Before our 'Big One': the Blizzard of 1888

BACK STORY

February 14, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Growing up in the late 1950s in New Jersey, I eagerly awaited the Plainfield Courier-News' annual news story on the activities of the Blizzard Men and Ladies of 1888, ranging in age from their 70s to 90s, who gathered each year at a New York hotel for a commemoration dinner to reminisce and tell harrowing tales about "The Big One" of their time, which we'll be doing in a few years about the Great Snow of '10.

Accompanying the news story was always a photograph or two of the grizzled gray- and white-haired veterans of the legendary March 12-14, 1888, blizzard that killed 400 - nearly 100 seamen alone - and crippled cities from Maryland to Maine.

On Saturday, March 10, springlike weather was beginning to seep into the Mid-Atlantic region.

In Wilmington, Del., a local citizen dashed into a newspaper office to inform the editor that his cherry tree was about to bloom, and in New York, residents shopped, took long leisurely spring strolls through Central Park or stood curbside watching the Barnum & Bailey Circus parade near Madison Square Garden.

Winter-weary Baltimoreans arising from their slumbers on that long-ago Sunday must have been heartened by the news that temperatures that day would probably reach 46 degrees. Even though it was overcast and the forecast was for rain, it still was a respite from a recent cold wave.

The great storm that would take its place in the record books had been quietly forming over the Pacific earlier in the week and was making its way east.

Tracked by bulletins telegraphed from Weather Service observation stations, the storm swept over the Rockies and onto the Great Plains.

Its two low-pressure centers split Saturday, with one scooting over Lake Erie and disappearing into Canada, while the other fell deep into Dixie.

Off the Georgia coast, it turned and barreled up the East Coast, its appetite fed by the warm, moist ocean air. It then collided with a low-pressure trough lumbering eastward over the Appalachians, which increased its energy.

The ferocious and unexpected storm was about to make its deadly debut in Maryland.

At first, it brought rain, which by 6:50 p.m. turned into heavy rain. As mariners watched barometers plummet, heavy snows swept across the region, accompanied by falling temperatures and pounding gales.

The winds in Baltimore hit the 35-mph mark while the mercury sank to 16 degrees. Snow - blowing horizontally - roared in from the northwest and quickly covered any and all surfaces.

Telephone and telegraph wires encased in the heavy wet snow snapped, along with trees that gave up the ghost in the howling tempest.

With the wires gone, Maryland's cities, towns and rural villages were falling into an eerie isolation.

The Baltimore Sun reported that drifts were knee-, waist- and even shoulder-deep.

"Most Baltimoreans went to bed that Sunday night to a symphony of rattling window casings, rickety shutters and strange howlings about their chimneys," reported The Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1961 anniversary article.

"They might have slept less securely had they realized that the city's telegraphic fire alarm system had also taken a knock-out punch from the storm. Firemen braved the biting cold and driving snow all night as they squinted out from firehouse towers for any sign of flame."

While the snow never accumulated more than 4 inches, the devilish winds whipped it into drifts 12 feet high that blocked roads.

Baltimoreans awoke Monday morning, with the snow starting to taper off, to a world that had been spray-painted white - every surviving tree and bush, house, building, lamppost, fence and church steeple bore witness to the storm.

Abandoned horsecars stood in the streets. Fingers of ice held the hands of the clock on the Northwestern Police Station into a frozen grip that read 8:50. Rail travel to and from Baltimore was delayed.

Mariners on the Chesapeake Bay felt the full power of the storm, and the strong winds had actually blown the water out of the harbor, leaving steamers resting on their keels deep in the mud.

An unknown and previously unseen bar of land stretched out from Fort McHenry into the Patapsco like a muddy finger.

Readers of The Sun on Monday were greeted with an apology: "Owing to the prevailing storm, the weather report was not received from Washington."

Baltimore's Union Station filled with passengers waiting for trains that might or might not arrive. The overworked stationmaster was forced to listen to complaints that men had taken over the ladies' waiting room and had refused to give up their seats.

When the 7:45 a.m. from New York braked to a stop at 7:55 p.m. Monday evening at Union Station, frenzied passengers relayed tales of dense snows up the line toward New York, fallen telegraph poles that blocked the tracks and seven trains stalled in the snow at Chester, Pa.

The next train would not reach Baltimore until 9:35 p.m. Thursday, and the wires would not be restored until the end of the week.

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