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I'll See Your Polar Vortex and Raise You a Blizzard

Feb 8, 2014 6:54 PM | 0 comments

Over the past few weeks, it seems as though every other day a mess of snow, sleet, and rain has fallen on our fair city, only to become a sheet of treacherous ice in the days following. New Yorkers have been running to the local supermarkets to buy the necessities ('necessities' being an incredibly subjective term: milk and bottled water for one person might be chips and a bottle of wine for another) and stopping at the hardware store to purchase the last remaining bag of salt and a leftover garden trowel, the only shovel to be found in a twenty block radius. 

Even though we've been having 'Polar Vortexes' and 'Snowmageddons', names that imply apocalyptic conditions, if we look back through New York City's history we can see that we've been through this all before. What's more, the previous storms have been far more interesting and, in many cases, far more devastating. 

Central Library, ca. 1940. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Taking a walk down memory lane, one coated in ice, we can see that New Yorkers have been faced with many a snow storm. We had a nasty one in 1996, another in 1980, and a big ol' blizzard in 1947. 

Blizzard of '47, Vincent L. Stibler. Brooklyn Public Library. Brooklyn Collection. 

Blizzard of '47, Vincent L. Stibler. Brooklyn Public Library. Brooklyn Collection. 

And of course, the Blizzard of 1888.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 13, 1888. 

On March 12th, 1888, a great storm ravaged New York. 

Shortly after 12:00am on Monday morning, what was rain and sleet quickly turned over into snow. By 10:30am, Brooklyn's Fulton Street was a ghost town. Only a few stores were open and walkways were filling up with snow as fast as the men could shovel them. By noon, milk deliveries had ceased. Although the milkmen had the supply, the horses were exhausted and frozen. Schools closed early, the attendance being so meager that most people questioned why they were open at all.

(Did we just pull that last line from a recent De Blasio press conference? As Mark Twain said, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.")

The snow grew more intense. It was said that you couldn't see New Jersey, Brooklyn, or even Governor's Island from the tip of Manhattan.

The wind howled, whistled, banged, roared, and moaned as it rushed along. It fell upon the house sides in fearful gusts, it strained the great plate glass windows, rocked the frame houses, and pressed against the doors so that it was almost dangerous to open them. It was visible, substantial wind, so freighted was it with snow. It came in whirls, it descended in layers, it shot along in great blocks, it rose and fell and corkscrewed and zigzagged and played merry havoc with everything it could swing or batter or bang or carry away.

New York Evening Sun

By 6:00am on the 13th, the snow stopped. The winds had calmed. All in all, 21" fell on New York, with winds at times reaching 85 mph. Snow drifts of 20' towered over some areas of the city. Birds lay dead amid piles of debris, having frozen or been knocked about by the wind. The total cost of the storm would be $5,913,000. 

Blizzard of March, 1888, Morris Betts. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

As with most storms, with snow comes hyperbolic rumors. A report was made that the Greenpoint ferry was lost due to the storm. It wasn't lost, simply buried. Some of the rumors, however, turned out to be quite true indeed. Many men were reported missing. And many of the missing men were found drunk. Some folks became so inebriated they were collected by the police and, eventually, returned to their homes. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "It is a singular thing that almost every man Monday night was drunk. Men lost their bearings in the dark streets and high drifts and after plunging about in the snow that came above their waists, they felt like lying down and giving up. The police rescued many but the list of missing is swelling up and the snow may reveal some ghastly sights when it disappears." 

The Eagle's prediction was correct. Bodies of men began to appear as the drifts began to melt away. Men were not the only victims of the cold, however. A young boy who lived near Green-Wood cemetery had gone out on an errand early on Monday and was never heard from again.

Blizzard, 1888. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Blizzard of March, 1888. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Trees and telegraph lines were down all over, thrown about by the wind like matchsticks. This would be the first time since the introduction of the telegraph that New York City was cut off from communication, as lines to Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, and the South were down. 

In the aftermath, cab drivers charged an arm and a leg to go a few blocks. In Manhattan, one man paid $35 to take a cab uptown. Keep in mind, $35 was two month's rent for many poor families. While the wealthy were haggling with cab drivers, those unfortunate families were searching for coal, "bareheaded and scantily clothed, dragging shivering little children at their heels, carrying little tin pails with them, burst into tears while reading the placards, and turned away to pursue too often an equally fruitless pursuit at other stores" (New York Evening Sun).

One coal cart driver made the mistake of taking a full load through a crowded, tenement lined street, only to be swarmed by 100 women and girls with pails and baskets begging, pleading, and stealing coal from the back of his wagon. 

The cars were not running across the Brooklyn Bridge and foot traffic, for the time being, was also prohibited. Many people who had found themselves trapped on one side of the East River or the other decided to attempt an alternative route. Accounts of the number of people that chose to walk across the frozen East River vary, some say 1,000 and some say 10,000. One observer noticed unattended women making the trek as well. (Scandal!) People, however, were not the only travelers. One Sun reporter noticed "dogs who crossed the natural bridge were legion. They seemed to appreciate the rarity of the situation." 

Yet, as the tide began to come in "the great ice field moved. Not a crack on its surface showed the change, but a grating on the ends of the piers against which it was pinned told the story to the self-appointed watchers among the shore and loud were the cries to get onto the shore " (New York Evening Sun, March). There were over 100 people on the ice and many of them, apparently unperturbed by the slight movement under their feet, ignored the warnings of onlookers. Not until great cracks began to appear in the middle of the floe did they take heed, rushing to the shoreline. At least two men were found covered in ice, having taken an unintentional polar bear plunge into the East River. 

On the Brooklyn side, a daring rescue was taking place. One Sun reporter watched three men start on an ill-fated journey just before the ice shifted. As it began to crack, they found themselves trapped on neighboring cakes slowly moving downriver.

Two of the young men were on neighboring ice cakes. One finally made a dangerous jump onto the cake nearer to the shore where his companion stood. The crowd shouted approval and told them to keep heart, but could do nothing. The other young man who was irreproachably dressed and carried a satchel, was on a cake scarcely 25 feet in diameter. He ran from edge to edge, till each time he nearly dipped in the water, and showed such terror that terror was communicated to those on the shore. 

New York Evening Sun

I know you're incredibly nervous at this moment, fearful for the lives of the young, inappropriately dressed men floating down the river. You shouldn't be.

As the men were crying out, Captain Lisha Morris was deftly maneuvering his tugboat through the ever-widening cracks in the ice to save the men. With the help of some tow line and guile, all three men would see another sunrise. 

March, 1888. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

The snow was not all bad -- sales of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle went up dramatically. So high, in fact, papers that sold for five cents were going for double! The reporting from those papers would carry on in the minds of those who had lived through the great storm. For some time after, survivors would meet to reminisce about the greatest storm New York had ever seen, one with snowflakes as large as dollar bills and temperatures that were so cold "the Statue of Liberty had to put her hands in her pockets" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle).

In the past few weeks, there has been many a news report where New Yorkers have been lauded for being tough, resilient, and ready to handle any type of weather. Atlanta was covered in a few inches of snow earlier this month which essentially shut down the city. But let's not jump on our high snowplow just yet. We might be able to handle a storm, but New York might be to Atlanta as Minnesota might be to New York. After the Blizzard of 1888, a letter in the New York Evening Sun from the citizens of St. Paul offered aid. New York's Mayor Hewitt, however, saw the aid with a dusting of sarcasm. 

The city of St. Paul tenders to New York her sympathy for the damage to life and property occasioned by the blizzard now raging in your city. Unaccustomed to storm of such severity as to cause telegraphic isolation from the outside world, and never having had people frozen to death in the streets, we shall be glad to contribute to any relief fund for which may be started for your afflicted people. Weather here yesterday and to-day mild and beautiful. 

Staten Island Chuck recently said that there would be six more weeks of winter. The Brooklyn Collection wishes you warmth as we brace for the next few storms to come our way. We also advise you to stay off the East River, even if it looks like a grand adventure, and to carry an extra pair of socks. 

**This post brought to you jointly by Brendan and Christine**