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
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.
THE BLIZZARD OF MARCH 12, 1888
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
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
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:
Labels: 1888, Alfred L. Hammett, Blizzard, Blizzard of 1888, Branch Line, Henry W. Taft, New Haven Branch Line, Snow, Weather