Willoughby: Great White Hurricane — could a storm like that bury Aspen? | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Great White Hurricane — could a storm like that bury Aspen?

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
A snowstorm in 1988 buried New York City.
library of congress/courtesy photo

Aspen has enjoyed another winter with happy skiers. Locals maneuvered a few dicey storms with good results. During 1888 Aspenites thought of storms, especially the bad ones, as a commonplace hardship. Life in the heart of the Rockies toughens locals for any eventuality.

The great Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, swept through the Northeastern U.S. through March 12 and 13. That faraway storm may have made locals wonder whether they had yet to see the worst. Some of Aspen’s worst storms have occurred in late March and April. The warmer weather brings wetter snow and avalanches. It complicates travel.

Retrospective summaries of that Nor’easter storm report that many areas accumulated more than 50 inches of snow in a little over 24 hours. Storm-related deaths totaled 400. Winds as fast as 80 mph mounded snow as high as 52 feet. In New York City snowdrifts buried houses and buildings. The storm helped to prompt eastern cities to bury telegraph and electric lines underground, and to construct subways invulnerable to storms.

Viewing the events through the Aspen Times, as Aspenites did over the course of the storm, reveals the topmost thoughts that may have occupied their minds. Reporting on “The Great Storm” on March 13, the newspaper recorded 15,000 shares sold on the New York Stock Exchange, the daily fewest ever. All elevated trains and streetcars had stopped. In a city that ran 3,000 daily trains, the paper noted, that had never happened before.

The paper printed reports sent to them at 9 p.m. EST, updated every couple of hours, as one story. The first report said no one could remember such a strong storm. Drugstores packed with customers sought help with frozen ears. At one of New York’s busiest intersections a woman died from freezing.

“A Fearful Storm” headlined the second day of reporting. Albany reported that only 20 out of 164 legislators could make it to the statehouse. Troy reported that it had snowed for 40 hours straight, and built up 40 inches of snow. The temperature at Dobbs Ferry in the early morning sat at zero.

New York City closed the produce, coffee and cotton exchanges. Snowplows would not work, so thousands of men shoveled the railroad track. No milk had been delivered for 36 hours. Coal deliveries reduced to baskets and buckets, the price had doubled.

Baltimore experienced a first — the first time telegraphs went down between New York and Washington since they had begun operation. The tide level reached the lowest anyone had seen, 12 feet below normal, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in 10 hours. In Wilmington, Delaware, vessels had sunk, and 25 had died. When Camden, New Jersey, ran out of water, fears of contagion spread. A fire broke out in Stanford, Connecticut. But no more reports arrived from there, because communication lines were down.

The day after the storm the paper told staggering stories. New York City estimated that businesses lost an estimated $7 million (more than $100 million in today’s dollars). City supplies fell short on all commodities. One hotel reported that they paid 50 cents ($11) a quart for a dealer’s last 50 gallons of milk.

Passengers rode 46 hours by train from Rockaway, New Jersey, to Long Island City, New York, — a distance of 40 miles. Twenty funerals in New York headed to Calgary Cemetery. The storm buried mourners and their horses. When they were dug out they were nearly “frozen to death.” People in houses nearby took in the corpses.

Considering climate change, has Aspen already experienced its worst-ever storm? If not, would it likely happen in March or April? Aspenites of 1888 must have pondered the consequences of 50 inches of snow in one day with 50-foot drifts. It could still happen.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.