Just as thoughts were turning to spring, the snow begins to fall. As of this writing, there’s only a couple of inches on the ground, but if the most dire predictions come true, the city may have more than a foot of snow by the time the storm abates.
Meteorologically, March nor’easters are not that uncommon and, indeed, the worst winter storm ever to hit the city arrived on March 12, 1888. Over the course of three days, the storm dumped 40 inches of snow on the city. By the end of the first day, the city had been brought to a standstill and the city’s miles of telegraph and telephone wires lay in downed heaps along the sides of the roads. (Though New York had already toyed with idea of burying these wires underground, it was the 1888 blizzard that finally forced the city to act, freeing the city of above-ground wires to this day.) Because of snow drifts across the tracks, rail service was suspended in and out of the city for over a week and staples such as bread and coal were quickly in short supply.
By far the most famous victim of the storm was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. An important post-Civil War Republican, Conkling was part of the Stalwart branch of the party that hoped to draft Ulysses S. Grant into running for a third term. When that didn’t happen, Conkling supported Rutherford B. Hayes and was instrumental in creating the commission that ultimately handed Hayes the presidency in 1877. (The controversy of the 1876 Hayes/Tilden election will be the subject of a future post.)
Conkling’s best-known protégé was Chester A. Arthur, who benefited from Conkling’s patronage when he was New York’s Commissioner of Customs, but as president instituted civil service reforms that enraged his former mentor.
On the first day of 1888 blizzard, Conking was at his law office at 10 Wall Street. Despite the severity of the storm—which made catching a horse-drawn cab impossible—Conkling decided to walk from his office to his club on Madison Square, even though it was 6:00 PM and already dark. He made it up Broadway as far as Union Square where he (as he later put it): “got to the middle of the park and was up to my arms in a drift…. For nearly twenty minutes I was stuck there and I came as near giving right up and sinking down there to die as a man can and not do it.”
But somehow Conkling freed himself and continued up Broadway to Madison Square, where the people at the New York Club could “scarcely believe” he had walked from Wall Street.
However, while Conkling was quick to credit his three-hour walk to his strong constitution, all was not well. He soon developed an ear infection, which in turn became mastoiditis, and by April doctors were draining pus from his skull. He died on April 18, 1888, about a month after the blizzard.
Conkling is memorialized in a statue in Madison Square Park. (Apparently the city fathers balked at commemorating Conkling in Union Square amidst George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.)
To read more about the city's history, pick up a copy of Inside the Apple, which is now available from Amazon.com, other online retailers, or your local brick-and-mortar stores.
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