My great, great Uncle, Rueben Coyte, was a figure of iconic proportions in our family, and for me, born into a world without a surviving grandfather, he was a transformational presence. Uncle Reuben – or “Icky” as he was lovingly known to us – had been a young lad when the battle of Gettysburg was fought, and I spent my earliest years curled up on his ample lap learning history as seen through the eyes of a devoted observer and master story-teller. A direct descendant of our New Jersey town’s founding pioneer family,“Icky” had witnessed eight decades of America’s emergence from colonial youth to global prominence. Some of his most fascinating stories revolved around “The Great Blizzard of 1888”, an obvious historic milestone for people of his generation and an event against which all future natural weather phenomena would be measured for years to come.
It all began with an unseasonal warm spell in early March, followed by a period of heavy rains. Shortly after midnight Eastern time on March 11th, it turned to snow, and for the next three days, it snowed without letup up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast line. In what some called “The Great White Hurricane”, the storm dropped up to 58 inches of new snow, as gale force winds gusted up to 80 miles per hour and temperatures dropped into single digits. Drifts up to thirty and forty feet in depth covered even three-story houses in many places, and reduced visibility halted virtually all human movement. Electricity was the first piece of infrastructure to go, followed by telephone and telegraph communications, gas transmission lines and water and sewer systems. Rail lines between northeastern cities were so mangled that it would take eight days after the storm passed to restore operations. (It was this disaster which led directly to the first underground rail systems or “subways” in America).
Because fire stations were immobilized by the storm, fires in New York City alone accounted for more than $25 million in damage and loss during the blizzard’s grip. Storm-caused deaths totaled more than 400, with half of those in New York City. From Chesapeake Bay on the south to Portland, Maine in the north, more than 200 ships were either sunk or grounded, with 100 seamen losing their lives.
If the known costs of the Great Blizzard were calculated in present-day dollars, they would probably come close to $2 billion!
The winter of 1888 had already made its mark on weather history two months earlier, in a storm which swept down out of the Canadian north bringing Arctic cold to collide with warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico over the high plains of Wisconsin, Nebraska and the Dakota Territory. Because the savage cold, high winds and driven snow struck unexpectedly and in the middle of the day, it came to be known as “The Schoolhouse Blizzard”. All across the northern tier of states, children became “trapped” in the one-room schoolhouses which predominated in prairie regions, in many cases entombed by cold and blowing, drifting snow, and blinding visibility. Out of that stormy turmoil came a national heroine whose name, Minnie Freeman, became a household word. When the storm blew out first the windows, and then the roof of the tiny sod school house in which she and her children were marooned, she decided to lead her charges to safety. Lashing them together with whatever ropes and pieces of clothing were at hand, she started out into the teeth of the gale, heading for a house she new sat about one mile away.
Her exploit was heralded widely by a fascinated press, and she eventually found herself deluged with adoring letters, including 80 marriage proposals. A song, “Thirteen Were Saved” or “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid” became the semi-official “Song of The Great Blizzard of 1888”.
Weather statistics suggest that if you live long enough, and happen to be in the right place at the right time, you stand a good chance of experiencing a blizzard of your own. With that recognition in mind, it is only prudent to equip the home in which you live, and the vehicle in which you and those you love travel, with a “worst case scenario in mind.
Blizzard conditions can develop very quickly, and with little warning. High winds, blowing and drifting snow, and falling temperatures can turn a “fair” day into a “white knuckle” experience for the unprepared. The most deadly blizzard in recent times occurred in Iran in 1972 with a death toll of 4000.