Nobody was prepared for what happened. In New York City and along the eastern seaboard the temperature at midday was in the fifties and mild for early March. The next day’s forecast from the US Weather Bureau was for more of the same: ‘cloudy, followed by light rain and clearing’. Instead, that Sunday afternoon the temperature plunged as a huge mass of arctic air collided offshore in the Atlantic with a warm, moist system from the south. By midnight, a savage storm had developed over Chesapeake Bay. The energy of the collision generated hurricane-force winds as freezing temperatures turned driving rain into a thick blizzard. In the furious seas whipped up from Delaware to Maine, over 200 ships were driven aground, or overwhelmed by the icy, raging ocean. Even behind Wilmington’s harbor breakwater, 21 of the 35 sheltering ships had their anchors ripped from the sea and were crushed into matchwood.
Inland, the blizzard was a complete surprise. By Monday morning New York City lay under 20 inches of snow, whipped up into mounting drifts of 12-15 m (40-50 ft) by recorded wind speeds of 75-100 mph. All forms of transportation stuttered to a halt. On the city’s elevated trains 15,000 helpless passengers were stranded in unheated carriages. Overhead, the tangle of telegraph and telephone wires sagged under thick ice and snow, bowed and snapped. Delivery trucks and wagons slewed across the streets, spilling their loads into the maelstrom of broken glass, loose slates, branches and rubbish hurtling through the air. People who braved the arctic blast were simply blown off their feet; dozens were buried alive or ‘drowned’ in snow.
For nearly a week America’s wrecked eastern seaboard had no transport and no communications. New Yorkers had had enough. As a direct result of the great white hurricane, the city got a subway system.
When was the Great White Hurricane: March 12-14 1888
Where was the Great White Hurricane: Delaware to Maine, on and offshore, USA
What was the Great White Hurricane death toll: At least 400 people died during the blizzard, together with 100 sailors lost at sea. Although basic services were operating after a week, the snow took a long time to clear. One massive drift was still intact in July. Sadly, by the third day of the storm human nature had reasserted itself in New York City: coal barons doubled or trebled their prices, single ham sandwiches went from a nickel to a quarter, and cabbies demanded $50 a ride (that’s about $600 now!).
You should know: It wasn’t all bad: the editor of Wilmington’s Every Evening noted the number of young men ‘about to say adieu to the maidens of their choice’ that evening, who discovered ‘they needed no second invitation to come out of the storm and stay till morning by the side of the parlor stove, and ever anon, clasp a reassuring arm around the waist of their beloved’. The paper also reported a milkman, terrified his horse would freeze to death, who ‘poured half a quart of whiskey down the animal’s throat. It must have upped his horsepower, for he went to town in record time despite the drifts’.