On This Day in History, March 11: The Great Blizzard of ’88

March 11, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Though March is usually characterized by the onset of milder temperatures, that was certainly not the case in 1888. Record snowfalls of up to 20.9 inches were created in the great blizzard, which began on March 11 and continued for three days throughout the New England eastern seaboard states.

More than 400 people either froze to death or died later from the effects of the storm. Scores of ships and fishing boats were destroyed by waves and winds that averaged 60 m.p.h., with wind gusts of up to 100 m.p.h. Property damage exceeded $7 million.

Saturday, March 10, 1888, was a bright springlike day in Brooklyn with a gentle south wind. People strolled, sat awhile on their stoops, went downtown to take advantage of winter clearance sales in the Fulton Street stores, or went to Prospect Park where the trees were just beginning to bud. Across the East River in Manhattan, Barnum & Bailey’s circus was in town and their grand pre-opening parade had left Madison Square Garden at dusk. No one would have believed what was in store for them in the next few days.

The weather bureau forecast for Sunday, March 11, had been prepared for dispatch to the newspapers: “… fresh to brisk southeasterly winds, slightly warmer, threatening weather and rain.”

But the weather service offices were closed Sunday, March 11, to observe the sabbath, so when a cyclone near Cape Hatteras suddenly shifted its northeasterly course and headed directly north, there was no warning. Meanwhile an eastward-moving low-pressure trough was passing quickly over the Appalachians.

In Brooklyn on that Sunday, most of the day was overcast but not stormy. But things changed for those who were out late Sunday night. Two young German-Americans in Brooklyn, returning two young ladies to their homes after an evening at the Sangerbundballe, found the gutter overflowing in a torrential rain. They had to carry the girls on their backs, which seemed at first hilarious but then less so, as the rain turned to sleet and the sidewalk turned to ice.

When Brooklynites started stirring Monday morning, March 12, a strong wind was blowing from the northwest with tremendous gusts up to 100 m.p.h., and a heavy icy snow covered the northern walks and stoops while the southern ones were almost clear of snow but ice-covered. The air was full of flying tree parts, cardboard boxes, newspapers, umbrellas, hats and even birds downed by the wind. Shoveling the snow in the 1888 blizzard was useless as the high winds just blew it right back. Those who ventured out were met with a barrage of icy snow that they said felt “like flying glass.” Horses really suffered through the storm, slipping on ice-covered streets and trudging through banks of snow.

One delivery wagon driver said “… the sleet striking my face made me feel as if it was raining carpet tacks. My moustache was frozen solid, and my eyebrows, too, and little icicles formed on my eyelashes and got into my eyes. They hurt like hot cinders.”

As the drifts got higher and more formidable every minute, wagons and carriages had to be abandoned. Gates and stoops to houses were completely buried. Horse-drawn streetcars came to a halt as drifts stopped their passage.

From the Brooklyn Bridge the river below was invisible. The bridge was covered with ice and the footwalk was closed by mid-morning, but the Great Bridge withstood the winds without even trembling. (And after the storm, inspection showed not one iota of damage to the span). Down below, the ferries kept going, or trying to, all day long, and most of them completed their trips without incident. The Staten Island Ferry had given up in the early afternoon.

Not many theaters, or showplaces of any kind, opened that March 12, but in the tradition that “the show must go on,” Barnum & Bailey’s circus performed both matinee and evening performances. A scanty 100 patrons showed up at the matinee opening. Barnum himself said to the audience: “The storm may be a great show, but I still have the greatest show on earth.” Every one of the 86 acts in three rings went on as scheduled.

Manhattan’s Academy of Music opened but only a little over 100 patrons showed up and the show was postponed. Tony Pastor’s theater, a few doors away on 14th Street, opened and the show was performed to four patrons and a sea of empty seats.

On Tuesday, March 13, snow ceased to fall but the cold was intense — the temperature nearly zero. Everyone who lived in sight of the East River was amazed at seeing the river apparently frozen over solid. Masses of ice had come down the Hudson River and entered the bay and, with the incoming tide, invaded the East River.

About 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the Brooklyn Bridge roadway was made available to waiting pedestrians (not to vehicles), and thousands immediately swarmed over it. Later in the morning the pedestrian walkway was opened. Down below on the ice covered East River, people were seen pouring onto the frozen river — running, sliding, hurrying or cautiously picking their way along. Men and boys predominated, but there were women, too, and a number of dogs.

Young Al Smith, who later became governor and a 1928 presidential nominee, who lived near the river on the Manhattan side, remembered seeing a harnessed horse swung onto the ice and ridden to Brooklyn by his owner. More than just a few of those who saw all this happening forgot about getting to work and rushed out onto the ice. Hordes of small boys, including Al Smith, crossed the awesome expanse.

It seems everyone from the Wall Street broker to newsboys wanted to make the historic trip. Police on both sides of the river were trying to put a stop to it, but nevertheless, an estimated 3,000 made the trip. Charles Peck of Brooklyn crossed twice; his wife had been the first woman to cross the Brooklyn Bridge when it opened in 1883 and he was eager to outdo her. Another man said that the wind blew him clear across without effort on his part and he wished the ice were permanent. And an energetic dog belonging to a Brooklyn junk dealer was observed to scamper shore to shore four times.

At the turn of the tide the great ice field moved and began to drift seaward. There were over a hundred persons on the ice at this moment. Some 40 people were still on the big ice floe as it started its journey toward the sea. Some dock employees lowered ladders and helped many ashore. Slowly, but surely, the city was returning to some semblance of normalcy.

One newspaper headline on Wednesday, March 14, announced a cheery: “Goodbye Blizzard — The Storm Passing and the Elevated Road Struggling Into Motion.” The storm had left behind 200 dead in the metropolitan area, many bodily injuries, frostbite, loss of revenue, destruction of property and severe shortages of food and fuel.

Nine families in Brooklyn sat in frozen resignation after the roofs of their homes blew away. Getting rid of the walls of snow, some 30 to 40 feet high, was one problem. Fires were built inside large drifts but this caused another problem — flooding of gutters and basements. Tunnels were built through some drifts.

One casualty of the storm was Richard C. Reilly, a 21-year-old cub reporter of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. There had been rumors that the Brighton Beach Hotel at Coney Island had blown away in the devastating hurricane winds. On March 14 Reilly was sent by the city editor out to Coney to see if the rumor was true.

When Reilly finally got there he found the hotel right where it had always been. Reilly, although wearing two sets of clothing, got cold on the way back in a rented one-horse sleigh and stopped at several saloons along the way to take a warming glass. That was probably his undoing. He was found next morning at six by a passing farmer — upright in the driver’s seat, still holding the reins of the frozen horse, but unconscious. The farmer took him to the nearest hospital, where all his extremities were found to be frozen. He was still alive, but the treatment — hot bricks applied directly to his body — may have killed him. He died on Friday, March 16.

Bodies were still being found for days after the storm. One was a Brooklyn lamplighter “who started out to do his work, but lighted only three lamps.”

The blizzard was over, and in the words of one grateful Manhattan scribe: “The sun was a splendid and efficacious ally. The horsecars broke into Park Row, and the gutters sang merrily. On Friday, the crosstown cars were running, and some of the snow heaps were not more than five and a half feet high.”

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