Through early March of 1888 the winter had been New York's mildest in 17 years. By Saturday, March 10, crocuses were up and the day was sunny and mild. For Sunday, light rain was forecast, then clearing. On Sunday when the showers forecast came as a violent downpour U.S. Weather Bureau Chief Elias Dunn realized that something unusual was happening. Dunn was aware that a major winter storm had been reported in the west with heavy snows and freezing winds. He did not know that it was speeding eastward at 600 miles per day; he also did not know that a second major system ‒ warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico ‒ was moving northward with an unsuspecting New York City dead in its path.
Like other weather station chiefs, Dunn was linked by telephone and telegraph (with carrier pigeon backup) to 170 regular government weather stations all over the country. The Saturday telegraphic bulletin included snow and heavy rain here and there but nothing really ominous. Dunn and others thought the storms to the south would probably dissipate or curve out to sea. Thereupon the service shut down, as it was its weekend custom to reopen at 5pm on Sunday.
Sunday afternoon, a hard rain pelted the city, with the winds rising and the thermometer dropping. By evening some streets had frozen slick; telephone and telegraph lines began to blow down under the weight of ice. Dunn tried to contact Washington but there was no answer. 400 circuits from the capital were out and all the service's carrier pigeons were grounded. There was no way to warn anyone about what was coming.
On Sunday evening most went to bed expecting the heavy rain to pass. But after midnight the rain changed to snow. By 6am Monday the temperature had dropped to 32 degrees and winds were averaging 35 miles per hour, with gusts up to 84. Awnings were shredded; wagons overturned and store signs torn from their hinges.
For most there was no thought of staying home. The country was in a recession and jobs were hard to get. A day's pay would be lost and perhaps even the job itself. By 7:30 an estimated 15,000 people were crowded onto some 800 unheated wooden cars on the elevated trains. Most cars were making little headway on the icy rails, and braking was treacherous. Within an hour all elevated trains were shut down.
Some of the stranded passengers were released at stations, while most spent the morning awaiting rescue by fire companies and enterprising individuals who appeared with ladders and sold passage to the streets at prices ranging from a nickel to a dollar. Once safely down, however, most of the passengers had no place to go. The horse cars had stopped running. Some people found refuge in stores. Saloons were also open for booming business. New Yorkers poured into them and stayed as long as the liquor supply lasted. Others spent the night in hotels and hotel lobbies. They slept in churches and abandoned horse cars, each of which had a potbelly stove and several inches of filthy straw on the floor.
One stalled train could not be reached by ladders. Its 30 passengers stayed there 15 hours. They survived cheerfully by lowering a cord to a saloon directly below and hoisting up buckets of booze and sandwiches. The blizzard of '88 launched the greatest mass booze binge in the history of the big apple.
The amount of snowfall ‒ a total of about 20 inches on Monday ‒ was not that high. It was the driving, freezing wind that did the damage, with wind chill factors of 56 degrees below zero. Snow drifts were 12, 18 and some as high as 50 feet. They were up to second story windows.
By Tuesday afternoon the snow had stopped. The city looked like a battle zone. There were hundreds of dead horses, dogs, cats and even pigs in the street. The Brooklyn Bridge was closed. A tangle of telegraph wires was down everywhere. Communications with the outside world were nonexistent until one enterprising Boston Globe reporter got through via London by using the Atlantic Cable.
As the blizzard was waning something weird happened. A huge ice floe ‒ 6 inches thick, 1/4 mile wide and about one mile long floated out of the Hudson River into New York Bay and stopped near Governors Island. A half-hour later the current shifted pushing the floe past the battery, up the East River until it wedged between Brooklyn and Manhattan. An 18-year-old boy charged 5 cents for anyone who used his ladder to walk across the ice. On the other side someone else charged 10 cents to use his ladder to get off the ice floe. About 3,000 people walked across the floe to get home.
Meanwhile the harbormaster decided the ice floe was a menace to navigation and he sent 3 tugboats to break up the ice. The ice disintegrated so fast that 6 men were stranded on the river. The ice had broken loose from the shore, leaving a wide gap between them and the docks. People on shore watched in horror as the current pulled them out to sea. Finally a tugboat pulled alongside and held its position long enough for the 6 men to clamber aboard, amid cheers and applause from the crowds on both shores of the river.
By Wednesday the winds finally died down. Four hundred people died in the northeast, 200 were from New York and 200 ships and boats sank or were smashed up. Records were sparse among the fishing smacks, oystermen, lumber schooners and other tramp vessels that shared the sailing grounds with world ranging freighters and elegant passenger liners. Thus there will never be an exact tally of how many desperate ice-coated mariners went overboard or down with their ships.
The blizzard caused $20 million in property damage and many more millions in lost wages and cleanup expenses. New York's communication and transportation systems, entirely on the surface, where extremely vulnerable to weather. Moreover, the telegraph wires that laced the city were exceedingly ugly. After the blizzard they were laid underground.Digging for the first subway began in 1900.