The storm started just after midnight on March 12, 1888. One of NYC’s worst, the blizzard brought wind gusts of 60 mph, temperatures of 5°F. and snow accumulation of 21 inches. In a city that depended on the horse and carriage, elevated railway lines and street cars for its transport and above-ground wires and wooden poles for its communications and lighting, the impact was devastating.
The following beautifully written excerpt from the NY Times on March 13, 1888 described how the storm affected normal people:
“The milkmen, in fact were in many cases unable to get any milk at the stations on account of the non-arrival of the trains; the news vendors did not have the morning papers at the houses, and the bakers failed to come round with the morning rolls. Thackeray says that it is the small ills of life that worry the most, and probably thousands of New-Yorkers yesterday morning — good, steady churchgoing heads of families when they had to get through their breakfasts without their favorite newspaper, their hot buttered roll, and their fragrant coffee enriched with the boiling milk began to seriously question whether life was worth living after all, with all those trials and tribulations to undergo.”
Where are we going? To the transportation legacy left by the storm.
The Storm’s Legacy
The blizzard of 1888 paralyzed New York’s transport system. Service stopped on the city’s elevated trains because of slippery rails and the drifting snow (said to be as high as 52 feet in Brooklyn). Telephone and telegraph communications were at a standstill because wires were down. Snow storms even generated a debate among city officials about whether to pack down the snow or remove it. Packing it would let the city’s affluent minority use their sleighs. Removal meant the street cars could run.
You can see how vulnerable NYC’s wiring was during the 1888 blizzard:
While the NYS legislature rejected NYC Mayor Hewitt’s plan for rapid transit during February 1888, after the March storm, the outcry for underground transport and wiring reversed the dialogue. By 1894 a subway system to be funded by the city had been approved. On October 27, 1904 the first segment of the system opened. The mandated fare was five cents.
Our Bottom Line: A Transportation Infrastructure
Just like urban transport supports economic activity, so too did a U.S. transportation infrastructure fuel growth. Enabling David Ricardo’s comparative advantage, the canals that were dug during the first half of the 19th century and then the railroads that followed made it possible for Northeast manufacturing to connect with Western farmers and Southern plantations.