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, April 22, 2014

Another Story of the "Great White Hurricane" that Struck Pelham and Surrounding Regions in 1888

The Great Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, was a monumentally-devastating nor'easter by which Americans who lived in the northeast measured their lives ever after:  time before the Great Blizzard or time after the Great Blizzard.  

I have written about the Great White Hurricane before.  For examples, see:  

Thu., Mar. 13, 2014:  The Great Blizzard of 1888 in Pelham: 126 Years Ago Yesterday and Today.

Thu., Feb. 20, 2014:  Pelham Manor in 1883 and in its Early Years - Recollections of An Early Pelham Manor Resident.

Tue., Feb. 14, 2006:  An Account of the Blizzard of 1888 by Pelham Manor Resident Henry W. Taft.

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.

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.

Perhaps nothing can demonstrate the ferocity of the massive storm more than an account published in 1895 of the plight of poor soldiers stationed on Davids Island only hundreds of yards off the shores of Pelham and New Rochelle on the brutal night that the blizzard began.  The Officer of the Day refused to take pity and forced sentinels to walk their posts that horrible night.  Men nearly died.  Others lost their way trying to walk only hundreds of feet in efforts to relieve their comrades because the blinding snow made it impossible to see.  One man hoping to make it to the Officer of the Day to beg him to allow the sentinels to shelter nearly walked straight into the sea and had to return because he could not find his way a few hundred feet.

The account is a stark reminder of the brutality of the massive nor'easter.  The entire account is transcribed below, followed by a citation to its source.  

Bravery of Army Recruits During the Big Blizzard.

There is a hitherto untold story of the great blizzard which struck the Eastern states in the spring of 1888.  That storm was severe enough to overcome and kill a man in the sheltered streets of New York within fifty feet of his own doorstep.  This story has to do with the suffering and heroism of the members of the recruit guard at the government depot on Davids Island, New York harbor.

It was this wildest night on record in those parts, and the little unprotected island, given over to the government use as a recruiting depot, felt the force of the storm as did no other place on the seaboard.  

It had been the mildest kind of day.  The sentinel on the porch of the old frame guard house had dropped his overcoat and had buckled his belt and cartridge-box about his blouse.

Larks were singing in the strip of grass beyond the library, and robins piped in the pines by the Commandant's quarters.  At retreat parade it was growing cold, but the sun was clear in setting and touched with its beams the flag as it fell from the pole's head at gun fire.  At tattoo, 9 o'clock, it was snowing, and a gale was coming in in straight from the Sound from the east and the waves were beginning to pound the beach.  The first relief was posted, the chain of sentinels extending around the edge of the island from the guard house to the big coal sheds on the dock that pointed out toward Starin's Glen Island.  It takes ten minutes to post the Sentinel on Davids Island under ordinary circumstances.  The posting corporal returned and told Sergeant 'Billy' Pulshon, who had served from a time to which no soldiers memory ran, that it was going to be a wild night.  When the time came two hours later to post the second relief the gale had increased and was sweeping the island with fury, while the Sound was seething and  was hurling great waves on the rocks back of the barracks on the sandy beach above.

The corporal of the second relief managed to get his men posted in half an hour.  Then Sergeant Pulshon floundered through the already deep snow to the quarters of the Officer of the Day and asked permission to give orders that the sentinels might seek such shelter on their posts as they could find.  The officer looked out of the window.  A heavy porch and some big trees gave shelter to the place.  'Let them walk their posts,' he said, 'they can stand it.'  The Sergeant managed to get back to the guard.  At midnight it was a question whether or not the buildings would stand the storm's strength.  Every exposed light on the island had been blown out.  The guard house was full of snow, which came in through the window cracks.  The men were sleeping in wet blankets.  At 1 o'clock the corporal of the third relief called his men.  Outside one could see nothing, and the mingled roar of waters and howling of gale drowned all other sounds.  The relief formed in the hallway.  The Sergeant said:

'Corporal, I'll make another appeal to the Officer of the Day.  These men should be sheltered.'

He left the guard house, but in five minutes was back.

'I nearly walked into the sea,' he said.  'If it had not been for the light I never could have gotten back.'  

The Corporal turned to his relief and said:

'We must relieve the men on post.  You take what shelter you can find.  Exposure in this storm means death.'

There were eight men all told in relief.  They fell in in 'column of files' and left the guard house.  Once out from under the shelter of the porch the wind struck the members of the detail and bore its burden of snow full in their faces.  The Corporal could not see his command, so black was the night.  The soldiers were in momentary danger of piercing one another with their bayonets, their pieces being at 'secure arms.'  The Corporal ordered a halt and made his men unfix bayonets, come to a 'trail arms,' and then clasp hands.  He took the hand of the front file himself and led the way.  He headed as nearly as he could judge for the post of No. 7, back of D. Company barracks.  The distance was not more than 200 feet, but in the bewilderment of the blizzard the leader took his command to a bathhouse on the beach 150 yards from the place where the devoted sentinel stood awaiting relief.  New bearings were taken and an old soldier, who had recently re-enlisted and who was one of the relief, was brought to the front and, putting his head with that of the Corporal, a new direction was taken.  This time they found No. 7.  He was on the verge of being overcome, but was pluckily sticking to his post.  It is customary for each relieved sentinel to fall in and march with the relief until all his companions have been relieved, but the condition of No. 7 was such that it was necessary to return at once to the guard house with him, and the journey back, after posting the new man was undertaken.  The man had to be half carried and by the time warmth was reached he sank down utterly exhausted.  Hot coffee and a rubbing brought him around.  

The third relief started out again and headed for the hospital.  This building backs on the exposed east beach of the island, along which was the beat of Sentinel No. 6.The storm was from the east and this post caught its unbroken fury.  The sentinel was supposed to patrol the beach at the water's edge for its entire length of 400 feet.  When the relief finally managed to reach the hospital the men felt for the first time the full power of the storm.  As they came from the building's shelter the blast from the Sound threw them to the ground and broke the chain of hand clasps.  They struggled up and were ordered back under the lee of the building.  Then the Corporal took the man who was to relieve No. 6 and started for the beach again.  The two gripped hands and keeping close into the building managed to edge into the face of the wind.  

'If that man is on post he's dead,' said the Corporal to the recruit sentinel .  Blown here and there, soaked with the icy salt spray, and blinded by the drifting and falling snow they succeeded in covering the entire length of the post, but no sentinel could they find.  Back of the hospital and at the edge of the sentinel's post by the water stood a little wood shanty of one room and raised on brick foundations from the sand.  It was the island's dead house [i.e., a morgue].  As the Corporal and the sentinel passed in on their return the sentinel for whom they were looking came out of the door.  He was a colored lad waiting as a recruit to be sent to the negro infantry in the far West.

'I stood it out here,' he said to the Corporal, 'as long as I could.  I began to get numb and sleepy, and the wind was so strong I could not breathe, and then the spray froze on my arms and legs.  I found this door open, and saw that  could look out of the windows and so I came in.'

The Corporal led the way into the morgue again.  

'There's a dead man here,' he half gasped to the negro.

'I know it,' said the boy quietly.  'I was mighty scared at first, but I'd been dead too if I had not come here.'  -- New York correspondence of the Chicago Tribune."  

Source:  Story of Davids Island - Bravery of Army Recruits During the Big Blizzard, The New Rochelle Pioneer [New Rochelle, NY], Oct. 26, 1895, Vol. XXXV, No. 31, p. 2, cols. 1-2.  

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