The Great Blizzard of 1888, one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded in US history, devastated the northeast 125 years ago and yet its impact on Rhode Island was less than on New York and Connecticut and most of Massachusetts. Cape Cod had only an inch or two of snow. Rhode Island received between 8 to 20 inches. Snowfall totals in much of the rest of the Northeast were measured as being from 20 inches to as much as 58 inches. Sustained winds above 45 miles per hour (and gusts topping 80) produced tremendous drifts, even completely burying two story houses. Railroads were closed, telegraph lines down, and travel was impossible. Cities and towns were isolated for days. It was reported that the only communication possible between New York City and Boston was by means of the transatlantic telegraph cable connections to London. The storm claimed the lives of more than four hundred people.
The blizzard proved to be fatal for former Senator Roscoe Conkling, an event with a connection to Rhode Island history and to Narragansett in particular. Senator Conkling was a New York lawyer and politician who served in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. He had a reputation as a womanizer and it was his supposed affair with Kate Chase Sprague, wife of Senator (former governor) William Sprague that is the key to his connection to Rhode Island. Conkling attempted to fight his way through the blizzard from his law offices. He fought his way through the ever deeper drifts of snow until he collapsed and was rescued by a porter at the New York Club. He enjoyed telling the story of his ordeal to various newspaper reporters, but he was bed-ridden with what was diagnosed as mastoiditis and pneumonia. He died from his illnesses on April 18th.
From the Narragansett Times for Friday, March 16, 1888 — an editorial comment on the storm and some storm-related local news items.
New England has been shut out from the rest of the world this week by the storm of snow and wind. Trains have been stalled, telegraph and telephone wires have been ruthlessly cut down and confusion has prevailed because of the havoc of the elements. Our forefathers prospered without any of these conveniences which we have not been allowed to use for the past few days; but we — what a fuss we have been making! When the stage coach and the saddle were the means of locomotion the people lived at the same rate of speed and when the locomotive and electricity made their appearance the people rushed forward to keep pace with them. A few days’ isolation such as we have experienced here in New England this week is very aggravating, but perhaps the rest will do us good. We ought to be thankful that the storm was not a western cyclone or a blizzard.
The storm caused no delay to the trains on the Narragansett Pier railroad.
The lobster fishermen are having hard luck as the storm has about cleared up their traps, and lobsters are bringing big prices in the city.
The raft used on the beach during bathing season was washed off on Monday and drifted round near the old breakwater, where its anchors held and it rode out the storm in safety.
The heavy sea of Monday was one of the heaviest that has been witnessed for years. Had the wind kept its velocity until high tide Ocean road might have been submerged.