NEW YORK (PIX11) — More than a century ago, New York City was caught off guard by one of the worst snowstorms the area has ever seen.
Temperatures were mild in March of 1888, so when the snow, freezing temperatures and gale-force winds set in on March 12, city residents were not prepared, New York Transit Museum Director Concetta Bencivenga said. At the time, there were only elevated trains.
“For most of human history, you would go down underneath the earth for two reasons: you go down to get something and you come back up, you know, like a mineral, oil, diamonds, or you go down because you’re dead,” Bencivenga said. “So the notion of going underground and moving around was truly a foreign concept to people.”
The elevated lines served New Yorkers well until the Great Blizzard of 1888. Rain started on March 11, Bencivenga said. Blinding snow, freezing temperatures and gale-force winds set in the following day. The East River even froze. The storm left the city and the trains at a standstill.
“New York was in a pickle,” Bencivenga said.
Around 15,000 people were stuck on trains during the storm, Bencivenga said. Some enterprising New Yorkers tied ladders together, set them up by the elevated tracks and charged riders to climb down.
“To have 15,000 people stuck in the snow, unable to get down — not a good day for anybody,” Bencivenga said. “And so that was kind of the cataclysmic event that turned the tables and turned the tides on people’s willingness to entertain the ideas of the subway.”
On March 12, 1888, only 30 out of 1,000 workers at the New York City Stock Exchange made it to work. Around 400 people were killed by the storm, with about half the deaths in New York City, according to the transit museum.
New York set to work studying how to build an underground subway system. John McDonald, the general contractor, August Belmont, the money guy, and William Barclay Parsons, the engineer, worked together on the IRT. The city’s first underground subway opened in 1904.
Having trains underground hasn’t solved everything when it comes to snow. The tracks also need to be de-iced so they can function. New York’s trains rely on third-rail contact. Granville T. Woods, a Brooklyn inventor considered the “Black Thomas Edison of his day,” created third rail technology, Bencivenga said. Riders today might see little fires lit along the third rail on above-ground portions of the subway to make sure it doesn’t freeze.
One of the keys of the MTA’s winter operations master plan is activating third-rail heaters when there’s snow in the forecast. A prediction of 1-7 inches of snow prompts the MTA to call in extra crews to operate both de-icer trains and regular trains. The MTA will also spread salt and sand at stations, yards, terminals and crew facilities. When there’s more snow in the forecast, MTA workers assemble snow throwers on trains to help clear tracks.
“As grumpy as New Yorkers are with the subway, everybody loves their transit workers the day after a snowstorm because the speed with which this group of people is dedicated to restoring normal service is pretty impressive,” Bencivenga said.
Even with all the tools they have, elevated tracks remain the most challenging to deal with when there’s winter weather, according to the MTA. There are nearly 220 miles of outdoor track throughout the boroughs and those tracks can cause problems.
In December 2010, hundreds of people became stuck on an A train on outdoor tracks for hours. About 20 inches of snow fell in Central Park during that storm, according to the National Weather Service.
As much as New York City now has a wide assortment of tools to handle blizzards, sometimes it isn’t enough. Current MTA guidelines call for a possible full-system shutdown if there’s 12+ inches of snow, or blizzard conditions. The entire subway system has only shut down for a snow event once in its history, to the best of Bencivenga’s knowledge. Back in 2015, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down the entire subway system because of snow.
“The authority’s priority is to keep safe and reliable service running to support customers’ needs,” according to the MTA. “The MTA is committed to keeping the city moving, getting essential workers to and from work safely, and supporting customers, especially during inclement weather.”