There are some notorious years in New York City history, and 1888 is one of them.
March of 1888 is most noted for the “great blizzard” that blanketed the North East with freezing cold temperatures, high gusting winds, and tons (literally) of snow. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts got the worst of the blizzard. Unfortunately, due to these extreme conditions, more than 400 people lost their lives; at least 200 in New York City alone.
For a week’s period, people were stranded at sea with no help, communication laid at a standstill, and even the New York stock exchange was shut down. Telephone lines are completely frozen and mail has come to a halt, eliminating communication outside the city. Animals, such as horses who provided the city with transportation and food, lay dead on the freezing cold ground buried because of the environment. At this time, simple things like bread and milk were being delivered daily. The East River was so frozen, that New Yorkers were able to walk across the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
It was still the 19th century and public transportation was extremely limited compared to what we see today. Wagons pulled by horses were still thriving and steam engines were all the rage. New York City’s first regular elevated railway service began on February 14, 1870; the Ninth Avenue El. This was 18 years before the “great blizzard” and additions would be made to it and around Manhattan. An elevated railway was an extremely simple design, even back then because of the popular steam engine locomotives. Simply constructed public transportation high above street level to reduce congestion.
Unfortunately, an elevated railway in New York City was no match for Mother Nature in 1888. During this period all elevated trains abandoned operations.
As The New York Sun wrote on March 13, 1888, “there were three leading elements in the difficulties that beset the elevated railroad.” The Sun first explained that slippery rails alone make it dangerous for turning, stopping, and climbing hills. Imagine your train falling off a track 50 feet in the air? Secondly, the amount of snow will always result in a delay. Snow on the tracks that need to be brushed off and cars that need to be used. Thirdly, cars and engines that are not in use will become frozen or damaged overnight or during inactive hours.
The City of New York knew this wasn’t going to work going forward. So how would the most populated city handle mass transit public transportation from now on? Adapt and build below ground.
In 1863, London had opened the first ever underground railway system in the world. It became an immediate success with expansions being made. Unfortunately, America did not join the party nearly as early. After the huge financial and moral devastation’s of 1888, The Rapid Transit Act was signed into law providing a backbone for future subway construction within the city. Boston, who also suffered terrible weather conditions in March of 1888, adapted quickly opening the first underground subway system in American history, in 1897. It’s amazing Chicago has been running an elevated train since the 1890s, although that has come with large delays, slower speeds, and limited space within the city.
In 1904, NYC began running an underground electronic subway system.
Today the NYC subway is excelling more than ever. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York City Subway has the most stations of any subway system in the entire world, with 468! The Chicago El Train has the second most stations in America with 125. Average daily ridership is more than five million with 6,311 subway cars in ridership, both the highest in America.
About 60% of the New York City subway train stations are below ground.
With 468 stations inside the city, there are other advantages than just fighting the weather. Overcrowding on the previous elevated train platforms offered little to no hope for the future. Limited access and dangerous turns are a thing of the past as the underground NYC subway reaches four of the five boroughs. Even the PATH train stretches out to East New Jersey across the Hudson River. Bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, and connecting points are easily available at Grand Central Terminal.
In no way shape or form was the blizzard of 1888 a “good thing.” It resulted in fatalities, diseases, injuries, and loss of communication and transportation mostly in New York City. It was nevertheless a wakeup call. With the proper precautions and architecture, the New York City Subway is now by far the most advanced subway system in America.