Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.
By: Christopher C. Burt , 9:50 PM GMT on March 15, 2012
The Great Blizzard of 1888; America’s Greatest Snow Disaster
As temperatures soared into the mid-70°s this week in New York City, it is hard to believe this is the 124th anniversary of New York’s and America’s worst blizzard on record (and happens to share the same days as this year). The temperature in the city fell to 6° during the storm on March 13th, the coldest temperature ever measured there so late in the season. Few storms are as iconic as the famous blizzard of’88. It was the deadliest, snowiest, and most unusual winter storm in American annals. No storm of similar magnitude has ever occurred anywhere in the contiguous United States since. Over 400 perished including 200 in New York City alone, many literally buried in drifts in downtown Manhattan. Here is a recap of this famous event.
A snowdrift tunnel in Farmington, Connecticut with six feet of headroom. New York Historical Society.
The Winter of 1888: ‘The Children’s Blizzard’
January of 1888 saw the most intense cold wave on record impact the Inter-mountain west and Northwest portions of the country. This spread eastward during the third week of the month bringing additional all-time cold records to the upper Midwest.
Some of the all-time coldest temperatures recorded in January 1888 that still stand today include the following:
20° at Eureka, California on Jan. 14
-24° at Lakeview, Oregon on Jan. 15
-6° at Roseburg, Oregon on Jan. 16
-28° at Boise, Idaho on Jan. 16
-42° at Missoula, Montana on Jan. 16
-36° at Ely, Nevada on Jan. 16
-30° at Spokane, Washington on Jan. 16
-41° at St. Paul (Minneapolis), Minnesota on Jan. 21
-36° at Green Bay, Wisconsin on Jan. 21
The coldest temperature during the month was a -56.8° at Poplar River, Montana on January 15th. Of course, there were very few weather stations in the far west and Rocky Mountain areas in 1888, so many other locations would probably have had record low temperatures if they had observation sites at that early date.
The cold wave was preceded by a terrific blizzard in the upper Plains and Midwest on January 12-13. Known as ‘The Children’s Blizzard’ (as immortalized by David Laskin in his superb book of the same name) approximately 200-250 settlers died from exposure, mostly children trapped in the storm on their way home from isolated prairie schools in South Dakota and Minnesota. Ironically, this was probably the second deadliest blizzard in U.S. history aside from the east coast storm that this blog focuses on.
The Great Blizzard of March 12-14, 1888
As Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini noted in their classic compendium Northeast Snowstorms (published by the American Meteorological Society) the Blizzard of ’88 was a “unique storm” for several reasons. Firstly, most severe winter storms that affect the Northeast are preceded by an outbreak of cold air across the eastern U.S., usually centered over northern New England or southern Canada. No such air mass was in place prior to the development of the storm. Secondly, the storm center became stationary and actually made a counterclockwise loop off the coast of southern New England while maintaining its peak intensity (with a central pressure of approximately 980 mb). Instead of moving along the usual SW to NE path that severe winter storms follow, the low-pressure center just gradually filled in and dissipated, eventually drifting slowly out to sea.
This map illustrates the track of the storm and how it meandered for 48 hours off the southern New England coast. Graphic by Paul Kocin.
Below are some synoptic maps of the storm;
Synoptic maps for March 11-13 showing the evolution of the storm. Reproduced from ‘Northeast Snowstorms’ by Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini.
A detail of the synoptic map for 7 a.m. EST on March 12 as the storm began to reach its peak intensity in New York City. Graphic from ‘Blizzard: The Great Storm of ‘88’ by Judd Caplovich.
In New York City the rain turned to snow at 1 a.m. on Monday March 12 when the temperature fell to freezing. Blizzard conditions quickly developed as the wind rose to a sustained 50 mph. By 8 a.m. the city was completely immobilized by the blinding, drifting snow and howling winds. All telegraph communications went down and the elevated rail line ground to a halt with one train derailing and killing several passengers and crew. Walking in the streets became not only impossible but also deadly. Of the 200 people who perished in New York City most were found buried in snowdrifts along the city’s sidewalks. One of these victims was Senator Roscoe Conkling, a New York Republican Party kingpin and aspirant for the White House presidency. He died as a result of ‘over exposure’ from trying to walk from his Wall Street office to the New York Club on Madison Square.
One of the only known photographs taken in Manhattan during the height of the blizzard itself. This is Wall Street. Note the broken telegraph pole on the right. New York Historical Society.
Refugee’s filled all the hotels. The venerable Astor Hotel set up 100 cots in its lobby when it became apparent by sunset that day that venturing outside was still impossible, the temperature had fallen to 8° by sunset, the wind was still howling and snowdrifts up to 20’ filled the streets of the city.
The storm was even more severe in areas north and east of New York City. 50 trains became stranded between Albany and NYC, on Long Island, New Jersey, and in Connecticut. Many were derailed after trying to plow through drifts measured up to 38’ in Connecticut (this drift measured in a rail line cut near Cheshire). 40-foot drifts were reported from Bangall, a small town in Dutchess County, New York. Many of the other 200 fatalities attributed to the blizzard consisted of passengers and train crews that attempted to walk to nearby towns after their trains became stalled or derailed.
The Sussex River Railroad passenger train derailed near Andover, New Jersey. It took two days before rescue crews could reach the survivors. The New Jersey Historical Society.
Several ships foundered at sea, lost to 90 mph winds, huge seas, and deck ice accumulations that caused them to rollover from the top-heavy weight.
How Much snow fell?
The maximum point accumulation from the storm was 58” measured at Saratoga Springs north of Albany, New York. Albany itself recorded 47”. Troy, New York measured 55”.
An amazing 55” of snow (on level) buried Troy, New York during the storm. Here, drifts reach the second story in an alleyway in the city. Rensselaer County Historical Society.
New York City’s official accumulation was stated as 21” in Manhattan, but up to 36” fell in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. New Haven, Connecticut received 42” and Hartford at least 36” (this figure was estimated since the official weather site for the city was located on a hill where only 19” was recorded since high winds blew the most of the snow away).
State maximums were as follows:
New York: 58” at Saratoga Springs
Connecticut: 50” at Middleton
Vermont: 48” at Bennington
New Hampshire: 42” at Dublin
Massachusetts: 40” at North Adams
Pennsylvania: 31” at Blooming Grove
New Jersey: 25” at Rahway
Rhode Island: 20” at Kingston
Maine: 20” at Boothby
Map of snow accumulations from the storm. From ‘Northeast Snowstorms’ by Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini.
When the storm stalled off the southern New England coast, warm Atlantic air was advected inland over northern New England diminishing snow accumulations from Boston northward. The line between cold and warm air became very defined. At one point late on Monday night, March 12, the temperature stood at 4° in Northfield, Vermont while it was 34° in Nashua, New Hampshire, just 60 miles east. Graphic by Paul Kocin.
How the Storm Changed America
The blizzard was the first widely documented natural disaster in U.S. history using photographic means. The deadly high-line rail disaster led the city of New York to plan its vast subway system, now one of the most extensive in the world. The breakdown of all communications from Washington D.C. northwards resulted in the burying of telegraph, and later, electric lines throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.
REFS: The best book about the storm is Blizzard! The Great Storm of ‘88 by Judd Caplovich, VeRo Publishing Co., 1987. Much of the material in this blog originates from this fine work.
Northeast Snowstorms by Paul Kocin and Uccellini, American Meteorological Society, Boston, 2004.
Cold Waves and Frosts in the United States U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Weather Bureau Bulletin P, Wash. D.C., 1906.
Christopher C. Burt
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