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October blizzard sparks memories of the great blizzard of 1888

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 17 2011 03:45:07 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 21 2011 04:50:50 PM CST

A snowstorm in March doesn't happen all the time, but it did happen in a big way 123 years ago.

Ok, so you are thinking you had it rough. The furnace in the basement was ominously still, the lights were off, you were bumping around in the dark, and gosh knows, nobody could even see a football game. And it was only Halloween!

All those candles you only use at the dining room table at Christmas came in handy.  Those lucky enough to have a fireplace and wood huddled close in. Suddenly you wonder how did they survive things like blizzards way back when?

When you talk snowstorms and the east coast of the United States the best one to look back on was the great blizzard of 1888. And one thing we can be sure of is that they didn’t have any idea what was going to hit them. There had been a particularly bad storm in February that year but by early March so much had melted away, it was a mere memory. And on the front page of Allentown’s Chronicle and News of March 10, 1888 was the reassuring forecast from the Chief Signal Officer at the War Department in Washington, the ultimate “weather guy” of the day. “The indications for today are light to fresh variable winds, shifting to easterly, warmer fair weather,” it said. This was just a few hours away from what became the worst blizzard in living memory for a long time.

Most people probably spent that first night at home. But we do know that many of them were also down at the Academy of Music Theater at 6th and Linden in Allentown catching a performance of Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” The leading actress in the play was Madame Helena Modjeska, who had the publicity wattage of a movie or TV star today. Her private railroad car, “The Newport” had already attracted the attention of a private jet today.

The play ended around 10 p.m. Those who were there recalled coming out into a far different evening then they had known on arriving. All the spring had gone out of the air that was now damp and heavy. And there was a chill that seemed suddenly sharp. Most were home early Sunday morning March 12th when a sharp hard rain began. It was between 8pm and 9pm that the rain turned to snow.

Nobody had satellites or planes or even very good balloons, so the good people of the Lehigh Valley, unlike those today, didn’t have time to worry. Later in its very first issue, the National Geographic Society’s magazine explained to readers that it was a Pacific coastal storm barreling across the Midwest that was the culprit. When it hit a wet warm front slowly making itself up the Atlantic seaboard, the combination was more than any one had suspected.

blizzard picture That Monday morning postman Henry Yhenlon in Aineyville and Hanover Township found himself wading in waist high drifts. And out in the countryside Star Route stage coaches that carried the mail were finding it impossible to get to Strausstown. Folks in Neffs, Limeport, Kutztown and Sagersville would also not be getting any mail that day, or any time in the near future.

Perhaps most surprising was the howl of the wind and the force that drove the snow. Those that got caught in it, like many factory workers who had no choice but to try to get to work for fear of losing their jobs, were to recall it vividly. Snow would blow into their mouths, down their coats, and into their noses. Any attempt at breathing was painful.

Although the larger cities like New York were to see many wires come down from those high poles with something like 15 crosspieces, that kind of wire problem was not yet evident in the Lehigh Valley to any great degree. Still many telegraph wires were down.  And as electric lights were largely confined to a few local businesses, no one thought about being without light. Coal stoves shoveled by hand provided heat.

What was a real problem was the disruption of train travel. One newspaper story quoted one old timer who said he had not seen a storm this bad since the great blizzard of 1836. But as the newspaper accounts of the “Great White Hurricane,” noted, everyone had come to depend on the trains to carry goods and people. Reports came in that there was no rail service moving north of Philadelphia or west of Reading. Farmers found it impossible to get into town with produce. The only item that was in any kind of sufficient supply was butter.

Just because freight traffic was stopped did not mean people would not try to be on the move. And that was just the problem. Passenger trains all over eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey were stalled on sidings. Some were trapped in snow drifts. One train to Philadelphia was stalled outside Coopersburg with the snow covering it. An attempt to get the engine going again only led the big locomotive to slip off the tracks. A second engine was sent out from Bethlehem. It promptly skidded into a drift just before it got to its destination.

After a cold night, the coal stove that heated the car had gone out, according to the Chronicle and News “due to too many hands adjusting it.” Living in fear that they might not be found the passengers were surprised to hear a knock at the railcar’s back door. Opening it carefully they saw a big man who had just gotten out of a sleigh that they could see nearby. Assuming that what the people in the car were suffering from most--after cold--was hunger, he brought some bread and molasses. He also brought quilts for the women and children. Eventually, a crew of 40 showed up with shovels. Before long, the train was free and headed to Philadelphia. And by then the Blizzard of 88’ was history.