Monday, February 19, 2007

1888 Blizzard

Blizzard of 1888Dec 3, 1888
The “Blizzard of ‘88” began without warning on March 12, 1888. March 10 had been warm and sunny, and on Sunday, March 11, rain fell in New York City, but around midnight the rain changed to heavy snow, which then fell uninterrupted for the next 36 hours. Many early commuters were caught, unaware that they were heading into the teeth of a storm that would last for two more days. Across the Northeast trains became trapped by the increasingly heavy snow, which knocked down power and telegraph poles by the score. Passengers were trapped in the railroad cars. With the shutdown of the railroad, many towns soon ran out of coal, their primary heating fuel. The storm put its heaviest load in the Hudson River Valley, where a swath from Saratoga and Hudson, New York to Bennington, Vermont received nearly 50” of snow. New Haven, Connecticut, too, got nearly 50”. Western Massachusetts was also hard hit, with Pittsfield receiving 36” of snow. The total in Worcester, east of the Connecticut River, was 32”. New York City was hit with 50 mph winds which swirled and drifted the 21” if snow. All of the towns and cities of the Northeast suffered similar fates: the snow lay 8’ deep in the main street of Northampton, Massachusetts. So many power poles were knocked down that after the storm many cities on the East Coast made a concerted effort to bury those lines. Overall, 400 people died during the three days of the storm, 200 in New York City alone, and at sea, nearly 200 vessels were forced aground, were sunk, or had to be abandoned due to storm damage.
Angus Macdonald, a telephone lineman, worked through the blizzard of 1888 to keep open the only long distance telephone circuits between New York and Boston.
Nearly a hundred years ago . . . ... a tradition so evident in Pioneering was born when the outdoor plant of our infant telephone industry met and passed its first service test. “The Spirit of Service” commemorates that historical event. It was during the great blizzard that began in New York before dawn on March 12, 1888, when all other means of communication failed between Boston and New York, that the toll line remained in service, thanks to the foresight of the builders and the courage and dedication of the men who watched over it. The storm was the worst to hit this nation in a century. It paralyzed the Northeast, piling drifts as high as houses, blocking every highway, knocking out all telegraph and train service, and almost—but not quite -eliminating telephone service. These, of course, were the days of open wire construction, when the telephone system was subject to the worst the elements could offer. The telephone industry was inits infancy—Bell had invented the phone just 12 years earlier.
Angus Macdonald was a 23-year-old lineman in 1888. He was part of a crew that worked through that blinding storm—patrolling the lines and repairing breaks wherever they found them—to keep open the last remaining long distance line between New York and Boston.
Thanks to the dedication of Macdonald and his fellow workers, New York was never without at least some long distance telephone service. But, for several days, the telephone was New York’s onlymeans of communication with the rest of the world.
Because of his part in this historic event, Macdonald was asked to pose for the painting that was commissioned in honor of the dedication of those brave workers. It would come to be known as”The Spirit of Service” and would serve as a tribute to generations of dedicated telephone people. Macdonald was an active Telephone Pioneer as well as a dedicated telephone man. In fact,he, along with Alexander Graham Bell and 243 other telephone people, attended the very first Pioneer meeting in Boston in 1911. Macdonald retired from the Long Lines department in the ‘30s after more than 48 years of service. He belonged to the Life Member Club of the Edward J. Hall Chapter in New York at the time of his death in 1958 at age 94.

Whereas today a blizzard means school closings and overtimes for the plow drivers, in the 19th century blizzards were often deadly, burying houses, catching people suddenly who had no means of getting quickly to shelter. Livestock froze to death where it stood in the stockades, and sub-zero temperatures meant frostbite and the loss of toes, fingers, noses, and more. Long periods of isolation also took their toll, with some families being buried to subsist on stored fuel and goods for weeks or even months before they could leave their homes. Of these privations, running out of food or fuel meant certain death and was the most dreaded. While there was certainly winter recreation as there is now (skating, sledding, building snow forts, hockey, and tobogganing were as popular then as they are now), most winter activities in places as remote as Minnesota beyond the few cities involved hunting and ice-fishing ~ which were simply things vital to survival. People who survived hard winters were rightly proud of their adaptability and their ingenuity.

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