From Mere Dustings to Blizzards, Snow Has Affected Newark History

History and Landscape
Published December 18, 1997

From Mere Dustings to Blizzards, Snow Has Affected Newark History

| Published December 18, 1997

Downtown Newark after the Blizzard of 1888. The Newark Public Library

From winter wonderland to life-threatening blizzard, heavy snows have fallen on Newark since the city's earliest days, adding to our city's weather history.

To the schoolchild, snowstorms offer an opportunity to stay home and perhaps make snow angels in the front yard. To the middle-aged commuter, they often are sources of aggravation that make the journey to work more difficult. To the frail and elderly who shovel snow, they can mean grave danger.

Plenty of heavy snows dotted our early history, but it was not until 1779 that we have one of the first written accounts. In the 19th century, Judge William Ricord described an event that happened on February 5, 1845, when two feet of the white stuff fell on Newark. At the same time, a tremendous fire raged out of control opposite Trinity Church that nearly destroyed the west side of Broad Street. According to Ricord's report, 'Paths had to be dug from the engine houses to get to the fire scene so that equipment could be hauled to fight the blaze.' Captain Plume, who owned a nearby hardware store, 'lent firemen shovels from his store to help clear passage to the church which was being threatened.' The mid-1850s, according to Ricord's records, was an unusually notable time, with the temperature falling to 8 below zero on February 8, 1855. Thirty-two snowstorms hit Newark that winter of 1855-56.

Blizzard of ‘88

Of all the great 'snow stories' that have been recorded, none surpasses that of the Blizzard of '88, a term that has become as much a part of American history as the Civil War, the Great Depression, Prohibition or the New Deal. In fact, it has become the standard for heavy snows. What was so unusual about the event was that it occurred late in the season, in mid-March. While there have been deeper snows, it was the great drifts that made the storm memorable. The 20.9 inches of snow was whipped by 60-mph winds at near-zero temperatures. Drifts piled up to 16 feet and were able to cover whole railroad trains and even the first floors of buildings. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Entire communities were cut off from the outside world. People imagined that they would starve before help could arrive, and commerce and industry was stopped dead in its tracks. It took four railroad engines to 'punch their way through the drifts at Bergen Point on the Central tracks.' Finally, Newark was reconnected with Jersey City and New York and 'a dozen engines and an army of men were fighting their way south towards Elizabeth.' The tremendous weight of snow was causing many roofs to collapse. Six hundred men of the Essex Railway company were used to shovel snow from the horsecar tracks at Broad and Mulberry streets, and the downtown commercial area was briefly renamed 'snow alley' for a path through a 10-foot drift. A local dry goods store dug a tunnel to its front door and inscribed over the door 'spring opening,' and a local store painted its snowdrift to attract more customers. Personal accounts of the blizzard came from Frederick Schunk of Quitman Street, who, while attempting to return from his job in Manhattan, was forced to sleep on board a Jersey City ferry boat, since the train he planned to take to Newark was completely covered in snow. William Steck of Charles Street, an employee of P. Ballantine at Front and Rector streets, was unable to leave his home because the drifts had completely covered his front door. He was literally trapped at home for five days. Edward S. Rankin made a humorous sign on a snowbank suggesting that the viewer should 'Keep off the grass.' The storm accounted for one death, two missing and six badly frost-bitten Newarkers. The Pennsylvania Railroad's Chicago Limited was stranded along the tracks at Emmet Street, and its occupants were rescued with sandwiches and hot coffee. Hundreds of other travelers spent the night at Pennsylvania Station, and 1,500 were marooned at the DL&W Station. More than 150 funerals in Newark and New York were delayed, and heavy rooftop avalanches constantly knocked down passersby, as well as Newark's famous cigar store Indian at Broad and Market streets. Various accounts of the snowy week left an indelible mark on Newarkers. Eventually an association was formed to record the humor and horror of the event for future years.

Before there was a National Weather Service to keep careful records, the function of recording local weather statistics was left in the hands of interested individuals. William Whitehead furnished meteorological information to the old Newark Daily Advertiser, which printed it in a column from 1843 to 1884. Later, William Wiener, principal of Central High School, assumed this function. Eventually the task was taken over by the Department of Agriculture. In 1924, the Weather Bureau began recording local data. By 1931, the federal government established a full-time agency for this purpose. But for a brief time, weather observations were made on the roof of Kresge's department store. Today, climatological data sheets provide detailed weather information for Newark and weather stations through the state. Copies can be found in the Newark Public Library's New Jersey Information Center as well as in federal document depository collections. In addition, clipping files are available in the New Jersey Information Center.

The first half of the 20th century saw several extremely dangerous storms in 1914, 1917, 1937 and 1947. The year 1914 was characterized by a general paralysis of business, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars and untold suffering. Called by the newspaper the 'worst storm since 1888,' it included interruption of rail and trolley service through heavy snowfall that brought down overhead wires, and a series of deaths. In 1917, a dramatic coal shortage was caused by shipping problems associated with supplying troops and equipment to the European war effort. Here in Newark, the majority of homes were still heated with coal. On that December 30, the temperature dropped to a record 13 degrees below zero. February 1924 saw its share of problems, too. The bitter Arctic cold hit hard, causing extensive suffering. The storm came in the days of a depression, when people were trying to economize on fuel. Four hundred homeless men sought shelter in the municipal lodging house, 100 cases of frostbite were reported, and 56 fires broke out that had to be extinguished with chemicals and sand because of frozen hydrants. Additional buses and trolleys were added to support local transportation, because many people were no longer able to afford their own cars. Added to this, the Passaic River was frozen solid for the first time since 1917-18. Barge traffic was impossible.

Blizzard of 1947

While it occurred a half-century ago, the 'Blizzard of 1947' remains the most dramatic weather event in the minds of many Newark adults. It started to snow about noon on December 26. All in all, 25.5 inches of snow fell on downtown Newark. By 5 p.m., 12.9 inches had accumulated and factories and offices began closing. Almost immediately, public transportation delays began. The Hudson Tubes became tied up, as well as the Pulaski Skyway and approaches to the tunnels. By 4 p.m., airport employees found themselves stranded at the administrative building, and people began congregating in hotel lobbies, theaters, and fire and police stations. Railroad waiting rooms were filling up, and restaurants began to run out of food. Newark pulled out all its available work force, using 105 municipal and private snowplows, and continued to clean major downtown streets as the storm progressed. Public Parks and Property Director and later Mayor Ralph Villani toured the troubled spots in a radio-equipped jeep. He also got an additional 200 volunteers to work. In all, the emergency cost Newark $300,000, but the main streets were never closed, as they were in other communities. The snow-free streets in the financial district represented hard work and planning, reflecting 'a liberal amount of municipal funds that could not have been more positively invested,' according to the city council. Newark had shown how to keep going during an emergency. Erminjo Giordano of Newark remembers working at the Ballantine Brewery in the Ironbound in 1947. He reported seeing company beer trucks leave for their early-morning deliveries on the 26th that failed to return for several days due to the intensity of the storm. To return home, Giordano had to walk five long miles uphill to First Avenue near Schools Stadium. Giordano's neighborhood was obviously not among those streets chosen to be kept clear by the Parks Department. Vincent Miele, who was working as a barber on Broadway, told how difficult it was to walk in the deep snow and avoid all the hidden obstacles. Anthony Dominick Ferrante Sr., then only 7 years old, likewise remembers literally following in his father's footsteps when they strode along Lake Street and how wonderful it was to play in the snowbanks in Branch Brook Park. 'We played there for weeks,' or at least until all the snow was melted.

In the past 30 years, there have been about a dozen times Newark has been turned into a winter wonderland or winter hell, depending on your viewpoint. On February 11, 1969, a blizzard described as 'one of the severest in decades' resulted in eight deaths. On March 30, 1970, we celebrated our first white Easter in 55 years, and on January 23, 1978, snow closed most of the state's 611 school districts. Seventeen inches of snow marked George Washington's birthday on February 20, 1982. A heavy snow on February 13, 1983, fanned by 45-mph winds, closed The Star-Ledger and shut off bus, train and most air traffic. In January 1985, snow removal costs climbed to alarming heights after a series of storms. Snow on April 14, 1986, was billed as a 'spring surprise.' Finally, two winters ago, a series of real blizzards approximated the conditions of 1888. Cars literally were buried in drifts, public transportation briefly came to a complete stop and the world went totally quiet. Will somebody someday call these the good old days? Maybe they will. Maybe they won't.