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Phil-osophically Speaking - January 1, 2010

Editor’s note: This column was written after the recent snowstorm.

At an unimaginable seven stories high (150 feet tall) it was one of the grandest buildings in all of New York City. From its lofty summit, there was an exquisite view of the Narrows, Staten Island, the North and East River as well as significant portions of the magnificent scenery of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The building’s notoriety was further enhanced when the first hydraulic elevators in the world were installed, making the structure a perfect blend of Victorian architecture and a symbol of science and technology.

Because of its height, the Equitable Assurance Building was an ideal location for the U.S. Signal Service weather station, the forerunner of today’s National Weather Service. Three times a day Signal Service personnel, along with 170 government weather stations throughout the United States, sent telegraphed reports to headquarters in Washington, D.C. These reports were further buttressed by some 2,000 volunteers working under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution who, in workmanlike fashion, gathered data on temperatures, barometric pressure, relative humidity, wind velocity, precipitation and various other meteorological measurements.

In the pre-satellite age, this was how weather indicators were analyzed and weather forecasts made. The U.S. Signal Service weather station was particularly boastful of its forecasting prowess (82 percent correct), the best in the entire nation. It was March 10, 1888 and nothing seemed particularly amiss in what was proving to be the mildest winter New York City had experienced in 17 years.

Spring, after all, was only a week and a half away and the weather that Saturday was especially mild as evidenced by the caravan of horse-drawn carriages that strolled through New York City’s Central Park with its passengers almost greedily soaking in the warmth of the sun. Nor, apparently, were any of the weather forecasters concerned about an enormous area of low pressure in the west moving steadily east at a rate of 600 miles a day since it was all but certain that this storm center would either veer off into the Atlantic or stall out as it moved against a slow moving area of high pressure.

It was midnight when the men working at Signal Service closed shop to observe tomorrow’s Sabbath but leaving, as usual, confident about their official forecast for tomorrow of “Fair Weather throughout the Atlantic States.” It would be the most devastatingly erroneous forecast in the annals of meteorology.

In just a few, shattering, mind-numbing hours, the Northeast would be paralyzed by one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded, affecting one-fourth of the nation’s population, 12 major cities and 10 states. It is a storm history has remembered as the “Great White Hurricane” or just simply, “The Blizzard of 1888.” Over a three-day period, the storm trounced the Eastern seaboard with 40 to 50 inches of snow with several inches of treacherous, underlying ice that made walking a death-defying feat. Temperatures (without wind chill factor) plummeted to near zero degrees Fahrenheit and gusting winds reaching 84 mph.

The blinding storm buried New York City and the surrounding region in a blanket of snow. The world had turned white, but a cold darkness had engulfed, in the imperishable words of “The Statue of Liberty” the “huddled poor and teeming masses” that were nestled in our cities. The Statue was erected in N.Y. Harbor just two years earlier, but for millions of immigrants as well as others, the infrastructure of the world’s largest metropolis proved desperately inadequate in coping with the storm.

The city was still struggling with how to accommodate itself to these newly arrived millions that were dependent on the inchoate, but still vital public services of life in the city. Interestingly, the farmers who had coped with storms for centuries and did not depend on the modern technology of the city took the storm in stride. Cellars were filled with food, candles were the norm and there was always a stack of firewood to stoke a roaring fire.

In the cities, however, it was sheer bedlam. Ferries and trains were stranded, communication failed and fuel and food supplies were severely disrupted. Ladders had to be placed against trestles and elevated sections of railroad tracks in order to rescue passengers from freezing to death in the unheated cars. One of these passengers was Edward D. Jones (later of Dow Jones fame) who in his journey from his Harlem home to Wall Street was a prisoner for four miserable hours in a frozen train car.

There are, as they say, six million stories in the “Naked City” but few have been more dramatic and colorful in the telling than those three melodramatic days in March. The Post Office, perhaps taking its creed too seriously about delivering the mail in rain, sleet and snow had to rescue more than 20 of their postmen in Brooklyn alone from mounting drifts and certain death before mail service was canceled until the storm passed.

Then there was the imposing Roscoe Conkling, a 58-year old attorney who braved the ferocious blizzard because he was trying a case in superior court. Conkling, a big, full-bearded, bearish looking man who worked out with barbells and punching bags every morning arrived at court, as usual, in an ugly mood. He was hardly cheered upon discovering that no one but he had showed up. A believer in the “survival of the fittest,” Conkling could not abide weaklings, those puny souls who were frightened away by a few measly snowflakes.

Roscoe Conkling was not a man to move about the world gently. A three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives who had also served two terms in the United States Senate, was known for his explosive and ungovernable temper that some say cost him the presidential nomination in 1876 and 1880. But the rough and tumble politics of Boss Tweed and N.Y.C. fit him like a well-tailored suit. He spoke his mind loudly and forthrightly and once, eyeball-to-eyeball, had the temerity to tell President James Garfield, in unmitigated street prose, to keep his presidential proboscis out of his backyard.

Now the grisly lawyer started back home with a young attorney and ran smack into the zenith of the storm. The young man flagged down a horse-drawn cabbie, but Conkling refused to pay the exorbitant fare the cabbies were charging during the storm. “An outrage,” Conkling thundered, as he threatened to choke the life out of this “pickpocket artist” with his big, bare, meaty hands. The terrified driver vanished into the night more willing to face the blinding storm than the towering rage of Roscoe Conkling.

By this time the young attorney had had enough and decided to stay the night at a hotel. Another weakling sniffed Conkling, as he trudged alone into the darkness, driving snow and arctic temperatures. Some three hours later, in an endless battle with hurricane like winds and snowdrifts, Conkling had shuffled barely two and a half miles (an incredible distance under such horrific conditions) when he arrived at the New York Club on 25th Street and promptly collapsed.

Five weeks later Conkling was dead from pneumonia and memorialized as the “final casualty” of the Blizzard of 1888. Nearly 400 others also lost their lives during the storm. But it was really the survivors, those who had endured, that made the story grow into folklore.

Future New York Governor and presidential candidate Al Smith was a youngster of 14 during the blizzard but he remembered all his life his mother’s house being buried by an avalanche of snow where he watched in awe as a steady stream of pedestrians, dogs and even a man on horseback crossed the East River which had now been transformed into a veritable continent of ice.

It was Al Smith who co-founded the “Society of Blizzard Men” dedicated to commemorating the anniversary of the great storm by those who had lived through it. So possessive were these “Blizzard Men” of the uniqueness of the ‘88 storm that nearly 60 years later, Dec. 26, 1947, when New York was pounded by an enormous deluge of snow, one of the surviving Blizzard Men, an emphysemic octogenarian, stood outside in his short sleeves without so much as shivering to show that this ‘47 storm was child’s play compared to the real deal back in ‘88.

Tragedy, even great tragedies, do have a silver lining in that they not only give rise to some of humanity’s best instincts, of people helping total strangers and communities pulling together to face the crisis, but it has also been the progenitor of progress. The “Blizzard of ‘88” was replete with tales of heroism and compassion but it was also the cause of a whole subterranean world being built.

Only a month before the storm, the N.Y.S. State Legislature had turned a deaf ear to N.Y.C. Mayor Hewitt’s appeals for money to build an underground subway. But after commuter and cargo trains failed so spectacularly, the urgent need for underground transit system was clear, as were underground telegraph and utility lines. The New York subway system would revolutionize transportation in the city and it was irrevocably launched because of three-day storm whose snow-whipped winds blew people in the air like pieces of confetti.

As I write this, indeed the reason why I write this, is because another blizzard has descended upon our otherwise peaceful locale. Although this storm was scrupulously tracked and accurately predicted, it still astonishes how discombobulating things can become when “Old Man Winter” exhales his frigid breath. I watch the storm safely from my windowsill; a frenzy of wind and precipitation do a maddening dance in the growing darkness. I long for the sun and warmth of just a few days ago, but I’m consoled by the thought that its absence will make me all the fonder when the serenity of spring triumphantly returns.

So I sit here composed, at peace with the world, resigned to the capriciousness of the elements and remembering the words of my friend Jack, a public safety officer, who after hearing me grouse about a spate of inclement weather shrugged his shoulders and said, “The weather is like your family; there is nothing you can do about it.”