The Blizzard of 1888: "The Great White Hurricane” That Paralyzed New York

Snow has been the bane of New Yorkers, and particularly New York City mayors, for generations

By Gabe Pressman
|  Thursday, Feb 13, 2014  |  Updated 5:03 PM EDT
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The Blizzard of 1888: "The Great White Hurricane” That Paralyzed New York

Snow piled up high on the corner of 63rd Street and Third Avenue during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

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Snow has been the bane of New Yorkers, and particularly New York City mayors, for generations. But the Blizzard of 1888 is legendary.

Looking back at the newspaper headlines of March 1888, the impact of that storm is clear.

The New York Herald of March 14, 1888 told a story of disaster: “THE BURIED CITY; A NIGHT OF DEVASTATION, How The Tempest Howled and Raged Through the Dark Wilderness of Streets; Perishing Men and Women.’’

The New York Times on March 13, 1888, called it “the worst storm the city has ever known.” The Times said New York was “helpless in a tornado of wind and snow which paralyzed all industry, isolated the city from the rest of the country, caused many accidents and great discomfort and exposed it to many dangers.”

Another dramatic view from the New York Sun of March 13, 1888: “It was as if New York had been a burning candle upon which nature had clapped a snuffer, leaving nothing of the city’s activity but a struggling ember.”

From the same newspaper, another article was headlined: “Elevated Roads Helpless; Tens of Thousands of Passengers Caught Between Stations” and the story was just as dramatic: “never has there been such a day as yesterday in the history of the elevated railroads.”

In that day certainly reporters and editors had a flare for sensational images and writing, and their readers, it could be surmised, enjoyed these accounts too. But the facts, as validated by historian Edward Ellis in “The Epic of New York City,” added up to “the deadly combination of an erroneous weather forecast, an unprepared city, a heavy snowfall, a ferocious wind and a bone-chilling cold.” 

The blizzard raged from March 11 to March 14. The New York Public Library archives estimated that 200 people died in New York City. The New York Times reported that 21 inches of snow fell in three days, with winds reaching 85 miles an hour.

The New York Herald called the storm the “Great White Hurricane.” In an accompanying article on March 13, the newspaper reported: ”A great white hurricane roared all day through New York yesterday and turned the comfortable city into a wild and bewildering waste of snow and ice.”

Mayor John Lindsay took a political hit in 1969 when he failed to plow the streets of Queens. Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a beating from the press for being out of town when the city was hit with another snowstorm in 2010. There have been other storms when more snow fell. But, in the history of New York, the Blizzard of '88 will forever live.

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