1888: The Blizzard of '88

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Records show that early settlers to what would become the Mid-Atlantic and New England states report of huge snowstorms dating back to the 1600s. Native American tales tell of deep snow and powerful winds from well before that time in the region. But modern city life and dense population was not yet established. By the 1880s though the population of Northeast cites had skyrocketed. In Philadelphia the population went from 120,000 in 1850 to 850,000 in 1880. NYC from 700,000 in 1850 to almost 2 million in 1880. With all those people packed into now modern rising cities and dependent on public services to allow people to get around and supply lines for basics like food major snow storms had a profound impact. In the decades prior to 1888 there had been no large snowstorm to impact the cities in the area. That all changed starting on March 11, 1888 and reached it’s height on March 13. In what would go down in history as the fabled Blizzard of ’88. The storm was slow to organize on the mid-Atlantic coast with 10” in Philadelphia, then it strengthened rapidly turning into a bomb cyclone. When the snow stopped flying the damage was done; more than 20” in New York 45” in Albany and New Haven Conn. New York City ground to a near halt in the face of massive snow drifts and powerful winds from the storm. Wind gusts were recorded at 85 miles per hour in New York City. Along with heavy snow, there was a complete whiteout in the city. 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 addition to the elevated trains; telegraph lines, water mains and gas lines were also located above ground making them prone to freezing, which they did because record cold accompanied the storm, temperatures plunged into the teens as far south as North Carolina. At the time, approximately one in every four Americans lived in the area between Washington DC and Boston, more than 400 people perished in the storm. Even though it happened more than 130 years ago it is still the benchmark that all other storms are measured by in the region.

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