‘The Great White Hurricane’ kills 400 people in 1888 — Fullers reported a birth as locals coped

— Photo from Mary Ellen Johnson

After breaking a passage through heavy snow blocking the Delaware & Hudson tracks early in the 20th Century, this specially equipped locomotive plow had halted at the Meadowdale Station. Even if a unit this powerful had been available in 1888, many of the hard-packed drifts were so high, manual shoveling would probably have been necessary. The station, removed in the early 1930s, once stood near the Meadowdale railroad crossing.

“Spring is coming,” The Altamont  Enterprise editor announced in the March 10, 1888 “Home Matters” column. “Blue birds have been seen in various neighboring localities.” Local readers of the newspaper, having enjoyed the mild weather of recent days, were eagerly anticipating dry roads and spring planting, blissfully ignorant of the monster winter storm just then crossing the Great Plains.

As it reached the North Carolina coast, the storm combined with a coastal low, pulling in huge amounts of moisture. Simultaneously, an Arctic front thrust down from Canada, the blast of frigid air colliding with the moisture laden nor’easter. Once all these components were in place, the worst winter storm ever recorded on the East Coast aimed its vengeance at New York and New England.

Early Monday morning, March 12, as farmers tended to their chores in barns across Guilderland, the steady rain that had begun falling the night before quickly changed to snow as temperatures started to plummet. Within a few hours the winds picked up, reaching gale force as the night wore on.

Heavy powdery snow continued to fall all day Tuesday, whipped into huge hard-packed drifts by the ferocious wind, later estimated to have been a sustained 35 to 45 miles per hour. By Wednesday morning, the storm had subsided, but the near-zero temperatures remained.

Officially, 47 inches of snow fell in Albany during the three days of the storm, the most of any storm ever recorded in the immediate area. The East Coast from Chesapeake Bay to Maine was paralyzed for days afterwards with roads and rails blocked and telegraph lines down.

On Wednesday, in Guilderland’s various hamlets and on outlying farms, having been isolated by the huge drifts across roads and railroad tracks, the mammoth job of digging out began.

The last D & H train arrival in Altamont had been Monday, the day the storm began in earnest. The next scheduled train to roll into the station arrived at 6 p.m. Wednesday pulled by three locomotives necessary to push through the snow. Finally some mail and newspapers had arrived!

To clear the tracks in those days, men had to be hired to manually shovel. At Van Aernam’s Crossing, a 20-foot drift covered the D & H tracks for a quarter of a mile. A few days, later the D & H brought out a squad of Italians to shovel out its rail yards at Meadowdale.

Over on the West Shore, local men were hired for $1.50 per day to remove the drifts from the tracks. Unfortunately, several of them had their eyesight affected by the glare of the sun on the snow and were forced to quit. One tale passed down in later years was that the drifts were so high in places that sometimes it was possible to hang a coat on the top of a telegraph pole!

Stalled train

The first issue of The Enterprise after the blizzard ran a lengthy account in two 9-inch columns — very unusual to find a locally written story of this length in those early days of the newspaper — entitled, “The Storm.” It detailed the great adventure experienced by Altamont residents D.G. Staley, Chris Hart, I. Knower and Mr. Stafford, passengers on the D & H’s 6 p.m. Oneonta train that left Albany Monday evening with 24 riders on board.

Pulled by two locomotives through the snow, the train successfully climbed the steep gradient out of Albany, but became “embedded” in a huge drift somewhere between Elsmere and Delmar. All efforts to move the stalled train failed and within hours the raging storm had buried it under a blanket of snow. It turned out that the boiler of Engine No. 150 had developed a leak, lost steam, and, with that, power.

Engine No. 261, the second locomotive, did not have sufficient power to haul both the incapacitated locomotive and the cars through the already deep and drifted snow. Two D & H employees left the train to walk back to Albany to get help in spite of the dangerous conditions.

As hours passed with no help forthcoming, the hungry passengers began foraging, uncovering a barrel of bread “bound for Slingerlands,” several pounds of pork chops, a pail of oysters, a chunk of beef, a ham and four pounds of coffee. Mr. Baker of Slingerlands took over as caterer and, using a coal shovel to roast the meat, arranged “a splendid table d’hote.

As the night wore on, many of the passengers made themselves comfortable enough to sleep in the passenger cars, while others adjourned to the baggage car where they spent the next several hours “in songs and merriment of various kinds.”

Tuesday morning, a man who could see the stalled train from his house brought various eatables, another party also came with additional food for the stranded travelers. By 2 p.m., some D & H employees arrived with more provisions and the message that as soon as the storm abated D & H workers would be there to rescue the train.

Reaching the stranded train had taken them three-and-a-half hours to travel the three miles from Albany, the men becoming encrusted in ice by the time they arrived. When the snow finally ceased Wednesday, four engines and 60 workers arrived to extricate the stalled train, finally getting it pulled loose and returned to Albany. The four engines pushed on through the drifts, reaching Altamont at 2 p.m., the first train to arrive since Monday.

Hardships and heroes

In Guilderland’s hamlets residents dug themselves out and carried on with their chores and business with few comments about the effects of the storm on their daily lives. The Meadowdale correspondent apologized two weeks later for the dearth of news “on account of the blizzard” with no stories of how everyone was coping.

The postmaster of Guilderland complained that no mail had arrived in Guilderland between Saturday and Wednesday and, to make matters worse, he took in only 18 cents during the whole time. Three weeks after the blizzard, what the Guilderland writer considered the biggest drift in the town was to be seen on the Western Turnpike near S. Westfall’s.

In Fullers, the big blizzard news was that M.W. Siver’s wife had given birth to a 10-and-a-half pound boy during the storm. Mrs. Jacob Becker of Guilderland Center had hung some laundry to dry on their covered porch, only to have one of her sheets disappear during the height of the blizzard. Days later, it was found blown over half a mile, having landed in David Relyea’s hen yard.

The “Home Matters” column in the Altamont section of The Enterprise led off with the question, “Wasn’t a blizzard, though?” Praise was in order for the Knox-Berne stage that rolled into Altamont Monday morning, arriving on time in spite of the storm with the comment, “Jud is one of those fellows that don’t stop for wind or weather.”

Sympathizing with his correspondents, the editor understood that “due to the severe storm and blocked condition of the roads” they were unable to submit their columns. To the disappointment of Altamont’s teetotalers, the literary entertainment to have been put on by Mrs. Jesse Griswold at Temperance Hall, at first postponed because of the storm, was now cancelled indefinitely. It was noted that people living on Altamont’s Main Street really appreciated the efforts of little Allen Van Benscoten who shoveled through “the snow blockade” to open up the street.

Really hard hit were the farmers who had to be able to get out to their barns to feed their animals and where necessary, were forced to dig tunnels through the drifts to get there. Sometimes drifts were so high people had to crawl out second-story windows and in a few cases youngsters slid down from a second story window over a drift and out over the snow covered lawn.

When snows finally melted, some of the local fruit trees were discovered to have been damaged as the drifts that covered them settled and the weight cracked branches.

Overwhelmed or blasé?

Guilderland residents who actually lived through the Blizzard of 1888 seemed blasé as evidenced by the lack of commentary about it in The Enterprise except for the detailed description of the stranded train.

Perhaps then they were so overwhelmed they didn’t have much time to talk about it, but as the years went by many references were made to the storm in the press, either at the time of another big storm or on Blizzard of ’88 anniversaries such as the 25th or 50th.

By then, the survivors were aware they had lived through a historic event, the “Great White Hurricane” that took the lives of 400 people along its path, and began to provide details in The Enterprise never mentioned at the time it happened such as tunneling through the snow or sliding from the second-story windows.

Nothing has ever measured up to the greatest snowstorm of all. When another ferocious blizzard paralyzed Guilderland in February 1958, the headline that appeared in The Enterprise read, “Blizzard of ’88 Still Tops Says Weather Bureau.” The story continued, “The blizzard of ’58 can’t compare with the blizzard of ’88. That was the granddaddy of ’em all.”