The Blizzard that Changed History

March 11, 2012

What could strand Mark Twain in a hotel, shut Wall Street down for days, obstruct delivery of the mail, cut off a quarter of the American population from the rest of the world, kill 200 people in New York City alone, influence the building of the New York subway, allow men to traipse about the streets eight feet above the ground, and permit one man to boast that he was the only man to ever be kicked by a dead horse?

Nicknamed the “Great White Hurricane” because of its hurricane strength winds, the blizzard of March 1888 was one of the worst blizzards to hit the northeastern United States. Spanning from Maine to Washington, D.C., the storm effected approximately a quarter of America’s population. Fifty-five inches of snow accumulated over the three-day period in the hardest hit areas. Drifts caused by winds peaking at 80 mph towered much higher; some reported 30-60 foot drifts. Pipes, rail lines, and telegraph lines were above ground at the time resulting in all kinds of havoc. Ice encased the hundreds of telegraph lines; the wind and the weight of the ice soon made communication impossible. Railway lines and trolley cars were halted by the voluminous amounts snow. Fear of losing jobs caused many people to brave the storm on foot. Those caught on the trains as the storm worsened found themselves paying between a quarter and two dollars to enterprising types for the right just to climb down ladders propped against the raised rail lines in an effort to escape the trains. Eventually, the Brooklyn Bridge was closed after people continued to try and crawl across it.

The devastating effects of the storm finally convinced many New York City leaders that underground piping, telegraph lines, and transportation were needed. As one New York Times reporter remarked “the blizzard may accomplish what months, if not years, of argument might have failed to do [in regards to the improvement of modes of communication and transportation].” Construction on the New York City subway which is still in use today began ten years after the blizzard.

What about that dead horse? One man who was trying to get home fell into the snow and managed to get a large gash on his head. Looking down he saw that he had fallen on a dead horse. He boasted to his friends for many years afterward that he was the only man who had been kicked by a dead horse.

–Erin Sutter is a senior Ashbrook Scholar majoring in History and Political Science.

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