“The Great White Hurricane” of 1888

The Most Massive and Destructive Snowstorm in New England History

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Train in the snow, Forestville. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1990.137.7
Trains like this one in the Forestville section of Bristol were stopped cold by snow clogging the railroad tracks.
Snow tunnel in Bridgeport (detail). The Connecticut Historical Society, 1973.57.3.9
Snow removal created piles tall enough to be tunneled through, as was done here in Bridgeport between Main and Water streets.
Snow bank on Bank Street, Waterbury. The Connecticut Historical Society, X.2000.34.2
Snow removed from this sidewalk in Waterbury apparently was thrown on top of the mound at the curb, creating a wall of white more than six feet tall.
After the Great Blizzard, Hartford. The Connecticut Historical Society, X.2000.34.4.
Mounds of snow left by the Blizzard of 1888 loom over people at the corner of Main and State streets in Hartford.

As Connecticut emerges from beneath the record amounts of snow left by a series of storms that started in December and continued into February, residents should temper their relief with caution. For it was in the middle of March that the most massive and destructive snowstorm in New England history struck: the Blizzard of 1888.

The monstrous nor’easter began on the evening of March 11, a Sunday that had been warm enough to hint at the coming of spring. Before it moved away three days later, it had dropped as much as 50 inches of snow on Connecticut, paralyzed the entire Northeast, and left death and destruction in its wake.

Unlike today, residents had no warning of the blizzard’s advance, since the science of meteorology was still in its infancy. Nor could they follow the storm’s progress via news reports. There were no radios or televisions, no Internet, not even any telephones by which to establish contact with the outside world. The only means of long-distance communication was the telegraph, and many lines were brought down by the storm.

Transportation was crippled. Roads were blocked by two or more feet of snow. Walkways and streets in some cities were cleared by shoveling, or by plows or rollers drawn by oxen, but most highways were untouched, making it impossible for horsecars and stagecoaches to move.

Many trains were unable to leave the stations. Others that tried soon were stopped dead in their tracks or even derailed by encounters with mountains of snow. Passengers by the hundreds were stranded in depots or on trains themselves. The stoppage had a ripple effect on train travel for weeks afterward, just as cancelled flights disrupted travelers’ schedules in 2011. “Dwellings and barns have broken down” reported the New York Times – a grim echo of the dozens of roofs and buildings that have collapsed under the weight of this past season’s accumulated snow.  

People desperate or foolish enough to go outside during the storm were gambling dangerously with their lives. Two female factory workers who decided to try to make it from their place of work in Bridgeport to home were found frozen to death. More than 400 people across the Northeast lost their lives in the Blizzard of 1888, the “Great White Hurricane.”