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Local History: The Blizzard of 1888

A massive winter storm cut off the area and threatened food supplies.

Think this is bad? For the sake of comparison -- or to remind ourselves what a difference a century makes -- we're retelling the story of the Blizzard of '88. 1888, that is. 

Fifty years later, the Blizzard Men and Ladies gathered to retell the story of the Blizzard of '88. They were the survivors of a storm that hit the New York metropolitan area in March of 1888. 

The weekend of March 10 and 11 was mild. According to The New York Herald, John J. Meisinger, buyer at Ridley's department store in Manhattan, was a local laughingstock. He had purchased a carload of unsold snow shovels for $1,200. When the shovels were delivered to his store, the temperature was 50 degrees.

Then, overnight, two storms converged and the temperature plummeted. By 6 a.m. on Monday, March 12, winds and snow descended on our area. When the anemometer on the Equitable Building's east tower broke, a former Arctic explorer who had been to the North Pole repaired it. 

The New York Evening Sun described the storm poetically: "It was as if New York had been a burning candle upon which nature had clapped a snuffer," reads an unsigned editorial. Candle was right; electricity in and around Manhattan stopped at 12:07 p.m. Phone and telegraph wires froze and snapped, and train service failed altogether.

Commuters desperate to reach home here in the Oranges were stuck on westbound trains. The New York Times reports that the snowdrifts were "of tremendous proportions at some places." Engines were halted for "gangs of men with shovels," who made little headway. On March 13, only one South Orange train made it into the city. An attempt was made at noon to send a "commuter" to Newark, but abandoned cars on the rails made passage impossible, and the lack of telegraph communication between stations exacerbated the situation. The South Orange line sent out sleighs that were "kept for occasions of heavy snowfalls, and was about the only line that in the least accommodated residents..."

Many Manhattan firms reserved hotel rooms for employees, and even presidents and CEOs found themselves doubling and tripling up with strangers. Female clerks at Macy's department store spent the storm on cots in the furniture department. A New York Herald reporter wrote that saloons were doing big business, selling "car driver's drink." This, a concoction of ale and red pepper, was believed to keep drinkers warmer longer. 

By March 14, little progress was reported. Indeed, casualties of humans and horses mounted. W. S. Stout, a local letter carrier, was found unconscious in a snowbank near Springfield Avenue, and "slight hopes [were] entertained of his recovery." A 10-year-old daughter of Mrs. Cueman was found "unable to move" along South Orange Avenue." Xavier Zewinge, a local milkman, did his rounds and drove home. "Late in the afternoon," reported the Times, "his horse, almost exhausted, walked into his yard. He was sitting bolt upright in the wagon, with the reins in one hand and a roll of bills in the other, but he was stark dead, frozen stiff." Countless others were reported missing.

Conditions worsened, and a March 15 New York Times headline reads, "New-Jersey's Plight. Many Deaths in Newark and Need of Food Everywhere." In our area, food supplies were critically low. "The butchers are running out of meat, the markets are bare of vegetables... the fresh-milk supply of the city was entirely cut off..." Food prices rose; even the price of eggs more than doubled. 

At last, the crisis began to pass. Ferries crossed the Hudson, followed by trains. The dilemma then was what to do with the snow. Desperate Manhattan merchants set fires, hoping to melt it, but water flooded the streets. 

When one of the first westbound trains made it from Manhattan to Paterson, residents clamored not only for food, but for news. The local newspapers were sold in minutes, for the snowbound were as starved for information as for any other commodity.

This seems to be the great difference between then and now. Snow still falls, sometimes in unexpected quantities, but we know not only that it's coming, but that it will pass. Though we still crowd the local grocery stores, we can rely on weather reports, radar maps and charts that track the snow's progress through our area. Those Blizzard Men and Ladies who recalled the events of March 1988 had little of the same comfort. No wonder they remembered.

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