How deadly 1888 blizzard transformed US public transportation

Brooklyn Bridge in New York City right after the Great Blizzard of 1888.

A historic blizzard devastated major cities in the northeastern United States 132 years ago this week.

Though the storm occurred two years before Congress established the National Weather Bureau — later renamed the National Weather Service — and well before the days of Doppler radar, storm-tracking equipment and 24/7 weather alerts, its destruction was well-documented. It remains one of the most severe blizzards in U.S. history.

New York City during the Great Blizzard of 1888. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)

It was also not a typical winter storm. Winter was almost over when it hit, and people in the mid-Atlantic states were getting ready for the arrival of spring.

On March 10, temperatures in the Northeast were in the mild 50s. But the next day, Arctic air from Canada collided with moist Gulf of Mexico air from the south, changing heavy rainfall to snow. The air pressure dropped, and winds reached hurricane strength in some areas.

The storm moved through several states from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine from March 11-14, 1888, dumping up to 5 feet of snow in some areas. Wind gusts up to 85 mph knocked out power and produced snowdrifts up to 50 feet high that covered entire houses. Many people were stranded in their homes for a week. At the time, approximately one in every four Americans lived in the path of the storm.

Businesses ground to a halt, and the New York Stock Exchange was closed for several days. The storm killed more than 400 people, and the transportation gridlock following the storm helped inspire the construction of Boston’s subway system, the first in the nation, as well as the New York City subway.

Beantown boom

The Boston subway was built during the second phase of the Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts, and was very much a product of the technological advances made during that time, namely the electric motor.

But the other motivations behind the idea were connected to Boston’s population growth and harsh winter weather. The city had a significant problem with congestion in its streets due to overcrowding, along with frequent blizzards clogging the city’s small, winding, Colonial-era streets. Congestion became such a problem that city officials began brainstorming ways to alleviate it.

Holyoke, Massachusetts, after the Great Blizzard of 1888. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the transportation infrastructure of downtown Boston — a maze of narrow, winding streets laid out, in some cases, along Colonial cow paths — proved completely inadequate for the needs of a modern, bustling metropolis by the 1890s. Gridlock became common on Tremont Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, due to a convergence of foot traffic, horse-drawn conveyances, trolley lines and electric streetcars. To fix the problem, the Boston Transit Commission was created in 1894 to study possible solutions.

Public transportation at the time was practically nonexistent, so city officials began creating horse-drawn trolleys, which were later replaced by electric trolleys in order to accommodate the growing population. These trolleys, combined with pedestrian traffic, private horse-drawn carriages and cabs, as well as commercial wagons, created daily traffic jams.

City officials felt the best solution was to build a subway and promptly began to lay the groundwork for a new transit system. The Rapid Transit Committee was formed in 1891 to promote the subway idea.

On Jan. 1, 1894, Boston City Council approved the formation of a Board of Subway Commissioners that was authorized to lay out and construct a subway from Tremont Street to Pleasant Street. That July, details were spelled out, and voters approved the plan in a special election. Construction began in March 1895 and finished in the summer of 1897. The subway opened to the public on Sept. 1, 1897. It appeared to work well, based on these comments in Harper’s Magazine shortly after the subway opened.

“The effect was like when a barrier is removed from the channel of a clogged-up river; the tremendous pressure on the surface thoroughfares was at once relieved and movement became free and accelerated to a degree that has never been witnessed by the present generation.”

Use of the subway has exploded over the past 123 years. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), people took more than 155.7 million trips on the Boston subway in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Big Apple takes a bite

New York City’s public transportation landscape also changed after the Blizzard of 1888, following in Boston’s footsteps. Despite the storm, many people trudged their way to the city’s elevated trains to go to work, only to find many of them blocked by snow drifts and unable to move. Up to 15,000 people were stranded on the elevated trains. In addition to the trains, telegraph lines, water mains and gas lines were located above ground. They froze and became inaccessible to repair crews.

In the wake of the storm, city officials realized the dangers of above-ground telegraph, water and gas lines and moved them below ground. A similar determination was made about the trains. Within 10 years, construction began on a subway system that is still in use today.

New York City (45th Street and Grand Central Depot) after the Great Blizzard of 1888. (Photo: NOAA Photo Library/Historic NWS Collection)

At 7 p.m. EST on Oct. 27, 1904, the subway opened to the general public, and more than 100,000 people paid a nickel each to take their first ride under Manhattan. The Interborough Rapid Transit Co. (IRT), the subway’s name at that time, expanded to the Bronx in 1905, Brooklyn in 1908 and Queens in 1915. Since 1968, the subway has been controlled by the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA). The system now operates 26 lines and 468 stations. The longest line, the Eighth Avenue “A” Express train, stretches more than 32 miles from the northern tip of Manhattan to the far southeastern corner of Queens.

Every day, around 4.5 million people take the New York City subway. With the exception of the PATH train connecting New York with New Jersey, as well as some parts of Chicago’s elevated train system, New York’s subway is the only rapid transit system in the world that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Other major metropolitan areas jumped on the bandwagon, building subways and expanding public transportation over the following decades. According to the APTA, people took 9.9 billion trips on U.S. public transportation systems in 2018, including subways, buses, light rail, commuter trains, streetcars and trolleys, cable cars, vanpool services, ferries and water taxis, paratransit services for senior citizens and people with disabilities, monorails, and tramways.