When the Blizzard of 1888 hit, the els were particularly vulnerable. Many early morning commuters destined for the business district from outlying sections of the city were unaware of the magnitude of the storm as they left home for work. Visibility was severely limited on top of the trestles that held the els, ice layered the tracks and froze the switches and, because telegraph wires were down all over the city, communication between stations was impossible. These factors led directly to a terrible collision at 7:30 in the morning between two trains on the Third Avenue line at 76th Street.
Travel was paralyzed not just inside of Manhattan, but also on the way into the city. Commuter trains from north of the city came into Manhattan via a curved railroad cut near Spuyten Duyvil. Early in the morning, a Croton local train with seven passenger cars plowed into a snowdrift in the middle of the cut, and was stuck. Soon, eight other trains were lined up behind it, where they would remain until Wednesday. Two trains, one from Chicago and one from upstate New York, collided violently at Dobbs Ferry, twenty miles north of the city, injuring dozens. The storm made travel throughout the entire region treacherous; a train collision in Altoona, Pennsylvania, two hundred miles west of the city, killed three travelers.
Travel by rail was the most widely-used form of transportation in and around New York City; but all types of travel were disrupted by the blizzard. Pedestrians struggled through drifts and against the wind to move even a block. New Yorkers stopped to find shelter wherever they could, overcrowding hotels and boardinghouses, flooding coffee shops and bars, eager for warmth. Countless New Yorkers fell ill as a result of their journeys, and several deaths from exposure were a direct result of pedestrians inability to find shelter. Cabs in those days, horse-drawn carriageswere hard to find, and drivers charged exorbitant prices to take their steeds out into the storm. Even when cabs could be found, there was no guarantee that any chosen route would be unobstructed by snowdrifts.
Ferry service was a popular way to get into Manhattan from Brooklyn and New Jersey, but service was irregular at best from early in the day as ice floes clogged the East River and obstructed the Hudson. Foot traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge was closed on Monday because of the dangerous cross winds. When the footpath across the bridge was opened on Tuesday morning, the line was so long and those waiting so impatient that many Brooklynites decided to cross the river on foot, stepping from ice floe to ice floe. Hundreds undertook the perilous journey, even as tugboats attempted to break up the ice so ferries could return to service. The last group of forty men nearly floated out to sea on a patch of ice before being rescued by longshoremen with ladders.
In every conceivable way, the Blizzard of 1888 paralyzed movement in and out of New York City for the better part of two days. The storm dramatized the citys need for a less vulnerable method of rapid transit, a dependable system that would make the business districts of Manhattan easily accessible from outlying residential areas. Mayor Abraham Hewitt had recognized and acted upon this need even before the blizzard struck. At the end of January 1888, Hewitt had proposed that the city borrow the money to fund the construction of an electric subway that the city would then maintain ownership of as it contracted operation out to the New York Central Railroad. The technology was not yet available for an electric subway, but Hewitt believed it soon would be. In the wake of the Tweed scandals, however, such a large municipal investment-- $50 millionmade many New Yorkers uneasy. Hewitts plan was feared to be too corruptible and fell by the wayside.
When Hugh Grant became Mayor in 1889, he too was committed to building a better rapid transit system, but initially met the same skeptical public opinion and resistance from the business community as had Hewitt. New Yorks economic elites, who were extremely influential in the formulation of transit policy, were split over the benefits of the project. Uptown real estate developers and downtown merchants stood much to gain from the quick and easy connection of the districts that contained their investments, while other businessmen, such as those with investments in existing transportation systems within the city, did not.
Finally, in 1894, a public referendum approved the allocation of public funds to build a subway system based on the plan Hewitt had proposed six years earlier. The initial route for the subway was from near City Hall to Times Square, then along Broadway to 96th Street, where the line divided into two: one line continuing up Broadway to 242nd Street, and the other up Lenox Avenue, under the Harlem River, and into the Bronx. Construction did not begin until 1900, however, when financier August Belmonts Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company was granted a franchise to build and operate the system. In 1902, Belmonts company became the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), and was granted a second franchise to build a subway from downtown Manhattan under the East River into Brooklyn. The first segment of the New York City subway was opened on October 27, 1904, and the entire system was in operation by 1908 the fares was five cents. The subway earned international praise, particularly because of the four-track system that allowed express and local trains. Within months, overcrowding on the subway led to public demands to extend routes throughout the city-- demands that continue to this day.
It would be wrong to say that the Blizzard of 1888 led directly to the New York City subway system. The idea for a subway circulated through New York City politics well before 1888, and plans were not finalized for a system of underground transit until well after New York City's streets had been cleared of snow. But the blizzard, and the havoc it wreaked on transportation in and around New York City, clarified for many New Yorkers the benefits of underground rapid transit.