The weather for early March had been unusually mild in 1888. Spring was less than two weeks away when on Sunday, March 11, a cold rain began to fall. The changeover to snow was rapid, as temperatures plunged into the single digits. Winds began to howl with some gusts exceeding 80 mph. Before the Great White Hurricane abated on March 14th, more than 400 people would die because of its effects, and most of New York and New England were brought to a standstill.
According to meteorologists, the Great White Hurricane of 1888 had become so large and powerful that it became cut off from the jet stream currents that normally would carry it away. Instead, the storm meandered off the coast for three days, continually pumping snow across the region. Middletown, CT, recorded the highest total in the state with 50 inches. New Haven checked in with 45 inches. Both cities had drifts exceeding 30 feet.
Middletown's Penny Press of March 13, 1888, described the incredible snowfall in this way:
"Main Street was almost impassable ... All cross streets were blocked and the wind roared in rage. Fine, fleecy snow rushed impetuously in whirling blasts, appearing maddened that puny mortals should presume to do battle against the storm. ... In nearly all the streets of the city the only passageway ... is in the middle of the highway, and that is only wide enough for one person."
Snowfall totals in other parts of the region, especially in upstate New York, were staggering. In Saratoga Springs, NY, for example, 58 inches of snow fell! Snow drifts averaging 30-40 feet could be found, engulfing entire houses. In fact, the highest snowdrift measured was 52 feet in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. Telegraph lines were destroyed, and railroad transportation came to a halt for days.
Following the storm, and, as a consequence of the widespread destruction of their communication and transportation systems, cities began to re-route their telephone and telegraph lines underground. New York City, for example, decided to put its mass transit underground by building its first subway system in 1900. The only son of Civil War hero Gen. Alexander Shaler of Haddam, CT, Major Ira Shaler, supervised its construction. The New York City subway system opened in 1904. Shaler, unfortunately, perished in a cave-in during its construction.
Nobody alive in 1888 could remember a snowstorm as massive and destructive in its scope as the blizzard of that year. The only one comparable in colonial American history may have occurred in 1644. The 1644 storm was one of three large snowstorms that winter. Anecdotal evidence from diaries suggests that it was an unusually monstrous storm, but we don’t have statistical evidence to compare it adequately to the Blizzard of ’88. Our February blizzard of 2013 — as paralyzing as it was — still was not as catastrophic as was the Great White Hurricane of 1888 — one of the worst storms ever to hit the United States.
(Note: To read one of the best accounts of the Blizzard of ’88, see Vernon resident Judd Caplovich’s comprehensive account in his 1987 book entitled Blizzard! The Great Storm Of ’88. Photo in gallery above.)