Retro Baltimore: When the Blizzard of 1888 roared into Maryland

Retro Baltimore: When the Blizzard of 1888 roared into Maryland

Old Man Winter finally broke the streak of 700-plus days last week without an appreciable snowstorm when the white stuff fell, clogging roads, closing schools and making life semi-miserable for those who had to go out in it.

Snowstorms have a way of creeping into Maryland, and given the vagaries of the state’s flexible weather,  forecasts can sometimes be downright wrong.

For instance, Fred A. Davis Jr., a former National Weather Service meteorologist at what is now BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport made weather history with his incorrect forecast that resulted in the Blizzard of ’79 and buried Baltimore under 24 inches of snow.

Davis, who died last year, had called for a “light dusting” of the storm that by the time it was finished left damages of $300 million with five dead.

Thereafter, Davis would forever be known as “Fred ‘Light Dusting’ Davis.”

The head of runway maintenance at the airport chided Davis by saying, “you guys missed that forecast by a mile,” to which Davis replied, “No we only missed it by 2 feet,” according to a 2007 article in The Sun.

A storm that similarly masqueraded itself was the Blizzard of 1888 — March 12-14 — that killed 400 — and crippled cities from Maryland to Maine.

On Saturday, March 10, springlike weather was rolling into the mid-Atlantic region.

In Wilmington, Delaware, a resident arrived at a newspaper office and informed the editor his cherry tree was about to bloom. In New York City, residents shopped or took leisurely strolls through Central Park while circus fans lined the streets near the old Madison Square Garden to watch the annual Barnum & Bailey Circus parade pass by.

The next day, Baltimoreans were charmed by the news that temperatures would probably reach 46 and that rain was forecast, a much-deserved respite from a recent cold wave.

But a Pacific storm that had quietly gathered was making its way eastward. Bulletins telegraphed from weather service observation stations marked the progress of the storm as it made its way over the Rockies and across the Great Plains.

The storm’s two low-pressure centers had split Saturday, with one heading over Lake Erie before vanishing into Canada, while the other plunged into the Deep South where off the coast of Georgia, it turned and barreled up the East Coast.

Its energy gained momentum from warm, moist ocean air and then it collided with a low-pressure trough that was lumbering eastward over the Appalachians, which added to its ever-growing energy.

The stage was set as it moved toward Maryland. It began as a rain event and by 6:50 p.m. Sunday, it turned into a heavy rain.

Mariners watched barometers plummet as heavy snows swept across the state with accompanying falling temperatures and severe gales.

Winds roared to 35 mph in Baltimore and the mercury fell to 16 degrees. Snow blowing horizontally howled in from the Northwest blanketing everything.

Heavy, wet snow snapped telephone and telegraph wires as trees fell. With the wires down, outside communication was impossible.

The Sun reported that drifts were knee-, waist- and even shoulder-deep.

“Most Baltimoreans went to bed that Sunday night to a symphony of rattling window casings, rickety shutters and strange howlings about their chimneys,” the paper wrote.

Had they known the city’s telegraphic fire alarm system had become a casualty of the storm, they probably wouldn’t have rested so comfortably. Firefighters peered into the stormy night from fire towers to make sure no fires were afoot.

While the snow never amounted to more than 4 inches, it was the whirling dervish of the winds that piled it up into drifts 12 feet high that clogged streets.

On Monday morning, Baltimoreans awoke to see their surrounding world spray-painted white. Buildings, trees, gaslights, fences and church steeples were covered by snow.

Abandoned horse cars stood in the streets while the hands of the Northwest Police Station clock were frozen to 8:50. Railroads serving Baltimore struggled to operate.

Baltimore’s Union Station was filled with passengers waiting for trains that in most cases would never arrive. The station’s harried and overworked station master had to listen to myriad complaints about men who had taken over the women’s waiting room and refused to give up their seats.

Mariners on the bay felt the power of the storm firsthand. Strong wind drained the water out of the harbor, which left steamers and other vessels resting on their keels in the mud.

In its Monday editions, The Sun apologized to readers: “Owing to the prevailing storm, the weather report was not received from Washington.”

Telegraph wires were down from Baltimore to New York, and service would not be restored until the end of the week. No mail arrived, and in Annapolis, the state legislature ground to a halt when a quorum couldn’t be convened.

It was worse north of Maryland. New York City was buried under 20.9 inches of snow while New England was paralyzed.

By Wednesday some sense of normalcy was returning to the mid-Atlantic states. The storm that had clobbered the East Coast then raced across the Atlantic and slammed into England with the same powerful punch.

In its wake, the storm left some 198 ships sunk, damaged or grounded, with more than 100 mariners dead.

New York’s mayor ordered that all overhead telephone and telegraph wires be removed by utility companies and placed in underground conduits.

Before the week was out, The New York Times began advocating for a subway system; however, it would be 15 more years before the first strap hangers could ride from the Battery to northern Manhattan.

The Blizzard of ’88 naturally became the subject of Sunday sermons.

“In the next century, when people travel in aerial cars, there will be no blockades. I am very positive that science will accomplish this wonderful method of travel before the millennium comes,” one pastor posited.

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