Historian's Notebook

The Blizzard of 1888

Monday morning March 12, 1888 began as any other winter workweek back then in Cohoes. But overnight the temperature had plummeted, and overhead, as Cohoesiers hustled along the icy paths, ominous dark clouds prepared to release their burden of snow. Nature was setting the scene for an event that would test the resiliency of this hardworking community.

As the morning progressed, gentle snowflakes turned into icy darts propelled by escalating winds. At mid-morning, in the West Harmony Elementary School on Mangam St., Principal Lillie Bowman exercised her authority and excused all of the children, along with her 11 assistants. Although no communication existed among the dozen or so schools throughout the city, all other schools closed by noon as well. All local forms of transportation became paralyzed by the end of the day. The horse-drawn railroad schedule, with travel at half-hour intervals to Lansingburgh, Troy, and Waterford, soon deteriorated. The Waterford Green Line ceased operation by noon. Trips to and from Lansingburgh and Troy continued at random as teams of men valiantly shoveled snow away from the tracks, but eventually to no avail; by three in the afternoon they had abandoned their task. Two young men, stranded in Lansingburgh, foolishly decided to walk to their homes on Younglove Ave. Collapsing in exhaustion as they climbed the High St. hill, they were rescued by the patrons of Jennings High Street Saloon and brought in to be "thawed out." One of the young men's hands was severely frostbitten.

Jesse Fonda, a farmer living outside the city, was determined to deliver milk to his grocery customers. With four cans of milk strapped to his sled, he set out in the blizzard. He slogged down Mohawk St., and arrived with his cargo at the corner of Remsen and Oneida Sts. However, he miscalculated a turn and a runner of his sled struck a snowbank, and capsized in a drift. The snow quickly absorbed the day's profits.

As Monday evening arrived, Cohoesiers were hunkered down in their homes, never expecting the storm to continue for another thirty hours and deposit close to four feet of snow. Tuesday, the second day of the blizzard, saw a few sturdy souls head out for work; very few reached their duties. Two knitting mils, the Anchor Mill and the Victor Mill, started. With so few operatives on hand, and ice clogging the water wheels, production came to a halt. The Harmony Mills, despite having only one-third of their workforce on hand, still operated a full day. Late in the afternoon, with the snowfall approaching three feet in depth, the hands were sent home.

Just before dawn on Wednesday the 14th the snow stopped. Large drifts settled everywhere. Cataract Alley was blockaded by a mountain of snow, the old firehouse obliterated. The two lampposts in front of St. Joseph's Church were covered by a huge drift. Mrs. Lamb's bay window facing Howard St. was completely covered, along with much of that side of the house. Tunneling out of their residences, the resilient Cohoes workforce went to their jobs. The mills ran at full capacity on that day, as the operatives knew well "no work - no pay." Meanwhile, gangs of men set to work clearing the roads, tracks, and sidewalks. Three days later, on St. Patrick's Day, the annual parade assembled mid-morning, followed by a day of celebration, with little attention paid to the accumulated snow.

One week later, the frozen body of Henry Bumgart, the only casualty of the storm, was extracted from a snowdrift near James St. Late on Monday the 12th, Henry, while walking home from his job in Green Island, collapsed in exhaustion 300 yards from his lodging and subsequently froze to death.

It was "the largest storm ever seen in these parts", dumping 46.7" of snow, a three-day record that still stands. Over the years, the storm has assumed legendary proportions; in Cohoes, except for the tragic death of Henry Bumgart, the storm seemed just an inconvenience.

Walter Lipka

Spring 2003

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