Blizzard of 1888
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.
In his reading, Judd found that the entire Northeast had been paralyzed by the blizzard. Telephone and telegraph wires were down from Washington, D.C., to Maine, and the trains, which provided the only real transportation in those days, were at a standstill—many smashed to ruin, some stuck in drifts, some never able to leave the station. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, more than 1,000 passengers crowded into the station, unable to go home, unable to go anywhere. Among them was a traveling theater group, who had come to perform “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at a Bridgeport theater that week. They did an impromptu performance for the shivering crowd, then and there. Passengers on trains that had become stranded for days in a virtual snow wilderness fared better or worse, depending on what the baggage cars held. One trainload of starving passengers discovered five gallons of oysters and 300 pounds of bacon and sausage when they looted the stock. Another happy group uncovered a load of tenderloins which they fried up on the coal shovels over the passenger heaters. Melted snow provided further refreshment. But the luck on another train, hung up in a drift in Brookfield, Connecticut, was not quite so sweet. There, a brave stationmaster forged his way through the raging storm, loaded down with all the eggs and bread he could handle, plus a gallon of brandy. This sorted out to one egg and two slices of bread for each famished passenger to keep them going another 24 hours until help arrived.
There were recollections chronicled by a group called the Blizzard Men of ‘88. All of them had lived through the storm, and they got together for years afterward to share their memories. Here is one that Judd found: “By night the drift had reached the second-story windowsill. When we were ready to depart at 6 o’clock, we found a solid wall of snow as the lower door was opened . . . We did have two shovels. It was necessary to tunnel through for about 15 feet, carrying snow upstairs and throwing it out the back windows. Making an exit … our combined strength weathered the gale in an almost exhausted condition.” The accounts were numerous and tragic as well as comic, such as the story of searchers coming across a body, hard as rock, in a high drift of snow. After frantic efforts to uncover the “corpse,” it turned out to be a cigar-store Indian. And the one of the woman in Hartford, who had taken a dozen strangers, trapped by the storm, into her home. Food ran out quickly but under her back porch she discovered another group of refugees—a flock of perhaps a hundred sparrows. She gathered them up and served the hungry strangers sparrow pie.
Working at a frantic pace, 16 hours a day, seven days a week for almost a year, Judd collected these tales and wove them into a text that went along with the more than 300 illustrations he chose for the book. It was not always easy—he remembers spending one entire day in Concord, New Hampshire, sorting through mountains of pictures and finding not a single one of the Blizzard of ’88.
And he worked hard to find someone who had lived through the storm. He thought it was possible—the person would have to be about 106, with a clear memory, but he figured there are such people so he put ads in some of the newspapers. He got no response. The closest he came was a woman in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, who is known as the Blizzard Lady, reputedly because she was born on the day of the blizzard. She would not, of course, remember the storm, but it was the closest he had come, so he and Wayne drove up to Hopkinton and spent the day with the Blizzard Lady whom he found to be very sharp. Wayne took a lot of pictures. “She’s a hundred years old, still drives her own car, owns her own home, and has her own garden,” Judd says. “We had a wonderful day with her, but it turned out she was born on March 31. Everyone in town thought she was born on the day of the blizzard, but that would have been March 12. She did know when her birthday was, but there was another blizzard on the 31st. So I couldn’t use it in the book. That was a big disappointment because I was going to dedicate the book to her.”
At a certain point he had to stop and turn to the business of producing the book. He found a printer in Michigan. Of course, there are printers closer, but this was the one he liked the best and that involved a lot of travel and phone calls and in the end, the book came out late, a little over two weeks before Christmas, which was a disappointment because he more or less missed the pre-Christmas sales. The books were delivered to his house, where he handles all the mail orders. Five thousand books on skids arrived one morning in a tractor trailer from Michigan. There was a total weight of 15,000 pounds to be unloaded.
He was afraid the foundation would crack if they unloaded the works all in one place, so he spread it around—2,000 pounds here, 2,000 pounds there, 6,000 pounds in the basement, next to his roomful of old phonograph records.
But orders started to come in, and the burden began to lift. The book was given a prize and was given out as a prize, and on the weekend of the anniversary of the Great Blizzard of 1988, March 11, 12, and 13, Judd found himself involved in a blitz of radio and TV interviews, which was something of a surprise to him. He spent the weekend in New York City where Maria Shriver interviewed him and so did the folks at “Good Morning America.” When the weekend ended, when the centennial of the storm had crested and waned, he went home and slept, for days it seemed.
After that the orders continued to come in, slow but sure. He did not, as he had hoped, make a bundle. He has been thinking lately of other projects that might be more lucrative. He thought about capitalizing on the fluctuating foreign exchange rates by importing things from Europe. He looked into importing chocolate and traveled to Switzerland to arrange to buy a bulk load of chocolate. “But they wanted me to buy 100,000 pounds of it at a time, and I realized that chocolate, if you don’t get rid of it real quick, spoils. So that was out.” A couple of other things didn’t pan out. He keeps going back to the storms. When last we talked, he was getting together all his material collected over the years on the Hurricane of 1938. September is the 50th anniversary of that storm. He thinks there might be something in that.
Excerpt from “He’s Still Burried in the Blizzard of ’88,” Yankee Magazine, September 1988