In 1888, President Grover Cleveland was defeated by challenger Benjamin Harrison, the wax drinking straw, time card clock, and ballpoint pen were patented, golf came to America for the first time, George Eastman produced the first Kodak camera, National Geographic magazine published its first issue, the Washington Monument opened to the public, and the Eastern half of North America endured what has been called the worst blizzard in U.S. history.
For four full days, beginning on March 11, the Great Blizzard of ’88, also known as “the Great White Hurricane,” gripped Atlantic seaboard from the Chesapeake Bay northward to Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Just two months earlier the infamous Schoolhouse Blizzard had claimed the lives of more than 200 people, most of them children, in the Midwest. As tragic as that storm was, however, it was minor in comparison to the big one that would soon hit.
The Blizzard of ’88 dumped as much as 50 inches of snow on parts of the Northeastern United States. The unprecedented amount of snow was accompanied by temperatures in the single digits, which were unusual for March, and punishing winds in excess of 45 miles per hour. Some reports even claimed there were gusts up to 80 miles per hour! By the time the storm was over, it left behind snowdrifts 50 feet high and claimed more than 400 lives, half of them from New York alone.
Railroads stopped running, ships were grounded, and many of those that were unlucky enough to be on the water when the storm hit wrecked. A full quarter of the people who lost their lives during the storm were sailors. Telegraph and electrical wires, which were a fairly recent addition to New York and a few other large cities, were downed, creating a hazardous situation. This situation was worsened by the fact that fire stations were unable to respond due to impassable roads. Unchecked fires were responsible for more than $25 million in property damage related to the storm (or more than $26 billion in today’s dollars). Later, as the snow from the storm began to melt, severe flooding occurred, causing even more damage.
Most people found themselves confined to their homes for duration of the brutal storm and its aftermath. In many places, it took as long as eight days after the snow ended to make roads passable. The storm was, in part, responsible for the creation of Boston’s subway system — the nation’s first — which opened nine years later, in 1897. New York City, would soon follow suit, opening its subway system in 1904.