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.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Another Account of The Great Blizzard of 1888 that Raged in Pelham 129 Years Ago Yesterday and Today

As Pelham awaits Stella, the Nor'easter threatening to overrun the region tonight and tomorrow, it seems appropriate to remember that one hundred twenty nine years ago yesterday and today, Pelham was overrun by "The Great White Hurricane," also known as 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.

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 early in the morning on Monday, March 12, two Pelham residents failed to grasp the magnitude of the massive storm and tried to reach the City for work 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 until it began "to labor" and after a few "convulsive" thrusts, stopped dead in its tracks, unable to proceed.  Shovels were quickly deployed to attempt to remove snow from the front of the train, but the effort was futile.  The train was hopelessly stuck just as the storm entered its most furious phase, stranding the crew and the few passengers on board like those of so many other trains in the region. 

The furious winds blew tiny particles of through every crack around every window where the snow melted inside and dampened everything.  Soon the passengers and crew 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. 

The poor engineer of the train began to suffer "an agony of rheumatic pain" as the terrible hours slowly passed.  According to one account, his groans of pain began to mingle with the whistling of the wind.  As the day wore on and it became devastatingly clear that the storm was not subsiding and no help was coming, the passengers and crew were faced with a terrible conundrum.  Should the exit the train and head into the storm on foot to find shelter, or should they remain on board the little peanut train?  Either choice risked freezing to death.

Late in the day on Monday, March 12, it became apparent that they were on their own.   Messrs. Taft and Hammett of Pelham Manor 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.”  They decided to exit the train and attempt to make their way in the blinding snow and high snow drifts back to Pelham Manor.  

Only Known Image of The Little Peanut Train on the Branch
Line Stuck in the Snow Near Westchester Station.  Photograph
Taken Several Days After the March 12-13, 1888 Blizzard.
Photo Courtesy of The Office of The Historian of The Town of
Pelham.  Note:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

At about 4:00 in the afternoon, Taft and Hammett pried open the door of the train car and climbed into the snow.  The pair began trying to follow the train tracks hidden beneath snow and drifts that stood face-high in some places.  They had to push through banks of snow and, occasionally, could not make out where the train tracks were, so they found the barb wire fences that stood along the tracks and used the wire to guide themselves along.  

After hours of effort, the pair reached the railroad bridge over Eastchester Bay at the mouth of the Hutchinson River.  There the railroad tracks rested on short pilings across the waters of the Bay.  Completely exposed to the elements, the howling wind and piercing pellets of ice and snow had the "impact of shot from a gun."  The high winds risked blowing the pair into the water below to certain death.  All the men could do was to hold onto the planking and the railroad cross-ties and crawl across the trestle, holding on for dear life.  During any lull in the wind, the men would spring to their feet and try to sprint along the cross-ties to "make the best use of that always short interval."

After exhausting efforts, the pair made it across Eastchester Bay and bulled their way along the tracks through the snow to Bartow Station.  Night had fallen and an ink-black darkness descended.  

At Bartow residents helped the men warm up and offered a horse to help.  Recognizing that a horse would be useless in the high snow banks and drifts, Taft and Hammett declined.  The two men were anxious to return to their families to allay worries and to help them pass through the remainder of the storm safely.  The two never even removed their outer garments at Bartow.  They simply warmed themselves, then plunged back outside along the railroad tracks to return to Pelham Manor.  

According to one account, as the men made their way between Bartow Station and Pelham Manor:

"The snow was deep all along and the drifts frequent and formidable.  The darkness was so nearly utter and total that these would not be discovered until all of a sudden a white wall, apparently sheer and insurmountable, would rise within a few inches of their faces.  How best to flank or surmount them was then the question.  Sometimes there was resort to the fence, and a hand over hand progress was made through them despite the wounding of the iron barbs.  Again those constantly recurring barriers were overcome by lying down and rolling over them!"

Late that evening, Taft and Hammett noticed a light in the distance.  That guiding light came from within the Pelham Manor Station along the railroad tracks near their homes.  They quickened their pace and stumbled to the station, onto the station platform, and toward their homes near the station.  Taft left Hammett in front of Hammett's home and, luckily, did not depart immediately.  Hammett stumbled and fell in the snow in front of his home and did not get up.  Taft helped him up and into the home before continuing to his house.  Hammett insisted for years thereafter that had Taft not helped him at that moment, he would have frozen to death in front of his own home after nearly completing his ordeal.

*          *          *          *          *

I have written about The Great White Hurricane of 1888 and its effects on Pelham.  See:

Tues., Apr. 22, 2014:  Another Story of the "Great White Hurricane" that Struck Pelham and Surrounding Regions in 1888.

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

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

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

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.

Below is yet another account of the travails of Messrs. Taft and Hammett as they fled the little peanut train for their homes at the height of the Blizzard of 1888.  The account is reprinted from The New York Evangelist.  This strongly suggests that the account was written by John Henry Dey, a Pelham Manor resident and close friend of Messrs. Taft and Hammett, who served as Associate Editor of The New York Evangelist at the time.  The text appears immediately below, followed by a citation and link to its source.

A Graphic Account of the New York Snow Storm.

The following is taken from the New York Evangelist concerning the snow storm.  In speaking of being caught out the writer says:  

The writer only escaped a similar or worse experience by missing a train on the branch road extending from New Rochelle to the Harlem river, and which was quite out of time on that furious morning.  Three of his neighbors were at the station, however, and as in the case of the early bird, caught the passing worm.  And this was a subject of much felicitati on, as we are assured, for the next fifteen minutes or so.  But just on the hither, side of the Westchester station, their train and themselves encountered 'the unkindest cut of all.'  They left that station on time and cheerful, but ere they were fairly under way the locomotive began to labor, and presently after a convulsive effort or two, there was no more progress.  Shovels were used for a little, thereby enacting Mrs. Partington's broom against the tide; but even the track made in coming, was quickly obliterated, and the snow banked behind as well as before the train.  There were only a few passengers, but several of these spent two nights just there.  And miserable nights just there.  And miserable nights they were -- as miserable nights they were -- as miserable as deficient warmth and covering and food and a temperature without close to zero, could make them.  The fine snow particles sifted in at every window, so that at last there was not a dry seat in the single car to which they were confined in order to economize the fuel.  The engineer of the train was of the number, and poor fellow, he was in an agony of rheumatic pain all those terrible hours.  His groans mingled constantly the last night with the whistling of the wind.

Several soon became impatient to learn how their wives and little ones were faring in the waxing storm.  With such preparation as they could make, which was but little, they crowed open the door of their car, and sallied forth a little after four o'clock, resolved to make the four or five miles they had traversed so speedily and gaily in the morning, and over the same route, as on the whole, the best and safest.  It was a struggle from the start.  A hat blew off, and was secured with difficulty.  Their course was nearly in the teeth of the storm, and they could only average about a mile an hour.  They were not very long in coming to a stage of their journey entirely exposed to the force of the wind, and it seemed to come down upon them at times with a full fifty-mile an hour sweep and momentum.  We refer to the salt meadows section between Timberson's and Bay Chester stations, the level reach of which extends well toward Mount Vernon on the west, and on the east to the Sound, which it finds between the uplands of Westchester on the south and Fort Schuyler on the north.  This great level area is, at intervals of perhaps two or three years, and under pressure of a long prevalent and powerful wind in the right quarter, quite overflowed from the piled-up waters of the Sound, and turbulent as an arm of the sea.  The railroad track hence rests upon short piles, and one needs to walk with some circumspection upon it at any time.  On this terrible day the wind and snow played upon this bare scaffolding with something of the impact of shot from a gun, and there was nothing for it but for our two friends to seize the planking or crossties [sic] and cling for dear life until the lull came, and then to spring to their feet and make the best use of that always short interval.  Had it not been that nature herself seemed to require a moment to recover her spent breath, their case would have been hopeless.

Arrived at Bartow a short halt was made, and there were offers of a horse or any other assistance of avail.  But the only progress possible was by foot and so the last half of the journey was begun, with a little rest, but without removing outer garments.  Fairly on the rails again, or rather over them, this was found to be the most 'laborious and dangerous' part of the adventure.  The stations here are far apart and the grade steadily rises, so that the charged wind -- as sometimes the engineers on this best stretch of the road -- rejoiced to run a race.  Toiling on for an hour, the situation grew forlorn and desperate.  The cold increased, also the wind and snow, and it became very dark.  There was not a star or friendly light to guide, and but for the wire fencing on either hand, and the driving snow which impinged constantly on the ice-laded [sic] face and ear, when progress was being made in the right direction, our friends would inevitably have lost their way.  

The snow was deep all along and the drifts frequent and formidable.  The darkness was so nearly utter and total that these would not be discovered until all of a sudden a white wall, apparently sheer and insurmountable, would rise within a few inches of their faces.  How best to flank or surmount them was then the question.  Sometimes there was resort to the fence, and a hand over hand progress was made through them despite the wounding of the iron barbs.  Again those constantly recurring barriers were overcome by lying down and rolling over them!  A blessed suggestion from the contrasted sunny days of youth coming to the rescue!  Finally, after long hours of this work, and when strength and resolution were sorely tried, if not quite spent, the welcome, thrice welcome light of the Pelham Manor station was discerned at only a little distance off!  

That such a genuine Dakotan adventure as we have here sketched could have occurred on the afternoon and evening of Monday week and within the bounds for the most part of one of our projected city parks, who would have believed possible."

Source:  A TALE OF THE BLIZZARD -- A Graphic Account of the New York Snow Storm, Randolph Register [Randolph, NY], Mar. 29, 1888, Vol. XXIII, No. 45, p. 8, cols. 1-2.  

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