzard of 1888
The Great Blizzard of 1888, one of the most severe storms in recorded U.S. history, formed shortly after midnight on this day 130 years ago and continued unabated for a full day and a half. New York City was buried under 40 inches of snow with sustained winds of 45 miles an hour and snowdrifts that reached the second story. The blizzard claimed more than 400 lives, half of them in the beleaguered metropolis.
On March 10, temperatures in the Northeast hovered in the mid-50s. But on March 11, cold Arctic air from Canada collided with Gulf air from the south and temperatures plunged. Rain turned to snow and winds reached hurricane-strength levels. By midnight on March 11, gusts were recorded at 85 miles per hour in New York City. Along with heavy snow, there was a complete whiteout in the city when the residents awoke the next morning.
Despite drifts that reached the second story of some buildings, many city residents trudged out to New York’s elevated trains to go to work, only to find many of them blocked by snow drifts and unable to move. Up to 15,000 people were stranded on the elevated trains; in many areas, enterprising people with ladders offered to rescue the passengers for a small fee. In addition to the trains, telegraph lines, water mains and gas lines were also located above ground. Each was no match for the powerful blizzard, freezing and then becoming inaccessible to repair crews. Simply walking the streets was perilous. In fact, only 30 people out of 1,000 were able to make it to the New York Stock Exchange for work; Wall Street was forced to close for three straight days. There were also several instances of people collapsing in snow drifts and dying, including Senator Roscoe Conkling, New York’s Republican Party leader. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/great-blizzard-of-88-hits-east-coast
Nature had covered the city in a mountain of snow. School was impossible, and children from every borough and walk of life went outside and played, if only for a while before being sent shopping, or finding work clearing snow or running errands. Amateur and professional photographers went outside and captured some of the best known photographs in the city’s history. A lot of poor men and boys also found work shoveling snow, thereby feeding their families. https://www.brownstoner.com/history/blizzard-1888-new-york-brooklyn-snow-storm-history-environmental-subway/
The storm struck on Monday, March 11, 1888, but many thousands attempted to make their way to work anyway, not knowing how severe the storm would be. It would be the worst commute in New York City history. Fallen telephone and telegraph poles became a hidden threat under the quickly accumulating drifts.
Elevated trains were frozen in place, their passengers unable to get out for hours. Many died simply trying to make their way back home on foot, including Roscoe Conkling, a power broker of New York’s Republican Party.
But there were moments of amusement too. Saloons thrived, and actors trudged through to the snow in time for their performances, and for P.T. Barnum, the show must always go on!