It was one of the most severe blizzards recorded in American history. To try and capture the severity, they called it “The Great White Hurricane.” They say it paralyzed the East Coast from Maryland to Maine. They say it lasted four days. It was March 1888.
Yup, it was March 135 years ago to the day.
Pittsfield, March 1888
Of all the things they might have argued about in Pittsfield, they argued about the day it started. There were, as there often are, two camps: those who believed it started on Sunday, March 11, 1888, and those who were certain it started on Monday, March 12.
Someone started the great divide by writing The Berkshire Evening Eagle.
“I noted a reader wrote he knows the Blizzard of ’88 started on the 12th, but I know it was the 11th. My wife and I were invited to her Mother’s for Sunday supper. While there it started to snow bad enough, so mother said we ought to stay overnight but we pushed for home. I can tell you it was snowing.”
Yes, it was. Even those who clung to the notion of the blizzard beginning on Monday, March 12 admitted there were 18 inches of snow on the ground when they awoke that morning. Sure, they said, it snowed on Sunday, but that was nothing. Each side stuck to their guns.
Folks were not seriously discommoded at first. It was Monday early afternoon when the winds picked up and falling snow mixed with blowing snow rendering people snow blind, forcing everyone off the streets and practically blowing horses back to their barns.
It snowed on the 11th and continued snowing on the 12th, 13th and the 14th.
Doctors could not make it to even the most stricken patients. No human could prevail against the relentless snow and the howling winds. By 6 p.m. on the 12th it was impossible to clear any road or sidewalk. Then the lights went out — snow-bound and snow blind.
The first electric lights were exhibited in Pittsfield in 1881. Merchants along North Street thought the new invention so wonderful that a few installed them in their stores in 1883. By 1885, there were electric streetlights in Pittsfield — just seven arc lights, but electric lights just the same. Then, all the electric lights went out.
A debilitating blizzard
The only train to get through was the 11:40 a.m. from California. It arrived hours late and could go no farther. The train and all of its passengers were stranded in Pittsfield for three days. Another train due in Pittsfield at 11:15 was immobilized near Washington. Its 47 passengers waited to be released from a snow-prison.
Other trains were stuck in Adams and Chatham, N.Y. Some trains attempted to ignore the drifts and plow ahead (literally). The violence of plunging into the drifts broke rails and smashed ties into kindling.
All over the county everything was frozen including all forms of forward motion. It was clear all businesses must close, but that was the beginning not the end of the problem. There was fear that the employees would not be able to get home safely. Employers hired stout horses hitched to large sleighs. As the wind shrieked and branches cracked, the horses lost their footing in the deep snow, sleighs teetered and the passengers near froze if the journey was too long.
There was a great fear that disasters would snowball, particularly that fire could follow in the wake of the blizzard. The snow fell and buried the water hydrants again and again almost as soon as they were cleared. In the center of Pittsfield, crews worked tirelessly to clear snow from hydrants and tanks. Firemen slept in the fore houses and did shovel details, and so did the police.
At central station, Chief Branch, shovel in hand, said, “I have done what I could and if called on we shall do our best.”
The weather was the enemy — formidable but, thankfully, uncomplicated by fires or crime. Firemen hitched up a span of horses to a sleigh loaded with 1,200 feet of hose and did not need to use it.
Policemen had no need to watch for drunken loiters on the street or rowdies or robbers. No one was out except those unfortunates trying to get home without perishing in the brutal cold. Those the police helped.
Police watches were mounted to aid travelers and the homeless. On the streets, the temperature hovered near zero and was forced lower by high winds. Blinding clouds of snow buried the 12-foot-high barber’s pole. The city held its breath.
It was Thursday, March 15 before it stopped snowing long enough so that “they succeeded in opening the road and the stage got through [all the way from Pittsfield] to Lee.”
With daylight on the 15th came the “revelation of the immeasurable blockade the snow had created.”
At Berkshire Life, the snow was measured at 15 feet. Drifts buried North Street. The side streets were choked with snow and people were imprisoned in their houses. Residents surveyed the situation and rather than clear sidewalks from side to side they shoveled tunnels through the drifts to reach their front doors.
They shoveled and marveled. They thanked their lucky stars for their escape and waited for snowmelt. When it came, there were rushing rivers and flooded banks — leading inexorably to Pittsfield’s Great Flood.