Vermonters gave little thought to the flurries that started to fall over parts of the state at around noon that Sunday in 1888. It was still early March, the 11th to be precise, but spring seemed just around the corner.
There was no sign, and certainly no forecast, that the state was about to get walloped by the most serious blizzard ever recorded here. Over the next three days, the southern part of the state would be hit with 40 inches. The Bennington area would get the most snow, an estimated 48 inches. The Northeast Kingdom town of Danville recorded the least, a foot. Other locations reported 2 to 3 feet of snow.
But wind is what separates a blizzard from a mere snowstorm. During this storm, wind speeds of 30 to 40 mph were common around the state. Walter Henry Childs, a bookkeeper for the Estey Organ Co. in Brattleboro, had just acquired some meteorological equipment. During the storm, he recorded a top wind speed of 62 mph.
The storm “proved to be the greatest snow blockade ever experienced in this section,” reported the Bellows Falls Times newspaper. “It was accompanied by a high gale.”
The storm was not only wild but widespread, cutting off cities from Washington, D.C., to Montreal from the rest of the world. The heavy snows brought down countless telegraph wires and blocked train travel. The state capital, Montpelier, was cut off from Boston and New York for four days and was without mail from the south over the same period.
The blizzard seemed to come out of nowhere. The national Weather Bureau (which had been created in 1870) wasn’t able to make long-range forecasts. Instead its staff observed weather conditions and telegraphed locations downwind to inform them what might be coming. Blizzards like the one in 1888, which was preceded by relatively mild conditions, were difficult to predict.
During the storm, rail travel around the state came to a halt as trains encountered huge drifts across the tracks. When a freight train became stuck heading north from Rutland, railroad officials dispatched two engines pushing a snowplow south from Burlington to clear the snow.
They discovered that the obstacle was a drift 10 to 12 feet deep and more than 200 yards long. The engineers on the plow train decided, perhaps wisely, to return to Burlington before they too became mired.
Not knowing what was coming, Dr. W. Seward Webb, one of Vermont’s wealthiest men, set off March 12 from Burlington to attend an important meeting of his train car manufacturing company in New York City. Webb’s special train reached Middlebury but could get no farther. His train was forced to sit idle at the siding.
“Not a railroad in New England and New York was running for nearly three days,” reported the Bennington Banner on March 15. The locomotive engineers union postponed its planned strike because of the weather. But the storm gave a taste of what a strike would be like, wrote the Banner: “Business stopped by necessity, we can endure knowing that as soon as possible the wheels of commerce will move on.”
But the snow wasn’t helping commerce get back up to speed. The Banner noted that snow fell so quickly that just an hour after being cleared, the scales at J.H. Loring and Co. held 100 pounds of fresh snow.
The blizzard also shut down schools, though in some cases not before teachers and students had arrived. The Banner reported that many children had managed to make it to Bennington area schools on the Monday after the storm began, but teachers, worried that conditions could soon worsen, thought it best to send them home.
They had reason for concern. Surely it was on their minds that just two months earlier, a killer blizzard had slammed the Midwest. Children from Iowa to the Dakota Territory had gone to school that day, many without coats or mittens. The day had started as the mildest in some time, but a wintry storm suddenly descended. School officials decided to send the children home to beat the worst of it.
But climatic conditions conspired to trigger a freakish drop in the temperature. It came at the worst possible moment. As children trudged home, the temperature plummeted, at one point dropping 18 degrees in three minutes. The fearsome cold killed an estimated 250 to 500 people across the Midwest, many of them schoolchildren and their teachers. The storm became known as the Children’s Blizzard.
Vermont was spared a similar catastrophe. Newspaper reports immediately after the storm detail how a little girl became stuck in the snow in Bennington, “and but for timely succor might have suffered.” A boy was found in the streets in the village “insensible” and taken to a nearby mill, where he was revived.
Across Vermont, high winds reshaped the landscape, leaving some bits of ground almost bare, while piling snow over the first-story windows of some buildings. Drifts 10 to 15 feet high lined some streets in Bellows Falls, reported the Bellows Falls Times. Towns Hotel in that community had a drift form along one of its sides that was 10 feet deep, 22 feet wide and about 100 feet long.
“As a consequence the novelty of tunnels was the order,” the paper wrote. Once the burrowing was complete, people could enter or exit the hotel by way of a tunnel.
In other parts of town, where the snow was somewhat lower, homeowners and business owners began digging out and soon created a “system of canals,” the Times reported.
Some of the most vivid snapshots of life during and immediately after the blizzard appeared in the March 15 edition of the Rutland Herald. Workers in Rutland fought through drifts that ranged from 4 feet high to over their heads. Their path to work was dictated by the vagaries of where the wind had piled the least snow. One man struggled from the Herald office to the nearby train depot through 4-foot drifts. When he returned 20 minutes later, he found that his tracks had been completely covered by blowing snow and he had to fight his way back to the office.
But that trek pales next to the efforts made by one unidentified local man who worked a night shift.
Leaving his job on Merchants Row, the man decided to walk home, a distance of about a half mile. Setting off at 3:30 a.m., he struggled through drifts that reached his armpits. After about three hours of this battle, he was drenched in sweat, despite the single-digit temperatures. He feared that if he stopped, he would freeze to death.
A wall of snow 10 feet high convinced him he couldn’t move forward any farther, so he pushed his way toward the home of one of his neighbors. He knocked on the door to rouse the occupants and was welcomed in. The man warmed himself and rested until daylight, then ventured out again. This time he cut through backyards and reached home a half hour later, exhausted and with one ear badly frozen.
In the following days, when snow was cleared from sidewalks, there was no place to put it except beside the road. Great mounds grew up. The Herald reported that pedestrians on opposite sides of some streets couldn’t see each other because of the piles. One man ventured out on his horse. As he rode down the sidewalk, people on the other side of the street noticed that even the man’s hat was blocked from view.
Newspapers all seemed to search out the oldest local residents they could find, and verified that this was the worst blizzard they could remember. Weather historians have since dubbed this the most severe blizzard to hit New England in recorded history.
Record or not, the Bellows Falls Times summed up life after the storm simply: “No paths, no streets, no sidewalks, no light, no roads, no guests, no calls, no teams, no hacks, no trains, no moon, no milk, no paper, no mails, no news, no thing – but snow.”