Back Story: In late 1800s, New York City buried wires after a natural disaster

The debate continues over whether Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. should start burying its power lines to avoid a repeat of the lengthy outages that swept the area after the derecho storm last month.

Another city whose electrical infrastructure was wrecked by a natural disaster 124 years ago took that step.


After the Great Blizzard of 1888 dumped 20.9 inches of snow on New York City, pulling down wires, plunging the city into darkness and snarling communications for days, city officials ordered that all overhead wires be buried.

Like most American cities that had entered the era of electric illumination and the telephone in the late 19th century, vast forests of poles carrying a helter-skelter network of wires lined and crisscrossed New York streets.


Wires belonging to Western Union Telegraph Co., Gold and Stock Ticker Co., and the United States, Metropolitan, Brush and East River electric lighting companies, as well as those of burglar alarm companies and the police and fire departments, were draped from poles that ranged from 55 to 150 feet tall, with dozens of cross arms.

Adding to this confusion was the fact that each company erected its own poles. One company that did not was Thomas A. Edison's Edison Illuminating Co., whose wires were buried in conduits, which at the time were called "subways."

The city had passed a law in 1884 ordering the various utility companies to place their wires below the ground, which they simply ignored, saying the costs were too high.

And then came the blizzard four years later.

The March 12-14 nor'easter that struck the city was one of incredible intensity. It crippled the East Coast from Maine to Virginia, left 400 dead — including nearly 100 seamen — and racked New York City with winds that approached hurricane force and piled up snow into 30-foot drifts.

As the snow hung heavy on the wires and quickly turned to ice, the system gave way, with blue-gray, hissing, sputtering and gyrating wires landing in the streets.

Terrified of possible electrocution, New Yorkers remained indoors.

A New York Times editorial blasted the utility companies after the storm brought the city to a complete standstill, cutting if off from the rest of the nation for days.


"An underground rapid transit system would have done what the elevated roads could not do," said the Times. "If the telegraph wires had been placed underground as contemplated by the law, they would have been made to serve a specially important duty at a time when they were most sorely needed." (Mayor Abram Hewitt had tried to get that proposal through the state legislature without success a month earlier.)

Hugh J. Grant succeeded Hewitt as mayor on Jan. 1, 1889, and one of his first acts was declaring that all wires had to be removed and buried within 90 days. If the companies balked, their poles would be cut down.

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"When we fix a time, we mean it," said Grant. "When the time is ended, the poles will come down."

When financier Jay Gould, who owned Western Union, contended in court that the city's action was "unconstitutional," the court supported the city.

"In mid-April 1889, the poles began to fall like forest oaks, and wires were rolled up and taken away," wrote author Mary Cable in her 1988 book, "The Blizzard of '88."

"Crowds followed the workmen and cheered and cried 'Timber!' as the poles hit the ground. Gould and the other owners then tried to reclaim the wire, but since they had not obeyed the mayor, they were sternly prevented from doing so."


Ever clever, Gould secretly had his men place Western Union's wires in conduits, and so the expense of removing its poles was absorbed by the city and not the company.

Within a few months, all of the poles had been removed, and New Yorkers had once again reclaimed the sky.