Storm of the century?

January 26, 1994|By Michael Morgan

THE winter storm hit Baltimore with unexpected ferocity. What began as a cold rain turned to ice, then to snow. Before people realized what was happening, Baltimore was encrusted with ice that made travel difficult, if not impossible. For a week, most people huddled in their homes as they waited for the frozen city to thaw out.

The Great Freeze of '94? No, the legendary Blizzard of '88. That's 1888.

Sunday, March 11, 1888, was a quiet, cold and rainy day in Baltimore. Around 7 in the evening, plunging temperatures turned the rain to ice. Once everything was coated with ice, the precipitation changed to snow, which accumulated quickly on the ice. Unlike last week's storm, the snow of 1888 was accompanied by a fierce wind. The wind and snow seemed to be in competition to see which element could wreak the most havoc. The Sun reported, "Early this morning the snow and wind kept up the race, with no prospect of a compromise."

Eventually the wind won out. The snow dissipated, but the wind howled on. As it whipped through town, the air was filled with flying signs, pieces of fences and other debris. In the late 19th century, the city was wrapped in miles of telegraph and telephone lines strung from a forest of fragile poles.

Baltimore's fire alarm boxes were connected to firehouses by overhead lines. Early in the storm, only 25 of the city's 232 fire alarms were in working order. A man at each fire station had to be posted in the house tower to watch for fires. Fortunately, only one small blaze was reported, and it was quickly extinguished.

The second day, winds were unabated. Throughout town, they whipped branches from trees and chimneys from homes. Although Baltimore had escaped most of the snow, areas north of the city were buried under drifts. Harford County was particularly hard hit, and the railroad lines to Baltimore were closed. (There was, of course, no airport.)

The isolation of the city cut Baltimore's financiers off from the stock market until someone realized that the city's telegraphic cable with London was intact. Messages were sent across the Atlantic to England and then relayed back to Wall Street.

Most city residents had several days of coal and wood on hand, and as the winds howled, most stayed nestled in their homes. The northerly winds were so strong that much of the water in the Chesapeake Bay was driven southward and nearly sucked Baltimore harbor dry. Steamers were marooned on the harbor bottom, and sand bars at Fort McHenry seemed to stretch across the river to Fairfield.

The crews on those vessels caught in the bay when the storm struck struggled to get to a safe port. Hundreds of bay craft foundered. Half the boats in Crisfield were driven aground. A schooner ran aground at the mouth of Bodkin Creek. The crews scrambled up the rigging, where they spent seven frightening hours before they were rescued.

By Thursday, the wind began to die and the temperature to moderate. Within days, things returned to normal. But one veteran observed that the Blizzard of '88 was the most severe winter storm ever to visit Baltimore.

Michael Morgan is a Baltimore writer.

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