Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

An Account of the Blizzard of 1888 by Pelham Manor Resident Henry W. Taft

As the New York City region digs out of the largest snowfall on record, I decided to provide today an account of the Blizzard of 1888 related by an illustrious 19th century Pelham Manor resident named Henry W. Taft. The Blizzard of 1888 did not involve as large a snowfall as the snowstorm of 1947 or the Nor'easter of 2006, but it paralyzed the region. (To read more about the Blizzard of 1888 and its effect on Pelham, see Bell, Blake A., The Blizzard of 1888: Pelham in the Midst of the 'Great White Hurricane', The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 34, Aug. 27, 2004, p. 9, col. 1. To read more about the Nor'easter of 2006, see yesterday's Historic Pelham Blog posting entitled "Historic Snowfall in Pelham, NY: The Great Nor'easter of '06").

Henry Waters Taft was a brother of William Howard Taft who served as President of the United States. Henry W. Taft was an attorney who began his career as a "salaried" attorney with the New York City law firm named "Simpson, Thacher & Barnum" -- now known as Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. In 1889 he joined the law firm known today as Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP. Although he had a residence in New York City, he lived for many years in Pelham Manor and served on the Executive Committee of the Pelham Manor Protective Club during the 1880s before the Village of Pelham Manor was incorporated.

Taft provided a number of accounts of his experience trying to commute from Pelham Manor to New York City on the so-called "Peanut Train" that traveled the Branch Line during the Blizzard of 1888. One such account appeared in a book authored by Samuel Meredith Strong published in 1939 entitled "The Great Blizzard of 1888". It included reminiscences of members of a group formed in 1929 named "The Blizzard Men of 1888". Among the accounts contained in that book was the following, attributed to Henry W. Taft:

"He lived at Pelham Manor, Westchester County, in 1888. A warm misty rain fell on Sunday, March 11th, he recalls, turning to snow during the night. Monday morning the storm seemed a heavy one but not unusually so. The train, however, on which he expected to travel to New York 'scheduled for six o'clock,' was 'already an hour late. The storm increased in violence, and the snow rapidly gathered in gigantic drifts, while the wind howled from the north and blew a gale. Slower and slower the train pushed its way. At Westchester, five miles from Pelham, it ran into a huge snow bank and with a despairing lunge came to a stop. Repeated but futile efforts were made by the engine to go ahead. Uncoupled, it tried to clear the track ahead but in vain. . . '

Mr. Taft's fellow passengers at first made merry over the adventure. 'But as the day wore on, anxiety and physical discomfort crept rapidly upon us. It was a day of car stoves. Coal in the tneder and in the cars was soon exhausted. Little wood was available.' The wind 'penetrated the loose joints of the old-fashioned wooden car. The storm continued to grow worse, more tempestuous. Telegraph and telephone systems were completely disabled, and our anxiety as to whether our families could secure food or survive the hardships caused by the storm, became intolerable, and we knew that their anxiety as to our fate was no less distressing.'

'After eight hours in our frigid prison, a neighbor and I decided to risk the perils of the storm. We started at about four o'clock for Baychester, a mile and a half away, in the hope that at a country tavern there we could secure a conveyance.' The two staggered through the gale, the sleet, and the drifts along the tracks and across a lengthy railroad trestle, creeping some of the way on their hands and knees over ties that were covered with snow and sleet.

At Baychester the tavern keeper refused them a conveyance, and they went on to Bartow avoiding the next railroad trestle and the bridge across Pelham Bay. On they trudged over the main highway, then so buried in huge snow-drifts that its boundaries were frequently not discernible. The scene was weird and forbidding.

They rested by trees and fences which afforded but meager shelter. 'Often we were forced to help each other out of drifts which were from five to ten feet high, sometimes being obliged to turn our backs and roll out of giant drifts.'

The men saw neither houses nor human beings 'until we sought refuge for a few moments in the house of an acquaintance about two miles from our homes.'

'Darkness now added to the difficulties of our journey, but we continued. We again struggled along the railroad. It was buried under a continuous drift. . . . After covering a long trek of five miles in five strenuous and sometimes agonizing hours, we reached our village railroad station. The agent was aghast as we entered. Our faces were largely hidden under a coating of ice, and our eye-lids were frozen open, leaving no protection to the eye from the biting sleet.'

'Before my own front door I had to surmount a snow-drift seven feet high.'

'Late Wednesday afternoon I reached the city on a work train, passing on the way the train we had started in, still buried in the snow. Most of our friends were not able to reach the city until Friday. . . .'

'Everyone was naturally concerned about the dislocation of their business plans. As a matter of fact, however, the disturbance of professional, business and social plans was so generally and so universally recognized that there was a virtual moratorium for a week. The courts met the situation by postponing the trial of all business for that period. When the extent and severity of the storm was realized, the universality of the inconvenience and hardship was so great that manifestations of human sympathy and acts of kindness and even displays of humor in the general distress were common.'

'Perhaps storms like the Blizzard of '88 are experienced on the vast plateaus and in the mountain regions of the West. Bout our habits of life in the regions of the East, and particularly our transportation facilities, are not so adjusted as to withstand the rigors of such stomrs; and the impression left upon those who experienced them."

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