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.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Great Blizzard of 1888 in Pelham: 126 Years Ago Yesterday and Today

It was “The Perfect Storm” of the 19th Century – one of the Great Nor’easters of recorded weather history.  Many called it “The Great White Hurricane”.  It was the Blizzard of 1888.  As one Pelham resident wrote more than fifty years later, it “became one of the times from which things were dated.”   The blizzard’s fury reached its height on March 12, 1888.  Pelham was in its midst.

One hundred and twenty six years ago today, Pelham – like much of the northeast – awoke to the waning storm and the subsequent aftermath of the “The Great White Hurricane.”   The nor’easter had struck the region with a vengeance.  Temperatures were mild on Sunday, March 11, but plunged to four degrees below zero with winds exceeding 80 miles per hour.  Records indicate that some parts of the region near Pelham received up to 32 inches of snow. 

Once the storm’s fury subsided, life in Pelham ground to a halt.  The Rev. Charles R. Gillett, retired Dean of Union Theological Seminary, lived in Pelham Manor at the time of The Blizzard of 1888.  He recorded his recollections in a manuscript now in the collection of The Office of The Historian of The Town of Pelham.  Much of the manuscript was published in 1991 in the book entitled THE PELHAM MANOR STORY.

Gillett recalled that townspeople were marooned in their homes for a week and that “[t]hey were entirely cut off from places in the neighborhood, and after the second day no one attempted to reach any of the nearby towns.”    Rev. Gillett further recalled that over the course of the week his family had only one visitor and that visitor, Henry E. Dey, had to use snowshoes to make his way over the massive snow drifts.

The Little Red Church at Four Corners, the tiny wooden predecessor to today’s Huguenot Memorial Church, showed evidence of the forcefulness of the massive storm.  During the gale, the fierce winds blew open the church doors.  The interior of the lovely little church was coated with snow, later described by one Pelham resident as “a beautiful layer of pure white snow, a very wonderful sight”.

In 1888, local government as we know it was non-existent in Pelham.  Villages had not yet been incorporated and the “Town” was entirely incapable of dealing with a storm of the magnitude of The Blizzard of 1888.  Pelham neighbors had to help one another through the ordeal, and they did.

Food, particularly meat and vegetables, was a concern.  According to one account, it was not until later in the week that Joseph English was able to make the rounds through parts of the Village of Pelham Manor to take orders from homeowners for the things they needed.   English was known as “Uncle Joe” English.  He has been described as a “lame man [who] presided for a good many years selling tickets and caring for the mail, the freight and such express matter” at the Pelham Manor Train Station on the branch line.

English and his men made a “toilsome” trip to New Rochelle to fill the orders for local residents and then delivered the supplies back to local homeowners “to the great relief of the housekeepers” who were still snowbound.

Coal for warmth was another concern.  There was no way to deliver coal on the snow-laden streets.  Thus, “those whose supply of coal was low, suffered severely”.

One of the most colorful stories about Pelham residents during The Blizzard of 1888 is one that could have ended in tragedy but, happily, did not.  Like thousands of other working men and women who awoke to nearly 10 inches of snow on Monday, March 12, two Pelham residents failed to grasp the magnitude of the massive storm and tried to reach the City early that day.

The two residents, Henry W. Taft and Alfred L. Hammett, clambered aboard the tiny little Harlem River Branch Line train that left Pelham Manor Depot at 7:37 a.m. Monday morning.   Little did they know the life-threatening risk they were taking.

The tiny little train on which they traveled was so small it was called “the little peanut train”.  It consisted of a steam locomotive, a fire tender and two passenger cars.  At that early date there reportedly was no steam heating system for the passenger cars, so “the cars were heated by a stove at the end of each car.”

After leaving Pelham Manor, the little train passed Bartow Station and Baychester Station (and its bridge) and made it to Westchester Station.  Just past Westchester Station, however, the tracks passed through a “cut” that had filled with drifting snow.  The train plowed into the deep snow drift and there it stuck, stranding its passengers like those of so many other trains in the region.

Soon the passengers had depleted all available fuel for the little stoves that heated the cars.  Next they began to break up and burn the seats of the cars for additional warmth.  Later it became apparent that they were on their own.  Messrs. Taft and Hammett decided to take matters into their own hands, concluding that “their only escape lay in an attempt to get back on foot through the drifts”.

Today’s posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes yet another account by Henry W. Taft of his travails aboard the little peanut train and his and Alfred L. Hammett’s efforts to battle through the Great White Hurricane to get home that day.  Additionally, below is an actual photograph of the little peanut train, still stuck on the tracks in the giant drifts, several days after the storm.

Only Known Photograph of The Little Peanut Train on the Branch Line.
Photograph Taken Several Days After the March 12, 1888 Storm.
Photo Courtesy of The Office of The Historian of The Town of Pelham.

"Chapter II


If I were essaying to write an autobiography, my experience in the great blizzard of ’88 would occupy an important chapter; but my memory of such a freak of nature, fifty years after it had occurred, might be as vague as Irving’s when he confessed that he was ‘always at a loss to know how much to believe’ of his own stories.  Then too, to revive the controversies of fifty years ago as to (1) what individual had the most perilous experience, and (2) whether the storm of March 12, 1888, was a real blizzard comparable to those which frequently rage on the plains and in the mountainous regions of the great West, would be quite aside from my present purpose.  It is enough to accept the cautious statement of the weatherman of the day (Elias B. Dunn – ‘Farmer Dunn’) that two storms from opposite directions focused at New York and covered a few hundred miles radius, and that ‘the wind reached 84 miles an hour and the temperature touched 4 degrees below zero.’

With that background I may briefly summarize my own experience:  At 7:00 A.M. on March 12, 1888, I started from my home in Pelham Manor, Westchester County.  I took a train – already an hour late – which with ever-slowing pace, finally ran into a snowbank at Westchester, five miles distant, and there impotently reposed for about a week.  After eight hours of anxious [Page 16 / Page 17] waiting, with no information as to what was happening elsewhere, a neighbor and I, in the hope of receiving assistance, started for home.  We staggered through sleet and gales and mountains of snow, which obscured the roads and landmarks, and over long railroad trestles, creeping over the ties on hands and knees in the long stretches from station to station.  No human being was abroad.  No assistance was at hand and there was ‘darkness there and nothing more.’  The sense of desolation and the consciousness of impending peril marked every step.  Finally, after five hours of strenuous effort, we descried the lights of our homes and relieved our families from their natural anxiety.  I escaped any lasting physical results except that four fingers and an ear were frost bitten.

Relieved from danger and ignorant of what proved to be the enforced suspension of every business and professional activity, I was faced with the specter of a default in the case I was to try that morning, and the damage which my client would suffer and the reflex upon my own fidelity.  Telegraph and telephone communications, as well as the delivery of newspapers, were interrupted for a week.  Striving to believe that ‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’ I shoveled snow drifts ten feet high until, three days later, through favor of the railroad company, I was taken to the city on a work train. 

Reaching my office the next day (I have forgotten how), I was relieved from the anxiety suffered by everybody on account of their business obligations; for it proved that the disturbance of business and professional work was so general that there was a virtual moratorium for a week.  In none of the courts could a complete jury be impaneled.  Neither court officers nor witnesses were [Page 17 / Page 18] present.  Only one judge of several dozen of any of the courts succeeded in reaching the courthouse and in a few rooms he went through the form of announcing to empty seats an adjournment for a week.  The happenings in the courts, however, did not appeal to the reporters seeking more exciting news.  But they did gather together the news which centered around ex-Senator Roscoe Conkling.  The experiences of that conspicuous statesman had interest for everyone, and perhaps naturally, the accounts widely differed.  That generally current was that the day after the blizzard he was delirious, that an abscess on the brain followed and that he soon died.  But another account published in a weekly newspaper purporting to be from the Senator’s own lips, was to the effect that on Tuesday, March 13th, when the blizzard was still raging, he appeared in the Surrogates’ Court, and there in the presence of a group of lawyers recounted his experience of the preceding day.  But whatever the fact, the Surrogate adjourned the hearing in the Stewart will case, in which Senator Conklin and Elihu Root were among the trial counsel.  While the Senator was undoubtedly subjected to an unusual strain, he resumed his professional activities for some weeks, and it was not until April 4th that he took to his bed.  The eminent physician, Dr. Fordyce Barker, was in attendance.  There developed an ear abscess, perhaps caused by over-exertion in the month previous.  The first public alarm, however, as to the Senator’s condition, was not aroused until April 9th, when an operation was performed to free an outlet for the discharge from the abscess; but complications ensued and he died at 2 o’clock on the morning of April 17th or 18th, more than a month after his experience in the blizzard.

Excepting for what I have said, there was very little notice taken of the adventures of lawyers or the disloca- [Page 18 / Page 19] tion of the administration of justice.  This chapter may be closed, however, with one episode not heretofore noticed, which gives specific judicial confirmation to the severity of the storm.

At six o’clock on the morning of March 13, 1888, the car float of a railroad company which I represented, moored in one of the slips not far above the Battery broke her bow fastenings and swinging down collided with the boat of the plaintiff who filed a libel for damages, claiming that the fastenings were improper and insufficient.  The case was tried before Judge Addison Brown, an eminent admiralty judge.  After describing the occurrence, the judge referred to the ‘fierceness of the storm’ and the ‘immense floe of ice’ coming up the East River, causing a swinging of the car float so as to break all the lines that fastened her to a schooner lying alongside.  There had been no ice in the East River up to that time but ‘it came in in such quantities that people passed across the river, an extraordinary occurrence that happens only once in many years.’  Dismissing all of the cases of somewhat similar occurrences as presenting nothing which could have been anticipated, the judge closed his opinion with these words:

‘It was an extraordinary occurrence, not reasonably to be anticipated.  There was no previous ice to suggest the necessity of taking precautions against it, certainly none as respects such an immense floe as came in with the morning flood.  This distinguishes the present case from all those cited.  There was no time to provide any additional securities after this floe was seen coming; and the accident should, therefore be, in my opinion, ascribed, not to the omission of any reasonable precautions in fastening, but wholly to the extraordinary occasion, and to this almost unexampled storm and cold.’ 1
1 This case, Wishing v. The Transfer No. 2 and Car Float No. 12, is reported in The Federal Reporter, Vol. 56, at page 313.”

Source:  Taft, Henry W., Legal Miscellanies:  Six Decades of Changes and Progress, pp. 16-19 (NY, NY:  The MacMillan Company, 1941). 

Photograph of the Streets of New York City in the Aftermath of the
Blizzard of 1888.  There Were So Many Downed Lines within New York City
That the Storm Prompted the City to Move Utility Lines Underground.
Source of Photograph:  Wikimedia Commons.

For other accounts of the aftermath of The Great White Hurricane in Pelham, see:

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