In its wake, the Great White Hurricane left as much as 50 inches of snow in Connecticut and Massachusetts, forty in New York and New Jersey. The New York World reported particularly horrific conditions in New York City, which was buried under almost two feet of snow and suffered temperatures as low as five degrees above zero with biting 50 mph winds. The storm that suspended travel and communications in the Northeast for nearly a week in March 1888 most notably paralyzed New York City; however, the storm also suspended life in smaller Northeast U.S. cities.
As Monday, March 12, 1888 dawned over Lowell, Massachusetts, its 65,000 residents awoke to a wet swirling snow and temperatures near freezing. Dutifully, they trudged off to their jobs in the city’s textile mills, not aware of the incoming blizzard, which would drop increasing intensities of snow in the city throughout that day and the next. The light breezes of the morning developed into furious winds, as temperatures never warmed past freezing. As the day progressed, milkmen struggled to make their rounds, shoveling passageways through drifts that began reaching several feet in many neighborhoods. Patrolmen were forced to give up their rounds later in the day, saying that they had never before had such an experience. Most considered such a storm only possible in the U.S. West, which was still haunted by the fresh memory of the hundreds of deaths caused by the Schoolhouse Blizzard earlier that year.
In Lowell, Massachusetts, snow, heavy and wet, fell throughout the day on March 12, accompanied by howling winds that rattled the windows, and even the buildings in which people were confined. Communication with other cities facing the same storm was soon lost as the snow, ice, and strong gusts prostrated the telegraph poles and telephone wires. One injury was reported in Lowell, when a swinging sign tore from its fastenings and hit a man shoveling his employer’s sidewalk.
Getting To Lowell
That night, people returning to Lowell from surrounding cities and towns by train got in late, if at all. The local papers recorded several accounts of trains stalling along the way, stranding passengers in a dark, white wilderness. The snow had settled solidly on the tracks, slowing the steam engines as they pushed through drifts that, by most accounts, reached 10-20 feet high. The snow had taken down many of the telegraph wires, as well, leaving communication with these stalled trains impossible.
Getting Around Lowell
Travel around Lowell deteriorated as the snow settled firmly on the horse car tracks as quickly as the plows could remove it. Horse cars, horse-drawn transit vehicles, were the predominant mode of inter-city transportation for city residents in the late nineteenth century. The exertion on the horses pulling the horse cars, filled to capacity during the storm, was noted in many contemporary accounts. Early humanitarians decried cases of observed abuse, especially when one horse, fatigued from the added burdens of the extra passengers and the snow drifts, dropped dead early in the evening. Ultimately, around 7 o’clock, all horse cars were sent to the stables and the effort to keep the horse car tracks clear was abandoned. Contemporary accounts remarked at the oddness of not seeing one track or horse car visible that night, instead seeing streets dominated by sleighs no longer concerned with overturning in the horse car tracks.
Electric Light System
To save the fire alarm system from potential electrical surges, the city’s electric light system was shut down at 5:30 in the afternoon, after a notice was sent to storekeepers, informing them that they would need to convert to gas lights. Most closed at sunset instead, sending employees out into the dark, snowy streets in search of transportation home that was rapidly failing. City officials invested some effort into lighting the streets by the gas light lanterns that still hung on most roads. They soon discovered, however, that the glass had been removed from most lantern panes, thus rendering the gas light lanterns useless.
Telegraph lines between Lowell and Boston and elsewhere began to fail early during the afternoon of March 12, as the accumulating snow and ice caused the telegraph poles to snap and break. By three o’clock in the afternoon, communication with Boston was lost. Communication with New York City had been lost several hours before. The New England Telephone Company reported extensive damage to its wires, as well, which was exasperated by the telegraph wire failures.
By noon on Tuesday, March 13, the sun peaked through the clouds and people soon realized that the worst was over. During that afternoon, the sun reappeared, but melted little as temperatures clung to the high twenties. Teams of men, equipped with picks and shovels, worked throughout the day and evening on March 13, clearing the deep drifts from the horse car tracks. Horse cars cautiously returned to some service as early as 9:30 on the morning of Wednesday, March 14. Almost all horse car travel was restored by that evening.
Trains that had been trapped behind the high drifts began arriving from other points on March 13. A 5:45 AM train from Fall River, Massachusetts arrived just before 5 o’clock in the afternoon on March 13, many hours late. Trains did not return to on-time service until March 14, despite a snow squall that blew through the area that morning, dropping several more inches of light, fluffy snow.
The Western Union Telegraph Company began replacing telegraph poles soon after the storm ended on March 13, but telegraph communication with many nearby cities was not restored for several days. The New England Telephone Company completed most repairs to its system by the evening of Thursday, March 15. Telephone communication with Boston was delayed several days longer due to a large number of wires that had fallen in the intermediate city of Arlington, Massachusetts. Electric light service was returned to the city by the night of March 14.
Local newspaper accounts from the following days tell of the storm’s lessening impact on the region, as repairs were completed. News began arriving from other points hit more severely than Lowell, particularly from New York City. There, the damage was much more severe; fatalities had been recorded, and more extensive damages were realized. Fortunately, Lowell was spared the most severe of the damage from the Great White Hurricane of 1888; however, the storm was referenced as the benchmark of all blizzards for nearly a century, until the Blizzard of 1978 came along and replaced it in the memory of New Englanders.
“The Blockade Lifted: General Resumption of Business.” Lowell Daily Courier. 16 March 1888: 6. Print.
“Lowell in Darkness.” Boston Globe. 13 March 1888: 5-6. Print.
“Lowell’s Share: Effects of the Storm at Home.” Lowell Daily Courier. 13 March 1888: 3-4. Print.
“From New York: Graphic Story of the Great Blizzard.” Lowell Daily Courier. 15 March 1888: 2-3. Print.
“The Snow Embargo.” The World. 14 March 1888: 1. Print.
“The Storm Abroad.” Lowell Weekly Sun. 17 March 1888: 1. Print.
“The Storm at Home.” Lowell Weekly Sun. 17 March 1888: 1. Print.