Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Historic New York Winters

Being a lifelong New York Yankee, (no not a baseball team player, but a bonafide citizen) has made me a lover of winter and that dreaded four letter word, S N O W. Perhaps part of that comes from my maiden name, Talvi, which means winter in the Finnish language. Whatever the reason, I always get a thrill when I hear a snowstorm is on the way. It stands to reason that winter has created some pretty amazing history in my home state. New York boasts historic blizzards, a century old winter festival, even one of the most photographed and toured Christmas/winter destinations in the world. 

The Great Blizzard holds infamy as the one of the worst, longest, and most deadly snowstorms on record, and spanned several Northeastern states. Between March 10 and 14, 1888 a powerful system carrying moisture moved up the east coast, meeting with an Arctic blast moving down from Canada. Heavy rains turned to a colossal snowstorm--one for the record books. New York saw the deepest snowfall levels, recorded in Troy and Saratoga, each measuring over 50 inches. The system, also called The Great White Hurricane, brought formidable winds. In New York City,  40-plus mile an hour sustained blowing, with gusts recorded at over 70 miles per hour, created drifts in places over 50 feet high, covering three story houses and virtually shutting the metropolis down for over a week. 

400 people lost their lives to this storm, over 200 in New York City alone. But it brought about much needed change at a time that defined technological advances and modernization. Elevated trains that had been paralyzed in the aftermath of the storm were thereafter designed to run underground where ice couldn't derail or snow piles impede. Gas, telephone, and telegraph lines knocked down in the storm took weeks to restore. With growing populations increasingly dependent on these utilities, their infrastructure went subterranean as well. 

A decade later, a happier story evolved at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. The longest running winter carnival on the east coast had its beginnings in this logging community where a tuberculosis clinic brought sufferers flocking to seek cure in the cool, pristine climate. Local winter activity enthusiasts formed the Pontiac Club, to celebrate the area's perfect setup for skiing, skating, snowshoeing, hockey, and sledding during the long winter months. In February of 1897 a one-day winter festival was held, with attendees decked out in formal wear. Subsequent carnivals commenced on odd years, their duration longer, and activities broadened to include the annual building of the Ice Palace and nomination of its Ice King and Queen, community fireworks, parades, sports activities and competitions, theater, and a button exchange. 

But perhaps New York's most famous winter scene, depicted in movies such as Elf and Home Alone 2, is the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and skating rink. The first Rockefeller Center tree was erected by construction workers building Rockefeller Center in 1931. It was a small and informal tree, decorated with simple Depression-era paper garlands and popcorn strings. Two years later, the official tradition kicked off, with a grand 50-foot tree resplendent with electric lights. On completion of Rockefeller Center, a skating rink adorned the plaza below the tree in 1936. 

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

Interesting trivia about the Rockefeller Center tree: 

  • During WWII and after the attack on the World Trade Center, decorations featured patriotic colors and themes. In fact, durung the war three smaller trees stood in place of one large one, each festooned in red, white, or blue respectively. And because of mandatory blackouts, the trees held no lights from 1944-5.
  • The tree lighting was first televised in 1951.
  • 1971 the tree was first mulched and used for nature trails in upper Manhattan.
  • eco-friendly LED lights were first used in 2007
  • 2007 the tree lumber was first milled and donated to Habitat for Humanity.

❆❅❄❆ What are some of your most prominent winter memories? Maybe where you live, snow is a rare occurrence. Do you have a favorite movie or historic event that involves winter or snow scenes? Would love to hear about it!

Kathleen L. Maher has had an infatuation with books and fictional heroes ever since her preschool crush, Peter Rabbit. She had a novella in BARBOUR's 2018 Victorian Christmas Brides Collection, featuring her hometown of Elmira, New York. She won the 2012 ACFW Genesis contest for her Civil War story, which released this past summer under a new title The Abolitionist’s Daughter. Look for upcoming releases in 2019, including another Barbour collection, Lessons in Love, set to release in October. Kathleen shares an old farmhouse in upstate New York with her husband, children, and a small zoo of rescued animals.

Follow Kathleen on Facebook,  
Twitter and  Amazon


  1. I am a Vermonter and grew up with snowy winters. I've driven through many snowstorms to work, as has my whole family. Now in my later years, I am not a fan of winter driving. I grudgingly admit that new snow is beautiful, but can't unhitch that thought from the perils of driving in the snow. We live in Maine now, and the drivers seem crazy up here!!!! Thanks for sharing about your memories and the history of some of your favorite sites!

  2. Oh, boy, Connie, yes, driving in snow is a whole 'nother story. We had an ice storm overnight and things get dicey. Inexperienced drivers and even those in huge trucks and SUV's who seem more confident than is prudent can make me consider giving up my license.
    Snow is a force to be reckoned with, that's for sure.