Friday, March 4, 2011

Great White Hurricane of 1888

     The residents of Bethlehem woke up on March 12, 1888 to find the “Great White Hurricane” at their doors. They may have seen more snow in previous storms, but the combination of the 20-foot snowdrifts, the 50 miles per hour winds and zero degree temperature made for one of the worst blizzards in U.S. history. Bethlehem was completely cut off from her neighbors. The telegraph, telephone and electrical wires were down and could not be repaired because of the dangerous winds. A repairman attempted to climb a forty-foot telegraph pole, on Market Street, only to be blown off the pole as he reached the top. Fortunately he was able to grab a hold of a pin, embedded in the pole, and was soon rescued by his fellow workers. The downed wires meant no communication in or out of town and no electric lights.  Hugh snow drifts closed railroad tracks and roads. Transportation by trolleys, wagons and horses was also not possible due to weather conditions. One could not walk more than a few feet because of the snowdrifts, stinging cold winds and fear of frostbite. The wind shook the houses of Bethlehem for two days. The streets were deserted and all business stopped. Trains that usually brought mail, newspapers, or passengers did not arrive in Bethlehem. Travelers planning to leave town had to stay put. The Eagle Hotel was filled with travelers waiting to leave. Trains were stuck and isolated on tracks in the surrounding country. Conductors learned the hard way that attempts to force the trains through the drifts resulted in derailments. Most farmers could not make it into town to sell their milk and produce. Customers in a panic to buy up supplies met the one or two who did make into town.
     C.H. Linderman’s experience was typical of those who were traveling by train during the storm. Linderman, accompanied by his daughter, was traveling by train to Bethlehem from Reading. Their train only made it as far as Lyon’s Station where it remained snow bound for 17 hours. Lindermen and the rest of the passengers on the train were without food or heat, while they waited to be rescued. The train swayed back and forth as the winds swirled around it. The passengers could do nothing but watch the snow pile up higher than the train windows.
     It wasn’t until five days later that train tracks and the main roads were finally opened. The only method of removing snow was by manpower with picks and shovels. The Lehigh and Lackawanna Railroad and the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad hired hundreds of men to dig out its snow bound trains. Even as trains were beginning to run to and from Bethlehem, many roads were still closed. Center Street, north of Geopp and Monocacy Street, north of Fairview, were impassable. A mile long, ten-foot drift closed Freemansburg Road. Fourteen-foot drifts were reported on Easton, Bath, Nazareth, and Catasauqua Roads. During the storm, firemen worried about fires igniting from the downed electrical wires. If a fire occurred they were helpless to put it out as neither man nor horse could tolerate the weather. Also the water supply was frozen. It was very fortunate that no fires were reported in Bethlehem.
     Other cities did not fare as well as Bethlehem during the “Great White Hurricane.” The East Coast, from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine, suffered fire damage of $25 million dollars worth of property. Four hundred people were killed, two hundred in New York City, alone. Two hundred ships were lost at sea. In Connecticut and central Massachusetts, 50 inches of snow fell as the winds piled up 50-foot drifts.
     The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a storm with winds of more than 35 miles an hour and snow that limits visibility to 500 feet or less. A severe blizzard is defined as having winds exceeding 45 miles an hour, visibility of a quarter mile or less, and temperatures of 10 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. This was a severe blizzard.
     Early in the morning of March 11th, a fierce hurricane developed in the Gulf Stream along the west coast of Florida. The hurricane moved north up the east coast and was met by an area of high pressure traveling south from Newfoundland. The two weather systems collided and stalled for almost two days, west of Nantucket Island. Although the U.S. Congress created the National Weather Service in 1870, it wasn’t until weather satellites were launched in the 1960s-70s that we could depend upon accurate warnings of storms. The few days before the 1888 storm were mild and the citizens of Bethlehem were probably thinking of the early arrival of warm spring days. No one could imagine that a devastating blizzard was coming his or her way.
     As the northeast recovered from the “Great White Hurricane” citizens called for more efficient methods of dealing with snow removal. Cities began burying communication wires underground. Boston and New York created subways. Snow removal became a well-planned effort as soon as the first snowflakes fell.
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