Thursday, February 3, 2011

Stop whining about snow: New York's "Great Blizzard of 1888"

New York's West 11th street, at Waverly Place.
You think you've had a bad winter this year, Chicago  New York, or Boston?  Stop complaining.  You're not even close.  

Starting just after midnight on March 12, 1888, New York City broke the record.  What became the Great Blizzard of 1888 brought 75-mile-per-hour winds, zero-degree temperatures, and a rousing 40 inches of snow to the City.  Nearby New Jersey and Connecticut got fifty inches.  Snow drifts were measured up to 40 feet, burying entire houses.    Telegraphs and railroads broke down, communications froze, and over 400 people died in the cold, including 200 just in New York.  Thousands were isolated in their houses, unable to get out.  Many starved to death.  Estimated properly losses topped $25 million (over a billion in modern money).  

And that's just the start.  This was, after all, 1888.  That meant no snowplows, no street salt, no central heat, and no city help (unless you paid off your local Tammany Hall politico).  If you got cold, you snuggled with your spouse.  If you got hurt, you sucked it up and kept shoveling.  

Among the celebrity victims was Roscoe Conkling, the former US Senator  practicing law in at the time.  Conkling refused to pay $50 for a horse-drawn buggy to take him home that day.  Instead he fought his way for hours through two miles of chest-deep snow until reaching Madison Square Park, where he fell unconscious, dying a few days later.  A statute of Conkling marks the spot today.

The well-known photo above was shot by Cranmer C. Langill, a commercial photographer who at the time had a shop on East Fourteenth Street.  (Click on it to see full size and enjoy the detail.)  Who is the little girl standing on the sidewalk?  I wish we knew.

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