Monday, January 26, 2015

The Blizzard of 1888 as Reported by José Martí

As I look out my window, what is forecast to be the greatest blizzard ever to hit the New York metropolitan area has just begun. When it is all over, the city may be covered with three feet of snow, which would surpass any previous accumulation by eight inches (itself a formidable amount). To anyone acquainted with José Martí's writings, or, perhaps I should say, to someone who lives his life in Martí's shadow — or to update the metaphor, with Martí as his wallpaper — the onset of such a snowstorm cannot but remind him of Martí's famous crónica about the Blizzard of 1888. Whatever may be our feelings of awe and anticipation now, more redolent of adventure than of tragedy, we cannot know the terror and despair which gripped Martí's New York when confronted with a natural catastrophe that it was both unprepared for and unable to prepare for even if it had been forewarned. 

The translation is by Juan de Onís and appears in his anthology The America of José Martí [1953], the first collection of Martí's prose writings in English translation. As a rule, Onís is an excellent translator and I prefer him to any other. I have, however, made some minor revisions in the original translation when I thought that Onis' rendering did not do full justice to Martí:

[Onis] It is amazing and frightening, as though a shroud should suddenly flower in blood, to see the red roofs of the houses reappear in this city of snow. The telegraph poles ruefully contemplate the destruction, their tangled, fallen wires like unkempt heads.

[Revision] It terrifies and amazes to see this city of snow receding and its red brick houses starting to reappear as blood stains upon the snow. The telegraph poles ruefully contemplate the destruction, their tangled, fallen wires like unkempt hair.

New York Under the Snow

[New York, March 15, 1888] The first oriole had already been spied hanging its nest from a cedar in Central Park; the bare poplars were putting forth their buds of spring; and the leaves of the chestnut were emerging, like chattering women poking their heads out of their hoods after a storm. Alerted by the chirping of the birds, the brooks were coming out from under their icy covering to see the sun’s return, and winter, defeated by the flowers, had fled away, covering its retreat with the month of winds. The first straw hats had made their appearance, and the streets of New York were gay with Easter attire, when, on opening its eyes after the snowstorm had spent its force, the city found itself silent, deserted, shrouded, buried under the snow. Dauntless Italians, braving the icy winds, load their street-cleaning carts with fine, glittering snow, which they empty into the river to the accompaniment of neighs, songs, jokes, and oaths. The elevated train, stranded in a two-day vigil beside the body of the engineer who set out to defy the blizzard, is running again, creaking and shivering, over the clogged rails that glitter and flash. Sleigh bells jingle; the news vendors cry their papers; snow-plows, drawn by stout horses, throw up banks of snow on either side of the street as they clear the path for carriages; through the breast-high snow, the city makes its way back to the trains, paralyzed on the white plains, to the rivers, now turned into frozen bridges, to the silent wharves.

The clash of the combatants echoes through the vault-like streets of the city. For two days the snow has had New York in its power, encircled, terrified, like a prize fighter knocked to the canvas by a sneak punch. But the moment the attack of the enemy slackened, as soon as the blizzard had spent its first fury, New York, like the victim of an outrage, goes about freeing itself from its shroud. Leagues of men move through the white mounds. The snow already runs in dirty rivers in the busiest streets under the onslaught of  its assailants' feet. With spades, with shovels, with their own chests and those of the horses, they push back the snow, which retreats to the rivers.

Man’s defeat was great, but so was his triumph. The city is still white; the bay remains white and frozen. There have been deaths, cruelties, kindness, fatigue, and bravery. Man has given a good account of himself in this disaster.

At no time in this century has New York experienced a storm like that of March 13. It had rained the preceding Sunday, and the writer working into the dawn, the newspaper vendor at the railroad station, the milkman on his round of the sleeping houses, could hear the whiplash of the wind that had descended on the city against the chimneys, against walls and roofs, as it vented its fury on slate and mortar, shattered windows, demolished porches, clutched and uprooted trees, and howled, as though ambushed, as it fled down the narrow streets. Electric wires, snapping under its impact, sputtered and died. Telegraph lines, which had withstood so many storms, were wrenched from their posts. And when the sun should have appeared, it could not be seen, for like a shrieking, panic-stricken army, with its broken squadrons, gun carriages and infantry, the snow swirled past the darkened windows, without interruption, day and night. Man refused to be vanquished. He came out to defy the storm.

But by this time the overpowered streetcar lay horseless beneath the storm; the elevated train, which paid in blood for its first attempt to brave the elements, let the steam escape from its helpless engine; the suburban train, halted en route by the tempest or stalled by the drifting snow, higher than the engines, struggled in vain to reach its destination. The streetcars attempted one trip, and the horses plunged and reared, defending themselves with their hoofs from the suffocating storm. The elevated train took on a load of passengers, and ground to a halt half-way through the trip, paralyzed by the snow; after six hours of waiting, the men and women climbed down by ladder from their wind-tossed prison. The wealthy, or those faced with an emergency, paid twenty-five or fifty dollars for carriages drawn by stout horses to carry them a short distance, step by step. The angry wind, heavy with snow, buffeted them, pounded them, hurled them to the ground.

It was impossible to see the sidewalks. Intersections could no longer be distinguished, and one street looked like the next. On 23rd Street, one of the busiest thoroughfares, a thoughtful merchant put a sign on a corner-post: “This is 23rd Street.” The snow was knee-deep, and the drifts, waist-high. The angry wind nipped at the hands of pedestrians, knifed through their clothing,froze their noses and ears, blinded them, hurled them backward into the slippery snow, its fury making it impossible for them to get to their feet, flung them hatless and groping for support against the walls, or left them to sleep, to sleep forever, under the snow. A shopkeeper, a man in the prime of life, was found buried today, with only a hand sticking from the snow to show where he lay. A messenger boy, as blue as his uniform, was dug out of a white, cool tomb, a fit resting place for his innocent soul, and lifted up in the compassionate arms of his comrades. Another, buried to the neck, sleeps with two red patches on his white cheeks, his eyes a filmy blue.

The old, the young, women, children, inch along Broadway and the avenues on their way to work. Some fall, and struggle to their feet. Some, exhausted, sink into a doorway, their only desire to struggle no more; others, generous souls, take them by the arm, encouraging them, shouting and singing. An old woman, who had made herself a kind of mask of her handkerchief with two slits for the eyes, leans against a wall and bursts into tears; the president of a neighboring bank, making his way on foot, carries her in his arms to a nearby pharmacy, which can be made out through the driving snow by its yellow and green lights. “I’m not going any further,” said one. “I don’t care if I lose my job.” “I’m going on,” says another. “I need my day’s pay.” The clerk takes the working girl by the arm; she helps her weary friend with an arm around his waist. At the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, a new bank clerk pleads with the policeman to let him pass, although at that moment only death can cross the bridge. “I will lose the job it has taken me three years to find,” he supplicates. He starts across, and the wind reaches a terrible height, throws him to the ground with one gust, lifts him up again, snatches off his hat, rips open his coat, knocks him down at every step; he falls back, clutches at the railing, drags himself along. Notified by telegraph from Brooklyn, the police on the
New York side of the bridge pick him up, utterly spent.

But why all this effort, when hardly a store is open, when the whole city has surrendered, huddled like a mole in its burrow, when if they reach the factory or office they will find the iron doors locked? Only a fellow man’s pity, or the power of money, or the happy accident of living beside the only train which is running in one section of the city, valiantly inching along from hour to hour, can give comfort to so many faithful employees, so many courageous old men, so many heroic factory girls on this terrible day. From corner to corner they make their way, sheltering themselves in doorways, until one opens to the feeble knocking of their numbed hands, like sparrows tapping against the window panes. Suddenly the fury of the wind mounts; it hurls the group fleeing for shelter against the wall; the poor working women cling to one another in the middle of the street until the snarling, screeching wind puts them to flight again. Men and women fight their way uptown, struggling against the gale, clearing the snow from their eyes, shielding them with their hands to find their way through the storm. Hotels? The chairs have been rented out for beds, and the baths for rooms. Drinks? Not even the men can find anything to drink; the saloons have exhausted their stock; and the women, dragging their numb feet homeward, have only tears to drink.

After the first surprise of the dawn, people find ways to adjust their clothing so the fury of the tempest will not do them so much harm. There is an overturned wagon at every step; a window shade, hanging from its spring, flaps against the wall like the wing of a dying bird; an awning is torn to ribbons; a cornice dangles from its wall; an eave lies in the street. Walls, hallways, windows are all banked with snow. And the blizzard blows without respite, piling up drifts, scattering destruction, whistling and howling. And men and women keep walking to the snow to their armpits.

One has made a mask of silk from his umbrella, with two holes for the eyes, and another for the mouth, and thus, with his hands behind his back, he cuts his way through the wind. Others have tied stockings over their shoes, or bags of salt, or wrapping paper or strips of rubber fastened with twine. Still others protect themselves with leggings, with fur caps; one, half dead, is being carried, wrapped in his buffalo-hide overcoat. “Sir!” pleads the voice of a boy who cannot be seen for the snow, “get me out of here, I am dying” It is a messenger boy whom some heartless employer has sent out in this storm. There are many on horseback; one, who came out in a sled, is carried away with it at the first gust, and nearly loses his life. A determined old lady, who set out to buy a wreath of orange blossoms for her daughter's wedding, loses the wreath to the wind. Night fell over the arctic waste of New York, and terror took over.

The postman on his round fell face down, blinded and benumbed, protecting his leather bag with his body. Families trapped in roofless houses sought madly and in vain to find a way out through the snow-banked doors. When water hydrants lay buried under five feet of snow, a raging fire broke out, lighting up the snowy landscape like the Northern Lights, and swiftly burned three apartment houses to the ground. The fire wagons arrived! The firemen dug with their hands and found the hydrant. The walls and the snowy street were scarlet, and the sky was blue velvet. Although the water they sprayed against against the flames was hurled back in their faces in stinging pellets by the fury of the wind, although the tongues of crimson flame leaped higher than the cross on the church steeple, although the wind-tossed columns of smoke bearing golden sparks singed their beards, there, without giving an inch, the firemen fought the fire with the snow at their breasts, brought it under control, and vanquished it. And then, with their arms, they opened a path for the engine through the snow.

Without milk, without coal, without newspapers, without streetcars, without telephones, without telegraph, the city awoke this morning. What eagerness on the part of those living uptown to read the newspapers, which thanks to the intrepidity of the poor newsboys, finally came up from the downtown presses! There were four theaters open last night, but all the stores and offices are closed, and the elevated struggles in vain to carry to their places of work the unwitting crowds that gather at its stations.

The trains and their human cargo stand snowbound on the tracks. The city is cut off from the rest of the country and no news goes in or out. The rivers are ice and the courageous cross them on foot; then suddenly the ice  gives way, and sheets float aimlessly with men aboard them; a tug goes out to rescue the stranded, skirting the ice cake, posing it toward the bank, edging it to a nearby dock. They are saved. What a cheer goes up from both sides of the river! There are also cheers as the fireman passes, the policeman, the brave postman. What can have happened to the trains that never arrive? The railroad companies, with admirable dispatch, send out food and coal, hauled by their most powerful engines. What of those at sea? How many bodies lie buried under the snow?

Like a routed army that unexpectedly turns on its vanquisher, the snow had come in the night and covered the proud city with death.

We saw yesterday that these attacks from the unknown are worthwhile for utilitarian peoples whose virtues, nurtured by their labor, are capable of compensating, in these solemn hours, for the want of those virtues that are weakened by selfishness. How brave the children, how loyal the workers, how uncomplaining and noble the women, how generous the men! Everybody in the whole city speaks in a loud voice today, as if to reassure one another that they are not alone. Those who unfeelingly push and jostle one another  all the rest of the year, smile on each other today, tell of the dangers they escaped, exchange addresses, and walk along with new friends. The squares are mountains of snow, over which the icy lacework clinging like filigree to the branches of the trees glitters in the morning sun.

Houses of snow crown the rooftops, where the merry sparrows dig fragile nests. It terrifies and amazes to see this city of snow receding and its red brick houses starting to reappear as blood stains upon the snow. The telegraph poles ruefully contemplate the destruction, their tangled, fallen wires like unkempt hair. The city digs out, buries its dead, and with men, horses, and machines all working together, clears away the snow with streams of boiling water, with shovels, plows, and bonfires. But one is touched by a sense of great humility and a sudden rush of kindness, as though the dread hand had touched the shoulders of all men.

Published originally in La Nación (Argentina), April 27, 1888


Vana said...


Thank you for this gem from the Apostle's pen, foreign to me for I have never dealt with snow, let alone a blizzard!

I did hear you guys are headed for a howling day, please buckle down and don't venture outside, good luck!

Vana said...


I see the blizzard failed to materialize in your neck of the woods, thank God! I was glued to the news report with you on my mind, I see New England was the hardest hit

Stay warm my friend.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


Thank-you for your good thoughts.

The snowstorm proved a major disappointment. Very little snow and even less storm. Of course, the blizzard (non-blizzard) did exactly what it was suppose to do. It is the meteorologists who created unfounded expectations who are the real disappointment. If they had been wrong by an inch or even a foot, it might have been overlooked; but to hype the "greatest snowstorm in history" and have it prove little more than a brushing is tantamount to malpractice and should be prosecuted accordingly.

Cuban weather forecasters more than 100 years ago were better than this:

The Galveston Hurricane (1900): How Cuba Nearly Saved the U.S. from the Worst Natural Disaster in Its History

Vana said...


It is a forecast, they seldom get it right, but the hoopla that ensued in New York was mostly due to politicians.

I reread your account of the Galveston hurricane, seems Cubans were better from the beginning at predicting their path, it's their loss they didn't listen to father Gongoite. As if they ever really listen to us.

My friend I always worry about your wellbeing.