Philadelphians have always been a little nuts about the weather.
Our celebrities are mostly local weather people. At the mere mention of a single drop of frozen precipitation, we methodically sack every Wawa in search of bread and milk. My own paper published a banner headline Wednesday, in a font size usually reserved for acts of war and investigative journalism, screaming to the heavens, “Will We Get 18?”
Well, we got 7.6.
So, I went digging to find the source of this generational hysteria, and found myself in the musty, yellowing pages of the Inky of yore — well, the comforting glow of our digital archives — and in about 3½ minutes landed on another March snowstorm that sent everyone into a tizzy, the Blizzard of `88 — that’s 1888.
Here was the source, the font. At last, the first time my paper — and the city — lost its mind over snow.
It was, to be fair, warranted.
It was the snowstorm of a century, at least the 19th century.
As with everything, New York got most of the attention. And, as the New York history podcasters The Bowery Boys explained in a recently re-aired episode on the blizzard, it wasn’t so much the amount of snow as it was the hurricane-force winds that buried the East Coast in enormous drifts.
Just like New York, Philly was a city on the rise then, with its population doubling in one generation, said Bob Skiba, a Philadelphia archivist and tour guide. We were in the thrall of a new technology, electricity, which garishly lit up Chestnut Street and some wealthy homes. The telegraph was widespread. Early telephones were ringing in offices around the city.
And then, out of the blue, in the middle of a comparatively balmy March, it snowed for 36 hours straight. The region and the Inquirer promptly lost their minds.
All our newfound technology was ripped away by howling winds.
“The first snow punctured the skin like needles, whirled in veritable clouds,” the Inquirer wrote. (The writer: anonymous. There weren’t bylines back then.) “Festoons of tangled telegraph wire, prostrate poles and trees all succumbed to the fury of the tempest.”
Said Skiba: “The city was cut off from the country in a way it hadn’t been in a long time.”
(Think of it as if, when this week’s storm blew in, it zapped your iPhone and left you with a pager.)
“Not since the year of 1854 had there been such an avalanche,” the Inquirer wrote.
In some places, the paper said, streetlights were buried to the lanterns.
Luckily, there were few casualties here, according to the paper. A tree fell on a 13-year-old girl named Rose Donohue in Rittenhouse. She survived. A poor herb gatherer was found dead in the snow in West Philly. A woman was dragged by carriage down 19th Street, nearly the length of a square.
And the poor birds.
“The greatest sufferers of the storm were the sparrows,” the Inquirer reported. “The sleet wetted them, the snow buried them, the furious wind exhausted them, fairly beat the life out of them. Scores of dead birds were found in private yards and hundreds in the squares.”
And just as Philadelphians have always lost their minds over the weather, some reporters have always been lazy. As the maelstrom swirled in the streets 130 years ago, and the idea of going outside seemed more and more unappealing, the fearless scribes of the Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed one another from the warmth of the newsroom.
A stunned Inquirer news editor had been at his desk for 20 years, but never felt so cut off. “Never have we been so entirely in the dark as to what is going on in the whole world around us,” he lamented.
(I feel for the guy. I have those days myself.)
It was “the lucky newspaperman who hadn’t far to go to reach home,” the paper wrote. Like the reporter who told how he tried to catch the last carriage out of town, but found that the horses, fighting the storm, had run into a ditch at Sixth and Sansom. A gang of 20 men with ropes, shovels, and picks labored to save the half-frozen beasts. When they got them out, “they were as much dead as alive.” The reporter found other lodgings, the paper assured its readers.
When we ran out of our own reporters to write about back then, we called upon our friends at the Associated Press, like poor Ernest Emery, who, the paper wrote, somehow managed to reach his home in the northern section of the city by 6 a.m. Either young Ernest had been struggling through snowdrifts up to his waist, or he was “struggling” through “snowdrifts” surrounding the local tavern. Either way, his door was blocked by snow.
“It was too cold to stand on ceremony,” the story read, with a heavy coat of Victorian varnish.
So, Emery did what any self-respecting (and possibly soused) reporter would do: He hurled snowballs at his parents’ windows until they dropped him a shovel to dig his way to the door. Somehow, this harrowing tale made it into the 40th paragraph of the day’s three-page blizzard coverage.
Then, as quickly as the snow came, it stopped, and the coverage moved on accordingly. “Damages Repaired,” the headline read, nonchalantly, after three days of reporting from a “besieged town” with seemingly no end in sight. The city went on, just as we do today as we trudge to work, knock the sludge off our boots, and congratulate ourselves on a snowstorm well done.
We’re a dramatic bunch, but a resilient one. Happy spring, Philadelphia.