"Little Bismarck to Father Knickerbocker"

March 24, 1888

William A. Rogers

"Little Bismarck to Father Knickerbocker"

Charity, Disaster Relief; Children, Symbolic; Natural Disasters, Blizzard; Symbols, New York City; New York City, Blizzard;

Conkling, Roscoe;

American West; Dakota Territory; New York City;

"To Mayor Hewitt, New York:--

"Bismarck stands ready to give substantial aid to blizzard sufferers of New York. Let us know your needs."

"M. R. Jewell, Chamber of Commerce."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon shows Father Knickerbocker, the symbol of New York City, stranded shoulder-deep in the Great Blizzard of 1888. The young city of Bismarck, Dakota Territory (today, North Dakota), survivor of a blizzard which hit the plain states earlier in January, offers its assistance. The March blizzard blanketed the eastern seaboard from Maine to Washington, D.C., causing over 400 deaths and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. It was New York City’s worst snowstorm since 1857, and took the metropolis almost two weeks to recover completely.

The weather in New York City on Sunday, March 11, 1888, had been rainy, but the early-morning edition of the March 12 New York Tribune optimistically forecast "clearing and colder, preceded by light snow." Most readers did not see that Monday headline, though, since their papers were buried underneath a mountain of snow. A low-pressure system from the west had collided with another from the south, while a frigid air mass from Canada held the fronts stationary.

Heavy rain on Sunday night turned to sleet, then to snow just after midnight, and continued for almost two days. Most roads were impassable by sunrise on Monday morning, although gale-force winds, registering up to 60 m.p.h., cleared a few areas while piling snow up to second-story windows on other streets. At 7:00 a.m., the snowstorm gathered strength, as winds gusted to 75 m.p.h. and temperatures ranged from 11° to 1°. Almost 17 inches of snow fell on Monday, and four more on Tuesday.

New York City was virtually immobilized. Businesses, markets, and schools closed or never opened; few street transports operated; nine ferry boats were sunk, driven ashore, or otherwise abandoned; ice on rails and snow-clogged switches forced the railroads to stop running (some in mid-trip); telegraph and telephone communications were cut; and the mayor (like most others) stayed home. One makeshift entrepreneur placed a ladder up to a stranded elevated car and charged passengers 50 cents to climb down.

The unlucky individuals who had left their homes early enough to make it to work, found that the only way home was afoot or by paying exorbitant prices to the few cabdrivers braving the weather. Besides the cold, wind, and snow, the streets were littered with downed or falling electric wires, business signs, barber poles, cigar-store Indians, and other debris. Hotels, lodging houses, and clubs were filled to capacity, even with corridors transformed into sleeping areas; the Astor House had to turn away 400 people who were seeking shelter.

Undeterred by a bit of snow was Roscoe Conkling, New York’s former U.S. senator and one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. The stubborn, tempestuous Conkling showed up Monday morning for a court hearing on a high-profile case involving the widow of A. T. Stewart, the department-store millionaire. Conkling was aghast to find that the judge was snowbound and had rescheduled the hearing for Tuesday. Oblivious to the weather, he returned to his office and worked until 6 p.m.

After hailing a cab for the New York Club at Madison Square, Conkling indignantly refused to pay the $50 charge, so set off on foot. The two-and-a-half mile journey through the darkened, snow-packed city took him three hours, including one hour trying to extricate himself from a snowdrift into which he (like Father Knickerbocker) had fallen up to his armpits. Once inside the door of the club, exhausted and caked with snow and ice, he collapsed unconscious. The next day he was back in court, even though the snow was still falling.

On Tuesday, the city began digging out, producing huge snow piles in the gutters. Sleighs appeared to carry groceries, coal, and other necessities, and the elevated railways began functioning again. That morning, an ice-bridge allowed thousands of people to walk across the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan. On Wednesday, residents built bonfires to melt the gargantuan snowdrifts, and the trains to the suburbs resumed operation. By the end of the week, the streetcars were running and the sun was shining.

Roscoe Conkling continued working until March 30 when he took sick in court, complaining of a severe headache. Physicians determined that an abscess in his inner ear, high temperature (reaching 104½), and delirium were the results of his trek through the blizzard. On April 17, Conkling lapsed into a coma, and died at 2 a.m. the next morning.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Little Bismarck to Father Knickerbocker"
July 14, 2024

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