Monday, December 27, 2010

The Great Blizzard of 1888

Today's weather calls to mind the Great Blizzard of 1888, probably the most famous snowstorm in American history. Like our current blizzard, it started during the night between Sunday and Monday, but, unlike our current storm, it occurred not at the end of December but in March--March 11 to March 14--when many people were looking forward to an early spring.   

On this snowy morning, Gossips shares Meta Lilienthal's memories of the Great Blizzard. Lilienthal was a child in 1888, the daughter of a New York City doctor. Her family lived on the East Side, in Stuyvesant Park. This excerpt begins with waking up on Monday morning to a world transfigured by snow.  

When I opened my eyes early next morning, still drowsy, still half asleep, I became dimly aware of something unusual, something strange. The day had not yet dawned, but my little hall bedroom was diffused with a white, unearthly brightness. Deep, unbroken silence seemed to envelop me, a heavy silence, until presently, now wide awake, with my senses alert, I became aware of a constant swishing and purring, like the hum of a machine heard at a distance. "Is it still raining?" I wondered. But that was not the sound of rain. "Or could it be snowing?" But gusts of wind, blowing snow against the window pane, had never sounded like a machine purring constantly, steadily. I dozed on for a while, and when I next opened my eyes the unearthly brightness that had filled my room had melted into daylight.

Jumping from my bed, I went to the window and pulled up the shade, and then I stood, motionless, speechless, for the sight I beheld was so different from anything my eyes had ever seen that it seemed to belong to another world. Stuyvesant Park was buried under mountains of snow. The trees no longer looked like trees; they looked like ghostly, white giants bending under a crushing burden. The iron enclosure, with its gates unopened for the first time, seemed to be only half its actual height, and of the long row of benches that lined the outside walks only a narrow dark line, their topmost boards, were still visible. The sidewalks, the areas leading to the basements, the front stoops, had simply disappeared. But the snow did not remain where it had fallen. It constantly swirled around and around, drawing away here, piling up there, until it seemed as if it were blowing out of the ground as well as falling in dense masses from the sky. No vehicle was in sight. There was no sound but the swirling and the swishing of the snow. Life seemed to have come to a standstill. "Like the North Pole," I gasped. Then I rushed into my parents' bedroom and shouted, "Father, mother, we are having a blizzard!" Later, when "blizzard" became the term by which this, the greatest snowstorm New York had ever known, was definitely and permanently identified, my father often recalled that he had first heard it so named by me. I had read descriptions of blizzards in the West, so the name naturally suggested itself. To call what I beheld from my window a snowstorm would have seemed as absurd as calling the ocean a swimming pool.

For a while my parents and I continued to stand by the window looking out upon the awesome spectacle. Then we dressed with utmost alacrity and hurried downstairs. Out of sheer force of habit my father went into his office, but he soon realized that no patient would appear. My mother, at the same time, realized that there would be no milkman, no baker's boy, no butcher or grocer to deliver the essential Monday morning supplies. So she immediately turned to the practical task of checking up what supplies were on hand. Personally I was not thinking of food. The adventure of the blizzard made everything else seem unimportant. I had tried to see it at close range from the windows of our basement dining room, but they had ceased to function as windows, for a solid wall of snow encased them. The same wall of snow was piled up in front of the basement entrance and extended to the parlor floor, completely obliterated the balcony, and more than half covered the high French parlor windows. If you wanted to look out into the street, you had to go to the second floor. With the view into the yard it was different. Here, on the south side, the snow had blown away from the house, but it had piled up against the fence that separated my yard from Elena's and Polly's yard. In fact there no longer was a fence. There only was a mountain of snow, higher than the fence had been.

We had a jolly breakfast, not caring that the rolls were stale and that there was no milk for the coffee. Mother was already worrying about probable casualties and food shortages; but my ever-merry father and I were getting all the fun we could out of our blizzard. "Generally fair, eh?" said my father mockingly, recalling yesterday's weather prediction; and then we realized, that there would be no newspaper. Presently another thought struck me: would the children be going to school? I went to the second floor and again looked out into the street. Except for two or three straggling figures of brave men trying to fight their way through the storm–I saw one give up the fight and retrace his steps–the streets were deserted. The streets, the park, the city belonged to the blizzard. In vain I looked for the familiar horsecars on Second Avenue. In vain I listened for the familiar rumble of the elevated trains on First Avenue. Nobody was going anywhere. Of course the children would not be going to school. Then there came to me the most pleasant realization of that unforgettable morning. If the children could not go to school, neither could my school come to me. The blizzard would keep away every one of my five teachers.

By ten o 'clock my father began to worry seriously about his patients, not those who had failed to come to his office, but those whom he was expected to visit. Two or three of them were seriously ill. They needed him. Restlessly he walked to and fro between his desk and the window hoping, though not believing, that a vehicle from Meister's livery stable would appear. "He has good, strong horses," said my father. "If a carriage is out of the question, he might send a sleigh." But no sleigh drew up at the door. For the first and only time my father voiced his regret that he had not consented to have a telephone installed. If he only had a telephone he could call Meister. He did not know at the time that a telephone would not have changed the situation, for all the telegraph and telephone wires were down, and so were uncounted numbers of telegraph poles that, in 1888, still lined the streets of New York like a country road. Also, Mr. Meister was not at his livery stable, nor were any of his employees except the stable boy who slept on the premises, and who later told a mournful tale of how he had gone without food all day and had felt like a shipwrecked traveler on an uninhabited island.

My father's restlessness grew every minute, and finally he decided to brave the elements and to walk over to Broadway, where he hoped that the cable car might still be running. It was the only cable car in New York at the time; all others were still drawn by horses. My mother argued and pleaded with him, and I chimed in, begging him not to go (though I secretly wished that I might go with him). But my father remained adamant. His patients needed him. I remember his dressing for the venture: high arctics into which he stuffed his trousers, a fur-lined coat buttoned up to the neck with the fur collar turned up, and a sealskin cap that he pulled down over his ears. Then he took off his eyeglasses and put them into his pocket. They would be useless, he said, for they would instantly be covered by snow. Then he took a hurried leave and tried to set out. He tried; but it took a long time until he succeeded. The wall of snow that covered the front of our house was growing higher and higher. It proved impossible to open the front door, so he tried the basement door. That, too, was snowed under, but since it led out sideways, not facing the storm directly, it was possible to dig oneself out of it. So my father got the snow shovel, and Margaret, swathed in coats and shawls, fetched the coal shovel from the cellar, and together they bravely began to dig. They repeatedly stopped for breath, and two or three times they retreated into the hallway to rub their stiff hands and freezing cheeks and noses. But eventually they managed to dig a narrow path from the door through the area out of the small gate that led out into the street. Then my father thanked Margaret, handed her his shovel, and began his solitary, unequal battle against the blizzard.

Mother and Margaret and I, from an upper window, watched him struggle and stagger, step by step, until he had reached Second Avenue and had disappeared from our sight. Then we turned away wordlessly. Mother's face was set and pale. Margaret was crying. My high spirits had deserted me. An hour later my father came struggling back in a state of utter exhaustion. He had won his battle; he had reached Broadway. But the cable car, too, had stopped running. That night, before retiring, we summed up the situation. All day long no one had crossed our threshold, no food had been brought to us, we had seen no newspaper nor received any mail. We had not been able to exchange a word or a greeting with any of the neighbors; no vehicle had passed our door; no news of the outside world had reached us. Living in the heart of America's greatest city, we were yet entirely isolated as, indeed, the city itself was isolated from the rest of the country; and the snow continued to drift and pile up around us higher and higher.

From Dear Remembered World: Childhood Memories of an Old New Yorker. Richard R. Smith, 1947. Click to continue reading Lilienthal's memories of the blizzard.

NOTE: The picture that accompanies this excerpt was taken in 1888, but it shows a street in Brooklyn not on the East Side of Manhattan.  

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