From the evening of Sunday, March 11, through Tuesday, March 13, 1888 a snowstorm-hurricane pounded New York City. In an era before modern meteorology, most residents were caught unprepared.
Beginning late on the fourth Sunday of Lent, rain, hail, and snow fell in succession, and temperatures plummeted to the single digits. Winds gusted to 81 miles per hour. Telegraph, telephone, and electric wires (all newer conveniences of urban life) were downed in the streets and elevated train cars froze to the rails high above Sixth Avenue, trapping passengers inside. Fifty-foot snowdrifts were reported.
The streets quickly became impassable to humans, horses, streetcars, and carriages. An estimated 200 people died as a result of the storm, many of whom collapsed from exposure or injury from flying objects and were quickly buried by drifting snow.
Morgan Dix, the 61-year-old rector of Trinity Parish at the time, was an avid diarist and an avid reporter of the weather. He lived with his much younger wife Emily and two school age daughters in the rectory at 27 West 25th Street. He devotes six pages of his 1888 journal to an account of the storm.
Sunday, March 11, 1888
And such a laetare! The weather was very threatening in the morning, but little did we dream of what was coming...In walking up home, struck by the wild and awful look of the sky, which was filled with dull grey cloud, and which long black twisps drifted, blown by the north-east wind, which was blowing a half gale.
The storm raged all day Monday. The Dix family was without household help.
Our boy did not reach the Rectory; and we could not blame him. The snow would have been up to his waist, and he would have had to walk two miles…The children were overjoyed as their teacher could not come: it was an extemporaneous and unexpected holiday, and so the more joyful.
Fascinatingly, three members of the Vestry managed to make it to a meeting that day, but the meeting was rescheduled due to absences.
That night, Dix writes,
There was something awful in the noise of the gale and in the whole appearance of the city. At night many of the lights gave out. The electric wire, telegraph, telephone, and all gave out. Even birds flew boldly into houses for shelter and safety: one came into our own, and at last took refuge in the path, and was brought in and fed. In the midst of the wild storm, Henry Bergh died, the friend of animals.
Henry Bergh was the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dix attended his funeral later that week.
Most New Yorkers remained housebound through Tuesday, as did Dix. The family was without milk for their breakfast: no carts could get through. By then, the danger of the storm had passed and Dix describes a charming street scene:
On the other side of the School House was a hill of snow all across the sidewalk, down which boys slid: it rose halfway to the height of the parlor windows.
The city began to get back to normal the next day, though the Blizzard of 1888 was an impetus for the creation of New York’s subway system, as well as its decision to bury all wires below the streets.