Our recent blizzard may have seemed monstrous to some residents; but it was nothing compared to The Great Blizzard of 1888!
The blizzard - which occured between March 11th and 14th of that year - was the most severe recorded blizzard in US history up to that time. Weather forecasting was very primitive in those days. There was no Weather Bureau. There were only reports from the Department of War Signal Corps. They certainly didn't have the technology we have today. The forecast for this period predicted slightly warmer temperatures and fair weather, followed by rain. There was no mention of an extreme drop in temperature, or a substantial snowfall.
Light snow began falling in Greenwich on Sunday around 4 pm, and continued through Monday and Tuesday. The snow changed to rain. At midnight, the rain changed back to snow, and northeat winds increased to 50 mph. The Greenwich Graphic reported that the snow fell fast, and there were great drifts throughout the area. At daybreak on Monday, there were drifts "as high as mountains". Snow was piled up to 6- to 8- feet along Greenwich Avenue. An occassional horse and sleigh could be seen, but few people braved the storm. All travel stopped by noon. There were whiteout conditions. People could only see about 50-feet ahead. Drifts grew to 20-feet and 30-feet high. The few stores that were open on Greenwich Avenue closed by 6 pm. Lamplighter Alphous Owens was unable to get around to light the gas streetlamps!
On Tuesday morning, blue sky appeared at 9 am. Men came out to begin clearing the sidewalks and streets. This repreive was short-lived as the storm began again, in earnest! Fifty men and 5 teams of oxen tried to keep the paths clear. Residents J.C. Urion and Samuel B. Mead had brought out a yoke of oxen with a wood plow and huge sled to clear the streets. The team got stuck in snow on Greenwich Avenue in front of the Samuel Mead house! A gang of men had to tie rope to the oxens' horns to pull the team out.
GREENWICH AVENUE DURING BLIZZARD OF 1888
COURTESY: GREENWICH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Store owners tried to keep the walkways clear, and went out several times up and down Greenwich Avenue with their shovels. People were beginning to come out as they began to run out of provisions. Fortunately, the stores were pretty well stocked. Coal was in demand. Some residents were able to get coal or wood from their neighbors. Several teams of oxen plowed through the snow to open the road down to Waterbury and June's Coal yard on Steamboat Road. Meat supplies began to run low; but grocer Augustus Brush actually walked to Norwalk (when the storm let up) and located a train car loaded with beef! He had some of this brought to Greenwich by wagon. Milkmen could not get around easily. Dayton's Farm was able to get supplies through, but the owner refused to raise his price from 6-cents a gallon because he didn't want to take advantage of the residents during a difficult time!
It was impossible to get around town due to the ever-mounting snow. Train service along the coast was halted as snow piled up. Many people were stranded in Grand Central Station for several days until the first train arrived in Greenwich at 1:20pm on Thursday. Then again, it could only travel as far as Stamford. This meant no mail or newspaper service from New York and Boston for several days. There had been no mail service since Saturday - except for the diligent letter carriers, who brought mail from Banksville and Round Hill, braving the storm. Telegraph service ceased due to downed wires. Greenwich was indeed coutoff from the rest of the world.
The newspaper reported that the storm stopped at 8 pm on Tuesday evening. Snow had fallen for 50 hours. It was impossible to get a horse and carriage through the snow. Residents were afraid that no fire hose carriage or truck could get through the snow in the event of fire. Many hydrants were buried, and officials asked residents to dig them out. Fortunately, the Borough of Greenwich cleared the roads very quickly. As you can imagine, there was a large crowd of people waiting when the Post Office opened on Thursday. As conditions continued to improve, people came out on sleighs to get around town.
There were several unusual stories associated with the blizzard. Dr. Clarkson Mead from Port Chester got stuck on his horse in the snow when he was making a house call in Greenwich. He had to climb a tree and call for help. Several men responded and helped shovel out his horse.
The Fitzroy house and barn in Glenville was nearly covered with snow. The owner had to crawl out a window and chop a hole in the side of his barn to get coal.
When a train loaded with Greenwich residents was stopped in Mount Vernon, passengers tried to find shelter; but restaurant and hotel owners demanded exorbitant prices for their services! Fortunately, local residents opened up their homes to the travelers.
Train riders Robert McNall and Spencer Mead decided to walk back to Greenwich from Mt. Vernon at 12 o'clock one day. The duo didn't arrive back in Greenwich until 7 o'clock at night! This would not be advisable today.
On a wider scale, the entire Northeast was reeling from the storm. Forty to fifty inches of snow had fallen in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Maine. Sustained winds were reported at 45 MPH, while gusts were measured at 80 MPH. Fifty-foot snow drifts were reported, and some covered 3-story houses! People were confined to their homes for up to 7 days. An overnight temperature of 6-degrees F was reported. Telegraph and telephone lines, as well as street lights, were totally destroyed. The New York Stock Exchange even closed for two days. The East Coast was paralyzed from Chesapeake Bay to Maine.
It took 8-days to clear the New York-New Haven Railroad line in Wetsport, CT. Even the elevated trains in New York City were halted! Two hundred ships were grounded or wrecked. Many local sloops were lost. One hundred seamen died. Property loss from fire was reported to be $25-million. Fire trucks were unable to respond to the alarms because streets were impassable. There was severe flooding after the huge snow melt. Two hundred people died in New York City and 400 people died in New England.
NYC officials realized they had to implement some changes to prevent problems from future storms. Telegraph, telephone and electricl wires were placed underground. The first underground subway was built in the United States in Boston. The National Weather Bureau was created. Improvements were made in weather forecasting to provide accurate information. Today, we have weather satellites, Doppler radar and sophisticated computer weather models to predict severe weather. Cellphones have replaced landlines. Even though we have done a lot to lessen the effect of such storms, Mother Nature can still cripple major cities with heavy snows and winds.
The Greenwich Graphic
The New York Times