As the blizzard grew in strength, the wooden poles that carried the city's electric, telephone, and telegraph wires listed severely under the weight of ice, snow and, especially, the gusting wind. The poles, and the lines they carried, had grown in number and increased in the voltage since 1880, when Brush Electric Light Company set up a central electric station on West 25th Street that powered arc lights on Fifth Avenue, 14th Street, and 34th Street. Arc lighting was the city's first form of electric lighting, and replaced the dirty and low-luminance gas lighting that had illuminated New York City streets and homes since the 1830s. In the years after 1880, Brush Electric Company built additional power stations at West and Bank Streets, on Elizabeth Street, and on Washington Street. By 1886, over fifteen hundred arc lights lit New York City's streets.

After Thomas Edison opened his Pearl Street power station in 1882 to funnel electricity underground to the new incandescent bulbs that lit businesses and homes in lower Manhattan, Brush Electric, the United States Illuminating Company, and the East River Electrical Lighting Company were, along with Edison, given franchises to compete in Manhattan south of 136th Street. Raising poles and hanging electrical wires was much less expensive for electric and telephone companies than digging trenches and insulating and burying lines, as Edison had done downtown. Several companies were competing to light the city, and they rarely shared pole space with one another. By 1888, a burgeoning, competitive electric industry had taken root in the city, telegraph and telephone service continued to expand as it became less expensive, and wires were hung from poles for fire, police department, and private security alarms, as well as for stock-tickers. The city, particularly in and around the downtown financial district, resembled nothing so much as a "forest of poles."

Overhead Telephone and Telegraph Wires in Broadway, 1890. From the Book of Old New York.
Maiden Lane, the center of the city's jewelry trade, in 1885. From the Book of Old New York.
The wires that clouded the skies above New York City streets in the late 1800s are visible in each of the illustratins above (look closely at the image on the right to see a pole, with many arms, on the left feeding wires across the road).

As the poles grew in number over the course of the decade, New York’s streets became evermore dangerous. Wires snapped on a regular basis as a result of over tension, wind, or ice weighing them down. The electrical wires carried a significant charge, but the other wires carried electricity as well. As wires snapped and lashed across streets, smashing against buildings, thrashing about, spraying sparks in all directions, blocks were rendered impassable until power to the downed lines could be cut. These charged electrical vines were a recognized public nuisance, and, after 1884, the city government and city businesses entered a protracted struggle over how to best solve the problem. Whenever an ordinance was passed by the city to bury the wires, businessmen, such as Western Union head Jay Gould, would object and win an injunction against enforcement.