The modern American mayor was born in a blizzard. In 1888, the Great White Hurricane bore down on the metropolises of the eastern seaboard, destroying infrastructure and paralyzing commerce. The devastation it left behind convinced voters that America's burgeoning cities could function only if local governments assumed a larger, more proactive role.
The Blizzard of 1888 was a cataclysm. It claimed 400 lives, sank 200 ships, and paralyzed cities for days. It dumped an average of 30 to 40 inches of snow over southeastern New York and southern New England, but high winds whipped the fluffy flakes into towering piles. In Brooklyn, one snowdrift measured 52 feet tall.
Most residents were caught unprepared. Late 19th-century cities were monuments to man's mastery of nature. Elevated railroads whisked passengers about; streetlights banished the darkness of night; telephone and telegraph wires criss-crossed the roads; horses hauled hundreds of millions of riders around the street railroads; and delivery carts ferried coal, dry goods, and all conceivable comestibles about the streets.
The modern metropolis seemed buffered against the perils of extreme weather. After a devastating blizzard early in the winter of 1888 struck the Great Plains, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper sniffed about, "the folly of settling in a wild country, especially on bleak plains, however cheap the land may be, without assured means of providing decent shelter, fuel and provisions for more than the immediate future." Dense, urban neighborhoods might be more expensive, but supplies and aid were never distant.
When the storm struck, though, the technological conveniences and amenities of urban life were suddenly exposed as vulnerabilities. In eastern cities, almost all of the electric lights and most of the gas lamps went dark. Streetcars ground to a halt. Passengers hurtling from one city to the next were stranded on the rails, as trains stalled out in enormous snowdrifts. Poles snapped under the weight of the snow, weaving spiders' webs of crackling wires across the streets. With regular deliveries suspended, housewives husbanded their coal, mothers ran short of milk, and housebound residents scraped their larders bare. Funeral homes could not take bodies out of the city for burial, and so stacked them in barns and sheds.