With the clean-up from Hurricane Sandy expected to drag on for many weeks, if not months, it’s humbling to realize how much we remain at the mercy of nature, despite our technological advances. The New York Stock Exchange was shuttered for 2 days: the longest such closure since 1888, the news channels have been saying. But what happened in 1888 that could have brought the city to its knees even more than Sandy?
March of 1888 was unusually mild for New York weather. Higher-than-usual temperatures attracted heavy rain storms in the first week of the month, drenching the city, and setting the stage for disaster beyond comprehension. On Sunday the 11th, an exceptionally powerful rain storm swept over New York. As night fell, the storm gathered force, and temperatures began to plummet. The raindrops froze, coating the city with ice. By Monday morning, New York, Brooklyn, and all the towns along the northeastern seaboard found themselves smothered under a blanket of thick, heavy snow.
Without the 24-hour stream of news coverage and Weather Channel updates to which we’re so accustomed today, the people of New York awoke relatively unaware of the situation their city was in. But the city’s infrastructure in 1888 was not what it is today: there was no subway system and no tunnels. Electrical wires, telegraph wires, and telephone cables all hung from poles above the street. The snow, which drifted in some places as high as 50 feet, had effectively knocked out every mode of transportation and communication the modern city possessed.
And the weather didn’t release its grip on the city quickly: temperatures in Central Park averaged 9 degrees farenheit on Tuesday March 13th. So the snow made no effort to melt. Train tracks remained useless. Wires snapped, cutting off wired communication. And most roads were so heavily inundated with snow that cars, including ambulances and fire trucks, could not get through. Fire burned unchecked, and unable to heat their homes, many people simply froze or starved to death.
Factories were unable to produce goods, since none of their employees could get to work. And the nation’s economy was temporarily held hostage as the New York Stock Exchange took 2 days to come back online. Many suburban New Yorkers were able to reach the city by ferry, but once there, decided it best to “leave well enough alone” and stay put. New York’s hotels, restaurants, and saloons soon became heavily crowded as people desperately searched for distractions from the wintery misery outside.
It took nearly a week for the snow to melt away. All told, more than 400 people died as a result of the storm’s wrath from Maryland to Maine. Nearly 200 of those deaths occurred in New York alone.
But lessons were learned from the “Great White Blizzard” of 1888. In earnest, cities began exploring better ways to construct their communication and transportation networks; their importance to the city’s existence had become painfully clear during the storm’s aftermath. The nation’s first subway train system opened in Boston in 1897, with New York’s system following suit in 1904. Electrical, telephone, and telegraph wires were buried beneath New York’s streets, to better protect them from future storms. And the tendency of late-19th-century man to boast of his superiority over Mother Nature was muted, even if only for a short while.
New York City was brought to its knees in 1888, and it wouldn’t see such significant weather-related damage until Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. It remains to be seen what lessons are taken away from this most recent disaster, and how it will shape New York’s future.