The Great Blizzard of 1888 (March 11 – March 14, 1888) was one of the most severe blizzards in United States’ recorded history. Snowfalls of 40-50 inches fell in parts of New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and sustained winds of over 45 miles per hour produced snowdrifts in excess of 50 feet. Railroads were shut down and people were confined to their houses for up to a week. Over 400 people died from the storm and the ensuing cold, including 200 in New York City alone.
On March 10, 1888, approximately one in every four Americans lived in the area between Washington D.C. and Maine. Temperatures on that day 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. The storm, referred to as the Great White Hurricane, continued unabated for a full day and a half and paralyzed the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine, as well as the Atlantic provinces of Canada. In New York City up to 15,000 people were stranded on the elevated trains. 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 as there were many reports of people collapsing in snow drifts and dying, including Senator Roscoe Conkling, New York’s Republican Party leader. Fire stations were immobilized, and property loss from fire alone was estimated at $25 million. Along the Atlantic coast from Chesapeake Bay through the New England area, over 200 ships were either grounded or wrecked in the high winds and heavy waves, resulting in the deaths of at least 100 seamen.
The National Weather Service estimated this incredible Nor’easter dumped 50 inches of snow in Connecticut and Massachusetts, while New Jersey and New York had 40 inches. Most of northern Vermont received from 20 inches to 30 inches in this storm. Drifts were reported to average 30–40 feet, over the tops of houses from New York to New England, with reports of drifts covering 3-story houses. The highest drift, 52 feet, was recorded in Gravesend, New York. Fifty-eight inches of snow was reported in Saratoga Springs, New York; 48 inches in Albany, New York; 45 inches of snow in New Haven, Connecticut; and 22 inches of snow in New York City. The storm also produced severe winds, 80 miles per hour wind gusts were reported, although the highest official report in New York City was 40 miles per hour, with a 54 miles per hour gust reported at Block Island. New York’s Central Park Observatory reported a minimum temperature of 6°F, and a daytime average of 9°F on March 13, the coldest ever recorded for March.
In New York, neither rail nor road transport was possible anywhere for days, and drifts across the New York—New Haven rail line at Westport, Connecticut took eight days to clear. Telegraph infrastructure was disabled, isolating Montreal and most of the large northeastern U.S. cities from Washington, D.C. to Boston for days. Severe flooding occurred after the storm due to melting snow, especially in the Brooklyn area, which was more susceptible to serious flooding due to its topography.
In the wake of the storm, officials realized the dangers of above-ground telegraph, water and gas lines and began moving them below ground. Transportation gridlock as a result of the storm was also partially responsible for the creation of the first underground subway system in the United States, which opened nine years later in Boston. In New York City, a similar determination was made about their trains, and within ten years, construction began on their underground subway system that is still in use today.