The East Coast blizzard of 1888, colloquially known as the Great White Hurricane, hammered the northeast from March 12-15, 1888. Forty to fifty inches of snow blanketed New York and New England. Temperatures dipped to record-breaking lows. Near hurricane-force winds created snowdrifts that towered 30-40 feet. Major cities–New York, Boston, Albany, and New Haven–were literally cut off from the outside world. Food ran low and coal shipments (to heat homes) stalled, leaving thousands without the basic necessities of life. Approximately 400 people died, including almost 200 in New York City.
And there were shipwrecks. Many, many shipwrecks. Up and down the coast, the powerful storm caught mariners by surprise. According to this NOAA report: “From Chesapeake Bay through the New England area, over 200 ships were either grounded or wrecked resulting in the deaths of at least 100 seamen.” In the Delaware Breakwater, at the base of Delaware Bay in Lewes, the storm reduced a fleet of vessels into a “water-logged disaster area.” According to the U.S. Life Saving Service’s annual report:
The whole fleet was suddenly thrown into the wildest commotion; chains were sundered, masts shattered, and collision wreck, and indscribably chaos followed…The waters were stirred into turbulence and uproar, which with raging storm-wind, driving and roaring through the pitch-blackness of the night were enough to appall even the stoutest heart. The terrified crews on board the vessels barely had enough time to escape from their berths and scramble on deck or into the rigging for safety.
It was a time before science and technology offered the protections from the natural environment enjoyed by mariners and urbanites today. (Although even today the wonders of modern science and technology cannot protect us from an increasingly variable and powerful physical environment.)