Albany and the Blizzard of 1888

On March 12th in 1888 a great snowstorm was raging into its second day. When over, nearly 3 days later, it had dumped almost 4 feet of snow on Albany. For days people in Albany, NYC and the area to the east to Boston were isolated from the outside world.

It started late in the afternoon of Sunday March 11. At 11pm that night a trip through the City that would have normally taken 15 minutes took 3 hours. By Monday afternoon, the snow was knee high. “Trolley” cars that were usually pulled by 1 horse (electric trolleys didn’t debut until a couple of years later) were hitched to 4 horses in an act of desperation- then an 8 horse hitch was tried. That failed and the car was abandoned in the middle of State St. By 7pm everything ground to a halt.

Albanians are hardy souls. Snow? Pftt!!. They had just survived a snowstorm of over 2 ft. 3 months before in the week before Christmas. (Another of the largest snowstorms Albany has endured.) But this would be something else. The bulk of the snow fell on that Monday – slightly over 2 ½ ft., the largest single day snow fall in Albany recorded history.

Railroad travelers were marooned. Hotels in downtown were crammed with the stranded travelers and people who lived on the outer fringes of the City who couldn’t make it home. Young men with snow shoes were about the only people who could move about. They ran errands dragging sledges as they mushed through eerily empty streets.

5By March 13, the ‘Albany Evening Union” wrote, “No business. No tracking. No car (horse) travel. No Legislature. No matinees. No coal (which meant no heat)… No railroad trains…. No milk. … Last night was bad enough, but today is worse”. Even the saloons were closed!! It was so bad the Legislature adjourned for 2 days – people joked “No Laws”. Front doors were blocked with snow, and some people exited through second story windows on to huge snow piles. N. Pearl, S. Pearl and State Streets were covered with drifts in the 10’ to 15’ range. The biggest drift, somewhat over 20 ft. high, blocked Hawk St., at Jay, (an area now buried under the Empire State Plaza) just west of the Capitol.

Mayor Thacher ceded city functions, issuing a proclamation urging private citizens to hire groups of men to remove snow from the streets and roads in front of their houses and businesses. People who lived in row houses didn’t bother clearing the snow; they constructed tunnels through the drifts on sidewalks.

Virtually all telegraph and telephone lines were down; it wasn’t until after the storm was over that reports started trickling in from the fringes of the City – from the Ten Eyck Farm on Whitehall Rd and from hill towns about valiant efforts to fight the storm, and keep farm animals alive as they tried to traverse short distances between houses and barns in howling winds of 70 + mph and huge drifts.

Finally on March 14th a train that had started out in Buffalo on March 11 made it into the Albany depot at midnight, after struggling for 3 days to make it from Schenectady to Albany. It was hauled in to Albany by 7 engines. Passengers on other stranded trains had found shelter in farmhouses along the way.

Schools were closed for the entire week, but by Friday conditions ameliorated and children were out on the streets pelting one another with snow balls. Gangs of all available able-bodied men and boys cleared major streets and roads and stretches of railway track; telegraph and telephone lines were being restored. What was called the “Great White Hurricane” had come and gone.

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