One of the worst storms ever to hit the United States is typically known as “Great Blizzard of 1888,” but you may find it referred to as the “Great White Hurricane.” In it, Princeton students played a historic role in rescuing passengers aboard a train stuck in a snowbank, people were trapped inside for a week or more in most northeastern cities, and residents of the Atlantic coastal region had stories they would tell for generations.
It snowed continuously March 11-14, 1888, dumping up to 50 inches of snow on some parts of the northeastern seaboard. Travel and communications systems shut down for about a week. Professor William Berryman Scott wrote that some snowdrifts didn’t melt until June, but the weather caught people by surprise since early March had been so warm:
Saturday, as I clearly remember, was a balmy, cloudless spring day and Sunday was mild, but rainy, and the official forecast for Monday was “colder, northwesterly winds.” Never were poor mortals more bewildered than we, when we got up on Monday morning, to find ourselves back in midwinter, a furious gale driving the snow in horizontal lines. … For three days the blizzard continued, with very gradually diminishing violence, and the enormous drifts were such as have never been seen here since…
In the midst of the storm, Princeton students dug a train out of several feet of snow, allowing it to run to Princeton Junction to rescue 250 stranded passengers caught in a drift about three quarters of a mile south of the station. Walking along the tracks, the passengers saw students waiting for them with sandwiches and coffee. The train had been stuck for two nights while passengers paced to keep warm, children cried from hunger and fear, and local farmers became villains in many newspapers across the country for offering food to them at exorbitant prices (50 cents per slice of bread, $1 for a slice of ham, and $25 for a bottle of applejack). Isaac Coale of the Class of 1890, who was involved in helping with the rescue operation, wrote to his mother that a farmer selling these sandwiches was nearly mobbed, “though I believe he escaped with no bones broken.” He described trying to help prevent passengers from suffering from frostbite by warming them at the station.
The New York Times quoted a Princeton student who arrived with other students carrying shovels and baskets of food and coffee, “Here, boys, here’s life for you; don’t despair, we’ll soon have you out of this.” Thanks to their efforts, the train was able to begin running again, but it couldn’t take passengers far. In this part of New Jersey during the blizzard, the only railroad line that was passable was the one the students had cleared. Many passengers on the train paid local farmers for lodging. At some point, some of the stranded travelers were taken to a hotel in Trenton to wait for an opportunity to leave about a week later.
Most residents’ lives ground to a halt. Milk deliveries came through tunnels in the snow banks, pushed along on a sleigh by hand. There was an effort to make life on campus go on as before, however, as the Nassau Literary Review reported:
To-night the whole face of the country is changed. The heaviest snowfall of half a century lies in drifts about the college halls, and the wind is whistling past as if winter had come back to stay forever. Travel is stopped, even on the great trunk lines, and our little village lies like an island in a sea of snow, wholly cut off from the rest of the world. Already there are signs of an exhaustion of supplies in town, and unless communications are opened soon we may learn by hard experience what a blizzard means. But in college things are going on just the same. The whole country may be buried in snow, telegraph lines may be broken, mails may be stopped, and whole trains of hapless travelers frozen stiff, but the chapel bell stops ringing with the utmost punctuality at 8:15 sharp, and recitations go on with the regularity of the poet’s brook.
James McCosh, then in his late 70s, did not allow his routine to be disturbed, either; he went out in the height of the storm (“when a number of students were afraid to venture out”) to pick up his mail. Students urged the administration not to count absences against them in the aftermath. “To many of the students of a weak constitution, it would have been foolish and most dangerous to venture out of doors or attempt to attend recitations.”
The reality for students and faculty was that in spite of any effort to go on as usual, the storm was disruptive to their lives, as Coale wrote. As he made his way to mandatory chapel the first day of the storm,
The whole way was one continuous drift of snow sometimes eight or ten feet deep and a strong wind almost blinding me by blowing snow in my face. When I got to chapel I found about a hundred others there who had so suddenly found themselves out in the snow that they concluded they might as well go on as turn back. After chapel I tried my hand at braving the storm and wading more drifts on my way to breakfast. When that was over I came back to my room and devoted the next hour to shoveling snow which had drifted in at the open window and in trying to make the room habitable. I attended the ten o’clock recitation where to my surprise I found Dr. Orris waiting for us. …
The snow, I think, averages three feet in depth and is terribly drifted. I was on top a drift last night which extended straight across the street. It was twenty feet high and fifty feet in thickness. Roads have to be cut through them and nearly all the walks of the college campus are guarded by palisades of snow from three to twelve feet high. …
I have had a rather easy time this week for Professor Orris did not meet us yesterday and today Prof. Armstrong is kept in New York and can’t get here to deliver his lecture.
Coale’s letter also indicates that at first those in Princeton weren’t aware of whether they were alone in the severe weather or if it was more widespread.
I have not seen a newspaper since Saturday and can not find out whether the storm is general throughout the country or not. My reason for thinking that it is confined largely to the Atlantic coast lies in the fact that a letter which came in the mail from Philadelphia today was mailed in Chicago on Monday which shows that there can not have been any serious blockades west of Philadelphia. … All telegraphic communication was suspended by the storm and just last night was one wire connected between Jersey City and Trenton.
Despite all this, the alumni held their annual reunion as scheduled in New York on March 15. Though it was not as well attended as usual given the difficulty for travel, about 200 graduates gathered to celebrate. The first train to reach New York that week carried some of the attendees. This was in part because the event was meant as a kind of retirement celebration for James McCosh and a welcome to the new president, Francis L. Patton, and many alumni were curious about the new administration’s approach. McCosh wasn’t able to reach New York in spite of his pluck, however, so the event largely celebrated Patton.
Meanwhile, Princeton’s librarian, Frederic Vinton, was compiling a scrapbook to document the events surrounding the blizzard. Vinton made a handful of scrapbooks in his tenure as a way to provide reference books to students about national events, even before books could be published. His scrapbook tracks destruction and tragedy throughout the region. More than 400 people died from the storm, with 200 deaths in New York City and 100 at sea in wrecked ships. Many others were injured.
Alumni were among those devastated by the blizzard. John Calvin Holmes of Princeton’s Class of 1863 had been a doctor for 26 years, but after getting caught in the storm on horseback while performing his duties, he lost his hearing from exposure. As a result, Holmes had to make a career change, turning instead to manufacturing perfume before his health totally failed him two years later. “If I did not have the consciousness of knowing that perhaps I did some good in the years from 1864 to 1890,” Holmes later wrote, “I should consider my life a sad failure.”
The legacy of the 1888 blizzard is with us today in many ways. Officials noted the dangers associated with having telegraph, gas, telephone, and water lines above ground, and this infrastructure began to be buried to protect it from severe weather. In Boston and New York, the blizzard’s effect on public transit pushed these cities to move it, too, underground. Boston began work on a subway system that opened September 1, 1897. New York followed Boston’s lead, opening its own subway in 1904.
Historical Photograph Collection, Student Photographers Series (AC163)
Scott, William Berryman. Some Memories of a Palaeontologist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939.