Comparing local blizzards: 1888 vs. 1978 vs. 2013

This year is the 125th anniversary of the Blizzard of 1888. My grandfather was 12 years old during the storm and told me many stories while sitting on his front porch swing.

The storm, a classic nor’easter, hit Shelton (actually, Huntington at that time) on Monday morning, March 12, 1888. It snowed for two days and accumulation estimates range from 24 to 48 inches, with wind gusts reported up to 70 mph.

More that 400 people perished, half of those in New York City. (Historians report that this storm was a major reason to create subways in New York City and Boston.)

Everything came to a halt here

In Shelton, this much snow brought everything to a halt. In 1888, newspapers provided the news, with telegraph the source of long-range communication. Very few homes and factories had telephones.

There were no cars or trucks — only horses and oxen to pull plows. Horses would pull rollers to pack down the snow for sleighs.

Home and village electrification were several years off, let alone radio and TV. Piles of wood and coal, the main sources of heat, were buried by the sudden March snow.

Unlike today’s weather satellites and Doppler radar, the weather forecasting of the day as reported in newspapers was primarily based on telegraphic reports of conditions of towns to the west, augmented by the Farmers’ Almanac and great granddad’s arthritic knee.

Trapped in homes

Many telegraph lines collapsed under the weight of the snow; delivery of food and fuel stopped. People were trapped in their houses for more than a week.

Shelton residents had to subsist on their own with little information from the outside world. While most made their living on farms and were able to ride out the storm at home, many factory workers went to work on Monday morning, only to become snowbound.

Searching for people in the snowdrifts

Thirty female workers in Derby, who decided to head for home that evening, “fell exhausted in the snowdrifts and would have perished speedily but for the bravery of citizens who organized themselves into volunteer patrols and all night long went wading and watching through the bitter cold streets,” reported the New York Times.

Too bad they did not have cell phones.

Facing the Blizzard of '78 in Boston

In 1978, I worked in Bedford, Mass., near Boston. The Blizzard of 1978 started there on Monday, Feb. 6, and it continued snowing with high winds for the next 33 hours.

Like many people, I was at work and was skeptical of the forecast of a significant blizzard. However, as the day progressed, schools and companies closed early, flooding roads with cars that became stranded in the drifting snow.

Stopped cars filled the highways

Highways such as Route 128 and the Mass Pike were loaded with cars and trucks that wrecked or ran out of gas while unable to move in the snow.

People had to be rescued by snowmobile and helicopters, with nearly 100 perishing. While TV and radio forecasts were available, there was no Internet or cell phones for people to communicate with families or rescuers.

I stayed late at work, hoping to let the traffic and weather subside. The 15-mile trip home was daunting, with much of it into a blinding blizzard following a snowplow.

Making a pizza run

Both Massachusetts and Connecticut governors closed the state highways for the rest of the week. Our street was plowed out Tuesday night and, being young and maybe foolish, my neighbor and I set out for a couple of pizzas for our families.

We had an empty bottle of medicine to use as an excuse if stopped on our way to town, and the story that we were tired snowplow drivers if stopped on the way home.

Fortunately, we passed nobody going in either direction. (Always wondered why the pizza shop was open and how they got to work.)

Forewarned in ’13

The Blizzard of 2013 caught no one except the most reclusive by surprise. From WICC to “Good Morning America” to every cable news and weather station, the word of a potential blizzard lit up the airways.  Given the accuracy predicting Superstorm Sandy and other recent storms, people were far less skeptical about the dire forecast.

Indeed, starting on Friday afternoon, Feb. 8, much of Connecticut got more that 3 feet of snow with wind gusts exceeding 75 mph.

With the bulk of the storm occurring on Saturday, far fewer people ventured out during the storm, making it feasible to rescue those who did get stuck. Most importantly for those of us in Shelton, few people lost electric power — something that was not yet available in 1888.

Virtually nobody died as a direct result of the Blizzard of 2013, although in Shelton and elsewhere people died due to medical issues exacerbated by the snow, ice, cold and wind.

Mode of transportation: snowshoes

Although we made brief forays out on our porch with our two Jack Russell terriers on Saturday, by Sunday the storm abated and we could assess the situation.

There was a small patch of grass visible due to the tremendous wind sweeping around the house, while a 6 foot snowdrift was merely 20 feet away from our residence. A few of the driveway markers stuck above the snow level, and the location of the street was questionable.

The only way to get to check on our neighbor was via snowshoes. It sure was quiet.

Mostly an inconvenience

But with power, TV, cell phones and the Internet, plus a refrigerator full of food, the storm was predominantly an inconvenience.

Our street got plowed on Monday, and we blasted through the snow barrier formed at the end of our driveway on Tuesday.

Surviving Superstorm Sandy of 2012 and the Blizzard of 2013 (Nemo) was easier than in earlier days. I just hope these big storms stop coming so often.

Bill Dyer is a Shelton resident.