Workers dig out the snow from underneath an elevated train line after the blizzard of 1888. (Bettmann/CORBIS)
As New York City braces for a blizzard forecasters say could be historic, some residents are looking back to the one that historians say changed the city forever.
In March 1888, an unprecedented blizzard hit the northeast, dumping 20 to 60 inches of snow on an unprepared New York City. Drifts measured 30 and even 50 feet in some parts of the region.
Not only was the storm momentous, resulting in around 200 deaths in New York City alone, it had a lasting impact on the way the city functions today.
The creation of New York’s now-ubiquitous subway, as well as its underground electrical system, can be traced back to “The Great White Hurricane,” as the storm was nicknamed, according to NYCsubway.org. Winds surpassing 80 mph knocked over electrical wires, starting fires that caused an estimated $25 million worth of property damage. Above-ground telephone and telegraph wires were also downed, cutting off communication to other cities. And all transportation was halted.
In a March 13, 1888, article that declared the blizzard the "worst storm the city has ever known,” The New York Times wrote that without the blizzard, the city might “for an indefinite time” have endured “the nuisance of electric wires dangling from poles, of slow trains running on the trestlework, and slower cars drawn by horses in the streets dangerous with their center tearing rails.” The Times concluded “that a system of a really rapid transit which cannot be made inoperable by storms must be straightaway devised and as speedily as possible constructed and that all the electric wires — telegraph, telephone, fire alarms, and illuminating — must be put underground without any delay.”
After the storm, the city set in motion a plan to build an underground train system. The plan wasn’t fully formed until 1894, and in 1900 construction on the subway finally began.
In a series of tweets, Howard Glaser — Gov. Andrew Cuomo's former top deputy, senior policy adviser and director of state operations — educated some of his followers on the deadly blizzard of 1888.
Blizzard of 1888 - came to be known as "Great White Hurricane" - 200 died.... pic.twitter.com/OccTbOUw6G— Howard Glaser (@hglaser1) January 25, 2015
Nyc officially got 3 feet but drifts were several feet higher in many areas of the city Blizzard of 88 pic.twitter.com/y4K6TlPzYi— Howard Glaser (@hglaser1) January 25, 2015
Brooklyn cut off from City in 1888 blizzard - people crossed east river on ice floe pic.twitter.com/uutKfws5KC— Howard Glaser (@hglaser1) January 25, 2015
Train cars of snow loaded at grand central to be removed from city - 1888 pic.twitter.com/LwwZTPew5W— Howard Glaser (@hglaser1) January 25, 2015
As Glaser — a former Clinton administration staffer and currently a senior policy adviser at airport restaurant design firm OTG — noted, the storm led the city to move its infrastructure — including subway trains and power lines — underground.
Wall St during 1888 blizzard - undergrounding of power lines had genesis in the wake of tangle of downed lines.... pic.twitter.com/w6YoPWr7Qy— Howard Glaser (@hglaser1) January 25, 2015
When trolleys ran over the Brooklyn Bridge - stuck tho in blizzard of 88 pic.twitter.com/wVSsx6hJHr— Howard Glaser (@hglaser1) January 25, 2015
The push to underground the train system also got its impetus from the blizzard of 88..... pic.twitter.com/LWRPCnailK— Howard Glaser (@hglaser1) January 25, 2015
As much as three feet of snow is expected from Pennsylvania to Maine Monday through Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service, with New York City predicted to be among the hardest hit.
"This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of this city," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday.
According to the NYC Office of Emergency Management, the biggest snowfall on record was the 26.9 inches that fell over two days in 2006.