The March blizzard of 1888 hit NYC with 21 inches of snow and killed 200 people

Posted On Mon, March 12, 2018 By

Posted On Mon, March 12, 2018 By In City Living, Features, History

The awning of a grocery store is damaged from the weight of the snow during the blizzard of 1888 in New York City. The blizzard March 12-14 paralyzed the city with about 40 inches of snow over two days. | AP Photo

As we shake off the remaining chill of one snowstorm and hunker down to wait out another one threatening to blanket the city and ruin our commute, spring seems an unusually long way off for the middle of March. Is this normal? But there’s nothing unseasonal about a mid-March blizzard. In fact, the record for most snow to fall in a day was set on March 12th of 1888, when 16.5 inches piled up in Central Park.


@NWS via Twitter

If you peruse a little meteorological history, you’ll see that March really does manage a roar when it comes to snowstorms. Ephemeral New York tells of the March megablizzard that caught the city by surprise, following balmy 40-degree temperatures and an overall warm winter (sound familiar?).

Image: NYHS

The forecast predicted light rain. On Monday, March 12, 1888, “the city went into its gas-lighted rooms and its heated houses, and its parlors and beds tired, wet, helpless, and full of amazement,” according to the New York Sun on March 13, after being hammered by the “White Hurricane” that killed about 200 people, struck down power lines, paralyzed streetcars and trolleys and dumped deep mounds of snow on a winter-weary city.

According to Brownstoner’s account, the “storm of the century” raged for a day and a half, with winds clocked at 45 miles per hour, and gusts of up to 54 miles per hour. The high winds caused towering snowdrifts 30 and 40 feet high (yes, you read that correctly), enough to cover two and three story buildings. The record snowdrift, found in Gravesend, was 52 feet high.

The storm is credited for bringing the city into the modern era. In the midst of digging out from under the snow, the danger of such a storm–and the rudimentary process of manual snow removal–became clear. Because the storm was so sudden, families were left without food or fuel. Doctors and patients were unable to connect if they needed to. Freezing conditions and high winds had downed hundreds of overhead telegraph and telephone lines, cutting the snow-bound cities off from the outside world.

Fires were a big threat to the crowded city even on the nicest day. But with the snow, fire engines couldn’t be sent, and more than $25 million in property damage resulted. When the snow finally began to melt: flooding. 200 deaths were recorded in New York City alone.

The Great Blizzard of 1888 is credited with forcing the city to bury its utility lines. It also convinced city fathers of the merit of something we can’t imagine living without today: underground trains. New York’s elevated train lines were stopped short by the storm. After the snow cleared, plans for a subway system were re-examined and suddenly looked pretty good. The first subway line hit the tracks in 1904, 16 years after the Great Blizzard.


@NWS via Twitter

The National Weather Service agrees that March is no time to let down your guard–or put away your shovel.


Brooklynites behold a wall of snow after the March 1888 storm. Image: wikimedia commons

And it turns out that last week’s nor’easter didn’t even make the top five worst March snow-pocalypses–and it didn’t meet the criteria for a blizzard, which include visibility being reduced to .25 miles or less for 3 hours or longer and winds above 35 mph, according to the National Weather Service (h/t AMNew York). The five worst offenders:

March 12, 1888: This aforementioned and totally unexpected two-day blizzard dumped 21 inches on the city and was the worst to strike the city in March.

March 8, 1941: Central Park got about 18 inches of snow.

March 4, 1960: A two-day nor’easter deposited 14.5 inches of snow.

March 5, 1981: A “wintry mix” resulted in 8.6 inches of accumulation, the biggest of several storms that month.

March 13, 1993: The “Storm of the Century” came with 71 mph winds and almsost 11 inches of snow at LaGuardia Airport.

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