On Saturday, March 10, 1888, the temperature in New York was in the fifties, marking
the last days of the mildest winter in seventeen years. A few light showers were
expected for the weekend. Elias B. Dunn, chief of the U.S. Signal Service’s local
weather observatory, recorded his forecast for the following day as “cloudy, followed
by light rain and clearing.”
Sunday afternoon, however, saw drenching rains, furious wind, and plunging temperatures.
All communication between New York and the outside world had been cut off - freezing
rains had torn telephone and telegraph lines.
Apparently, a giant mass of arctic air had blown into the area from the northwest,
colliding with warm, moist air from the south and creating terrible storms all along
the east coast. Late Sunday night, the two systems joined over Chesapeake Bay to produce
heavy snow and hurricane-force winds. Destroying hundreds of vessels in a few hours,
the storm had become a winter hurricane, moisture-laden and driven by harsh, cold winds.
New York City was completely unprepared. On Monday, ten inches of snow lay on the ground.
More was falling, and fierce winds were packing it into high drifts. Broken signs,
trash-can lids, and pieces of glass from shattered windows blew through the streets.
Transportation collapsed. Trains on all four of the city’s lines stalled, leaving
15,000 passengers helpless in unheated cars. Trolleys were blown off their tracks.
Trucks, wagons, and milk carts were littered on the streets. People who ventured outside
were knocked down by the wind and drowned in snow. Dozens were buried alive.
At the weather station where researchers were trying to sort out the storm, the
anemometer, with its propeller full of ice, stopped taking measurements of wind
velocity. Francis Long, Dunn’s assistant, climbed up the mountain pole 175 feet above
the ground, and repaired the instrument - which recorded wind speeds from 75 to 100
miles per hour. The full measure of the storm was never recorded, but it was one of
the strongest and most costly in history. The Great White Hurricane, as it became known,
had brought twenty inches of snow, buried houses in 52-foot-high drifts, and taken