By Eloise Morgan, Bronxville Village Historian
Mar. 22, 2017: Last week's blizzard--after days of dire weather alerts and blizzard warnings, school, business, and transportation cancellations, and emergency declarations--left the Bronxville area with an anticlimactic, less-than-projected 10 to 13 inches of snow on March 13 and 14.
That was inconvenient and dangerous enough. But imagine the reverse. A two-day storm that with absolutely no warning dumps 20 or more inches of snow whipped by 40 to 85 miles per hour winds.
That is no imaginary storm. That was the Blizzard of 1888, which brought this area and the whole Northeast to its knees on Monday and Tuesday, March 12 and 13, almost exactly 129 years ago to the day from last week's storm. As temperatures hovered barely above zero, the region was shut down with drifts as high as 40 to 50 feet. In New York City alone, 200 people died.
The day before the 1888 storm had been overcast but not stormy, and the forecast called for partly cloudy to fair weather. Although it was snowing by Monday morning, thousands of unsuspecting Westchester County commuters caught trains to New York City as usual, only to find the tracks farther down the line blocked by deep snow and themselves held captive in a raging blizzard in train cars without heat, food, or drink.
Trains through Bronxville on the Harlem Division of the New York Central got only as far south as Mott Haven at 138th Street before the tracks became impassable. An 8:15 am train from Scarsdale took four hours to reach Mott Haven; 15 trains were stuck behind it. Other local commuters caught New Haven trains at Mount Vernon's station at First Street and Fourth (Gramatan) Avenue. They too ended up in stalled trains, and one Bronxville commuter, Robert M. Masterton, died in the snow.
A merchant who traveled to Manhattan regularly, Masterton was a member of one of Bronxville's oldest families. His large stone house sat near the White Plains/Pondfield Roads corner, and he customarily took the New Haven train from Mount Vernon, which had more frequent service than the Harlem line. His train that Monday made it only about a third of a mile before being stalled in the cut near Scott's Bridge at Tenth Avenue. At about noon, he left the train with a number of others, including his friend A. J. Whittem, who lived on Mount Vernon's Second Avenue.
The two men walked to Whittem's house and ate lunch. About four hours later, they left the house to walk to the train station, where Masterton thought his coachman might be waiting to drive him home as usual. They had gone only about 200 feet when Masterton collapsed into the snow. Whittem, who supposed him to be exhausted, summoned help immediately and he was carried into Sharkey's saloon. When the doctor arrived, the 65-year-old Masterton was dead of "cerebral apoplexy," according to the Mount Vernon Chronicle, which reported extensively on the storm.
As tragic as Masterton's death was, most of Mount Vernon was focused at the time on an unprecedented crisis. From Monday morning until Wednesday night, five New Haven trains with nearly 1,500 passengers, many of them ladies, were stalled near Mount Vernon, along with three other trains marooned between Mamaroneck and New Rochelle. Many passengers spent Monday night in their railcars while the steam engines ran out of coal and water. After being resupplied on Tuesday from local hydrants and coal yards, the engines were thawed out and the trains dug out and moved nearer the Mount Vernon station.
Mount Vernonites opened their homes, stores, offices, meeting halls, and clubrooms to accommodate their thousands of "unwilling guests." Firemen rigged up "horsed conveyances" and transported the women passengers to comfortable quarters. The hotels, restaurants, and saloons were swamped with patrons. When people ran short of money, complete strangers loaned them cash, "without security." One store owner posted a sign: "Hot coffee and a warm store free."
Some trapped passengers walked home struggling miles through the blizzard, including two young men from Tuckahoe who nearly lost their lives in the attempt. The son of Mr. Hodgman, owner of the Tuckahoe rubber goods factory, and his friend took the 7:43 am Harlem train from Tuckahoe on Monday to attend school in the city. By Tuesday morning, they lost patience with their snow-bound train at Mott Haven and set out for home. After walking all day Tuesday through the storm, they reached Bronxville, where the station agent saw them struggling in a snowdrift and came to the rescue. They were "well nigh" exhausted from hunger, cold and the tremendous strain upon their systems," reported the Chronicle.
Throughout the Northeast, communities were out of touch with each other and the outside world. Mount Vernon was in total darkness Monday and Tuesday nights with neither gas nor electric light. Telegraph communication was completely cut off Monday and part of Tuesday. There were no daily newspapers until Wednesday, when someone walked up from Fordham with a bundle to sell. Mount Vernon was without mail from Saturday to Thursday. The horse-drawn snowplows were useless against the deep snow, and social and business life basically shut down.
Tuesday afternoon the Harlem line started three heavy locomotives from White Plains to clear the tracks, reaching the Mount Vernon West station that night. On Wednesday, the Harlem line was opened from White Plains to Manhattan. By Thursday, New Haven trains were running between New Rochelle and the city. Railroad traffic generally was not resumed until Saturday.
Although Robert Masterton died at about 4:00 pm on Monday, it was not until late Tuesday that a messenger was able to fight through the storm--a five-hour roundtrip--to deliver the grim news to Masterton's wife, Avis, and family. Masterton was president of the Bronxville/Tuckahoe School Board. At an early April special meeting, the board formally mourned his passing: "We are deeply affected with a sense of personal loss and sorrow . . . that our eldest and most trusted advisor and counselor will no more be in his accustomed place to aid us in the performance of our duties."
Mount Vernon was Eastchester's largest village, with around 10,000 inhabitants. By contrast, Bronxville was a little hamlet with fewer than 300 residents. Such rural areas suffered less from the storm than more densely populated areas.
Generally, people stayed home, relying on their winter stores of food and fuel. No one expected anyone but themselves and their neighbors to clear the roads. The Bronxville School was closed for a week. Bronxville didn't lose electricity, running water, or telephones, because it didn't have them in the first place.
But however one experienced the storm, everyone recognized that it would go down in history.
Pictured here: A team of horses pulls what looks to be a sleigh down Pondfield Road in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1888. Tyler’s general store is on the left (just north of today’s Park Place). Peaking above the store roof is the cupola of the 1870 Bronxville School.
Photo courtesy Eloise Morgan, Bronxville Village Historian