Blizzard of 1888
Excerpt from “He’s Still Burried in the Blizzard of ’88,” Yankee Magazine, September 1988
The Blizzard of 1888 dumped the greatest amount of snow ever to have fallen in the United States in one storm. And author Judd Caplovich discovered more about it than anyone who lived through it.
Judd Caplovich lives in a house whose shrubs were once shorn by a tornado, a house that has been struck by lightning—twice. Storms come to him. He was six years old when another tornado struck Worcester, his hometown, in 1953. As it tore its lethal trench just three miles away, the boy wandered outside, arms outstretched, palms upward, to catch the hailstones. A few years later, when Hurricane Donna swept into Massachusetts, he was out on his paper route, hurrying to deliver the last of the papers. The wind howled around him. As he crossed the street, an electrical transformer exploded above his head. He ran home, those last papers still in his bag. In 1973, in an ice storm that left even the major highways of Connecticut hopelessly greased, he and 12 other members of his car pool, stranded by the storm, huddled in a tiny Hartford apartment, the only place that still had electricity. Judd slept on the floor of the kitchen that night.
One of the first things Judd collected was the headlines of the storms. He saved the Worcester Telegram and Gazette that chronicled the 1953 tornado and then there were the hurricanes in 1954 and 1955, and the accounts of the floods of the same year that virtually destroyed Winsted, Connecticut. Later he found headline editions from the Hurricane of ‘38, a storm so fierce that his grandmother recalled for him that she had seen trees flying through the air. Before long he had two boxes full of these newspapers, chronicling the aftermaths of disasters. But he had nothing on the Great Blizzard of 1888, the greatest snowstorm of all times. And that kind of got him thinking. “I knew where there was a large collection of photographs of the storm, and I knew there wasn’t very much written about it. So I decided to do a book. To fill the void,” he said.
Blizzard! The Great Storm of ‘88!, a hefty three-pounder loaded with pictures of the blizzard of 1888, that surprise mid-March storm that buried ten states in three, four, and five feet of snow, that drifted up to 40 feet, just as crocuses had come into bloom and farmers had begun their spring plowing.
There was precious little meteorological data available on the blizzard, which is now commonly believed to have been a collision of two massive storm fronts. He called Paul Cozin, a NASA research meteorologist up, and they talked, and before long, Cozin was at work with Judd, mapping out the path and progress of the entire storm, something that had never been done before. Similarly, Judd contacted David Ludlum, who has written more than ten books about weather and its phenomena, and he joined in.
He found first-person accounts of the blizzard in some of the newspapers he’d run through on microfilm. In the New York Times, he found this account by a woman watching the storm from her apartment window: “I saw a man for one and a half hours trying to cross 96th Street. We watched him start, get quarter way across, and then be flung back against the building on the comer. The last time he tried it, he was caught up in a whirl of snow and disappeared from our view. The next morning seven horses, policemen, and his brother charged the drift, and his body was kicked out of the drift.” The newspapers abounded with grim stories—the account of a farmer finding a woman frozen to death in his outhouse, where she had sought shelter, having lost her way in the ferocious storm. And the two children in Waterford, Connecticut, who were making their way to their aunt’s house and were quickly buried in the fast-falling snow. They huddled together for hours inside the snow cave until searchers found them by poking through the snow with a stick. They were alive, their hands and ears frostbitten. The icy snow whipped by gale-force winds made being out in the storm like being in a sand storm or being sandblasted. It was reported, here and there, that people had resorted to wearing squares of carpeting on their feet and blankets around their heads, or bags with holes cut for eyes.
For three astonishing days in 1888—March 11 to 14— a whirlwind of ice and snow pummeled the region, and when it was over, it had taken the lives of 400 people and caused uncalculated damage. In New York City, where such things were capable of being totted up, there was an estimated $20 million worth of damage. It was the greatest amount of snow ever to have fallen since the formation of the United States. Nothing since has overtaken that record.