Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Snow Removal from the Streets of New York, c. 1888

Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Isabella reporting,

I have spent the day shoveling out a driveway that seems to grow magically in length in direct proportion to the amount of snow covering it, which, of course, being a Nerdy History Girl, made me wonder how snow was cleared away from streets in the days before plows.

The Great Blizzard of 1888 deposited as much as 60 inches of snow over New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts over a four-day span in March. Single-digit temperatures and high winds contributed to the misery, with fifty-foot
drifts reported. Telegraph and telephone lines were knocked down, train lines were halted, ships were wrecked and grounded up and down the coast, and more than 400 people perished from the storm's cold. Many people were trapped in their homes for over a week. Modern weather reporters love to speak of how snow storms leave a city "paralyzed"; in 1888, New York really was stopped cold in its snowy tracks.

How did they clear all that snow away? In much the same way that I've been clearing my driveway. As these pictures show, snow was slowly and laboriously shoveled by hand into horse-drawn carts. The carts were then driven to the river, and one by one emptied into the rivers. It must have been back-breaking work, and in the wind and freezing temperatures, an exhausting challenge to both the men and the horses.

Top left: The Snow-Storm - Carting snow from the Streets of New York, by Stanley Fox, 1888.
Right & lower left: Photographs following Blizzard of 1888 by E.A.Austen. All images from New York Public Library.


Unknown said...

That . . . is an amazingly clear picture at the bottom. Wow!

(-: And the post makes me feel better about my own constant shovelling.

Hels said...

Now there is a scene I have never experienced... or ever will. I did see snow fall in Jerusalem one winter but it was pathetic sludge, not proper snow.

Now here is my question. How did 400 people die during those four days? Did they freeze? or were they shut up in their flats and couldn't reach food? How did a big city not look after its own citizens, especially elderly citizens?

brain said...

Nice one! I like the outfit of the characters. Wish i could do the same thing too but im not that techie.i like the outfit of “from farmer to warden”.. really interesting.

Loraine A said...

Seems this is another example of climate change - it's getting colder in the Northern Hemisphere and hotter in the Southern. We're experiencing mid 40's C here in Victoria Australia and having been to New York State in the winter, I sure wish I was there now. Might have to take a holiday to the US during our next summer.
Loraine A.

Unknown said...

Back in 1988, there was a terrific exhibit about this blizzard at the New-York Historical Society. I am a native New Yorker (who vividly remembers the winter of 1969 -- we missed an entire week of school), and I brought along a friend who'd grown up in a warmer climate. She was stunned at the amount of snow.

Unknown said...

Wow! Makes me appreciate the modern advances in textiles. I was dreading having to shovel this morning, but at least I'll be toasty in my my winter gear.

This story reminded me of the blizzard of '93. My husband and I were trapped in a Knight's Inn in Maryland for three days. We had to trudge in several feet of snow to the truck stop next door for our meals. We played cards and read magazines we had purchased there. At that time, we thought it was horrible, but learning about the blizzard of 1888, it was a holiday.

Stephen Barker said...


No doubt made people froze to death particularly the poor who probably did not have adequate heating, clothing and supplies of food. You must remember that severe cold will hit those who are physically frail or suffering from existing medical conditions hardest.

Even today in Britain the mortality rate for the elderly and vulnerable rises in periods of hard weather. Much of the nation's housing stock is quite old and not the most efficient in retaining heat, which is a problem for those on low incomes. There is nothing like a cold damp winter such as we enjoy in Britain to chill you to the bone.

GSGreatEscaper said...

Concerning people dying in the great blizzards - 60" of snow would have been taller than most people at that time. No checking on neighbors if the doors are buried shut! And of course, when you are too cold you just go to sleep and never wake up.

Plus people were caught outside in the snow and just froze to death.

In the countryside, remember, before autos, roads were not 'plowed.' Instead horse drawn teams flattened the snow and packed it, and wagons were fitted with runners rather than wheels. "The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snow...." And people just stayed home.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

There were, unfortunately, many ways to have died during the blizzard.

In addition to the ones already mentioned, sailors were lost overboard in the blinding snow. People were trapped or crushed by buildings that collapsed from the weight of the snow. The fire departments were unable to answer calls, and fires blazed freely.

Just as today, the challenge of deep snow was often too much of a strain on people's hearts. I wonder how many of those snow-shovelers - many of whom were indigent men willing to work for any wage - collapsed while working. And imagine attempting to walk any distance through that kind of snow, with the wool clothing of the time becoming heavier still with clotted, frozen snow. Among the dead were those who suffered heart attacks and collapsed in the street, where their bodies were not discovered until the snow was removed.

In a way, it's amazing that more people did not die, considering the severity of the storm.

QNPoohBear said...

Wow thanks for the visuals! My great-grandmother was born in New York a month later. Apparently the blizzard was still talked about in her childhood. It was something she remembered without having been born yet just like I was born a few months after the New England Blizzard of '78 that everyone still talks about.

Jon said...

this was a really fun article with excellent visuals. Really enjoyed the history lesson!

Anonymous said...

A family friend was born during that week - he was not sure of the date because the attending Doctor (who managed to get there) just kept adding to his list of births until he was able to get to the registry!

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