In the wake of the Children’s Blizzard that ravaged the upper Midwest in Janauary of 1888, something of a war of words broke out in the newspapers. First, there were arguments among the midwestern papers over how many fatalities the massive storm had actually caused, along with accusations of a coverup to purposely reduce the number of those killed.
Then publications out east picked up the stories, adding their own commentary to the mix. In his book The Children’s Blizzard, David Laskin writes the following: “What was at issue here was not just the accuracy of the death toll figures, but the truth about the climate of the prairie. A region that could slay a thousand innocent American citizens in the course of an afternoon did not look like a fit place for human habitation – quite the contrary – whereas if the figure stood at a mere couple of hundred, that could be written off as an unfortunate sacrifice on the path to progress. In essence it was an argument over image and reputation: prairie public relations.”
This back-and-forth, our-lifestyle-is-better-than-yours banter went on for about six weeks…until March 12, 1888. It was then, exactly two months after the blizzard that ripped through the Midwest, that the “citified” folk experienced first-hand the trauma of horrific weather.
Just after midnight on the 12th, heavy rain changed to heavy snow over New York City and temperatures dropped drastically. For the next 36 hours, much of the eastern seaboard was pounded by unrelenting snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds.
This winter (the 2009-2010 season) has seen some pretty impressive snow totals, both here in the center of the United States and also out east, but the fallout from the 1888 storm was staggering. Saratoga Springs: 58″. Albany: 48″. New Haven, Connecticut: 45″. Wind gusts of 80mph (just like in the Children’s Blizzard) blew the snow into drifts 50 feet tall.
As most electrical, power, and communication lines were run above ground, all of these services were completely lost, and downed lines became serious hazards for those struggling to make their way around. Elevated trains stopped where they were, and New York City largely went dark.
Bitterly cold single-digit temperatures added to the misery. Four hundred people perished in what became known as the Great White Hurricane. The New York Times would write, “For the first time in their lives [New Yorkers] knew what a western blizzard was.” Writers for the New York Tribune added, “The city was left to run itself. Chaos reigned, and the proud, boastful metropolis was reduced to the condition of a primitive settlement.”
It would be easy for cynics to say that New Yorkers got a “good old-fashioned spanking” for talking down those on the western prairies, because that’s how it appears. But the truth is that both storms, the Children’s Blizzard and the Great Blizzard of 1888, were devastating for the regions they affected. Playing the “gotcha” card was the wrong tactic, though some surely laid that card down.
As we have seen, the winter of 1888 was an especially volatile, and 19th-century technology wasn’t enough to prevent wholesale loss of life, whether one was “living securely” out east, or making a go of it out west. But as we have also experienced with our most recent weather, even 21st-century technology isn’t always enough.
Recommended Reading: The Children’s Blizzard