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That Famous Blizzard of March 1888
by Helen N. Upson in the 1960 Redding Times

On the eleventh of March, 1888, when Dad came in to breakfast from helping with the morning chores at the barn, he commented on the amazing mildness of the weather-the unseasonableness of conditions in nature. The sun shone brightly and the temperature at 8 am was 62 degrees fahrenheit. Here and there a few small patches of dirty, slushy snow remained, all the ponds were open and no traces of ice bordered the streams.

In the marshes swamp peepers (Hyla crucifer) were in full voice and male red-winged blackbirds were sounding a chorus of "Oak-a-lees" from the swamp maples. Pussy willows were uncovering their furry coats as from a lofty perch a song sparrow sang lustily his "Cheer-cheer-very-merry cheer-'tis springtime all the year" Which was misleading, to say the least.

There was a flash of blue as the male bluebird swifty passed and came to rest on an old nest stub calling wistfully his oft repeated, "chur-wi." Sap was dripping freely from bark lesions on the old bride-maples, and streamlets in the gutters gurgled gaily. Spring was definitely in the air bringing along with it evidence of Spring Fever. Dad became interested in seed catalogues and Spring planting while a desire to push housecleaning along, gripped my mother.

About 10 am Mother ordered one of the horses brought from the barn as she felt the urge to hurry to Danbury to start her Spring shopping. When she left she was wearing a winter coat but by noon the temperature had climbed to close to 70 degrees and she shed the coat for a light wrap. So often she spoke of the mildness, quiet and beauty of that day.

Quick Weather Change

Next morning-how different! Over night there had been a radical change. The sky was overcast with heavy, sullen clouds, the mercury had catapulted to low levels and the air was filled with large snowflakes, blown in a vigorous breeze out of the north-east which was speedily increasing in velocity. The voices of birds and peepers, so evident a few hours before, were silent. There was no more open water. The surfaces of the ponds and streams were now congealed with a sheath of ice growing thicker as the cold increased.

Few valuable meterological instruments were at hand to help in forecasting weather at that time, so even the weather bureau was entirely unprepared for the violence of the storm which was coming in out of the northeast. That morning men had gone to work as usual and children had attended school but before noon teachers became alarmed and closed the schools, shops shut down and many teamsters left the highways and sought shelter for man and beast. Children, men and horses were everywhere struggling against the driving, blinding, drifting snow. The power of the wind was terrific and those striving to face it were unable to breathe.

Several Redding people were unable to reach home. Many were taken in and furnished shelter while others were lost in the storm. One of our neighbors tried to get to his house near the Center from his place of employment in Sanfordtown but lost his way. His anxious wife started from home to find him but she, too, became lost. The bodies of both-more than a mile apart-were found under the snow during the spring thaw.

Mike Flood, local blacksmith was struggling against the storm in his effort to reach his home a short distance below the Center when he was overcome. He sought shelter in the lee of a tree, but from her window Mrs. Wakeman-wife of the local doctor-saw him plunge forward, face down into the snow. Unconscious he was dug out from the drift by the doctor and a young roomer there and carried into the Wakeman home where he was cared for until after the storm.

Ridge Got Brunt

For nearly three days the blizzard raged. People dying during the interval were wrapped in sheets and buried beneath the snow until they could be properly cared for. The winds reached terrific gale force and temperatures along the limestone ridge-upon which Redding rests- reached 42 degrees below zero.

Press accounts at that time quoted weather experts as saying that the storm spent its most violent efforts along this ridge. Window panes were frequently broken or blown in, shingles and clapboards were commonly ripped off, and snow drifted through every crack and crevice in any building in the town-homes included. Many stock barns, believed to be weather-tight, contained destructive quantities of snow.

On the modern, well constructed and cared for Rumsey Dairy Farm snow was found to be so deep in the stables that cows and horses stood to their middles in it and many cows on this and other farms had to be slaughtered because their bags were frozen. After the storm drifts reaching second story windows were frequent, in orchards just the tips of the upper branches of the apple trees protruded from these small mountains of snow and the telegraph service was crippled, as everywhere, wires were down. There were no telephones in those days.

Animals Survive

On one farm a large flock of sheep was buried under the snow. The living animals were located by breathing holes on the surface. Many of the flock were dead but the several had survived by eating wool from the backs of their dead companions. In fact, all over town such animals as sheep, pigs and goats, buried under the snow, were located by surface breathing holes. This resulted in "hibernating" domestic animals of the above types, with turkeys, chickens, geese and even a few calves, being dragged into house cellars to thaw out.

I well recall an old lady telling me when I was in my teens, that during that storm her husband dragged into their cellar three unconscious pigs, a calf, a goat, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys that appeared to be dead. She related that before morning they commenced to wake up and were hungry. Their racket was equal to that of a zoo on fire.

Transportation Halted

Roads presented a terrific problem. As there were no telephones communication was entirely on foot or on snowshoes. Every farmer owning a yoke of oxen and an ox sled, helped to "break out the roads." It required three yokes of oxen and six men on a sled to form a crew.

Usually a strong, heavy pair of Devons were chosen as the "lead" pair and they, with persistent urging, floundered into the drifts as far as they could possibly go. When they stopped the men dug and many drifts had to be tunneled. Later, when thaws came roofs of these tunnels caving in caused more trouble and plenty of shoveling. Everywhere wagons with horses removed were left along the highways remaining until dug out by these volunteer road crews.

No trains were running between Boston and New York or south of Pittsfield-they were all stalled along the line. People traveling on these stalled trains related tragic tales of suffering from cold and lack of food.

Train stuck in Branchville

Slow Thaw

Although the storm arrived late, snow melted very slowly that year on the Redding hills and lingered long in the shadow of overhanging cliffs and in sheltered ravines. On July 4th of that blizzard year, my father gathered enough snowy ice from a sheltered ledge in what was then, Redding Glen, to make a five gallon freezer full of ice cream.

An old timer born before 1800 declared that he had never before on land or sea (he was a retired sea captain) seen a storm a severe as this one. "But," he added, "in many ways the year known as '1800 and Freeze To Death' had it beaten." That was the year 1816 when the weather was worse because every month of the year had a killing frost and the August freeze up was so severe that the trees, after losing all their leaves, were unable to grow another crop. As a result by Spring numerous trees were dead.

Be that as it may -the storm of March 12, 1888 was a record breaker even if my dad did say that he once went for a sleigh ride on May 2nd-but he never added that he came home on bare ground. However Banks Gorham often told that on May 16, 1854 he hauled wood on an ox sled from his wood lot in Redding and didn't see a patch of bare ground all day.

Further Information on the Blizzard:

The most famous snowstorm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888, has acquired an almost legendary status. Although there have been many heavier snowfalls as well as significantly lower temperatures, the blizzard's combination of inclement conditions has been unmatched in 110 years.

The U.S. 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 F or lower.

The "Great White Hurricane," as it was called, paralyzed the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Telegraph and telephone wires snapped, isolating New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington for days. Two hundred ships were grounded, and at least one hundred seamen died. Fire stations were immobilized, and property loss from fire alone was estimated at $25 million. Overall, more than 400 deaths were reported.

The days leading up to the blizzard were unseasonably mild, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s along the East Coast. Torrential rains began falling, and on March 12th the rain changed to heavy snow, temperatures plunged, and a ferocious wind began. The storm continued unabated for the next 36 hours. Sources vary, but National Weather service estimated that fifty inches of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts and forty inches covered New York and New Jersey. Winds blew up to 48 miles an hour, creating snowdrifts forty to fifty feet high. The resulting transportation crisis led to the creation of the New York subway, approved in 1894 and begun in 1900.


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