The Year Was 1888

The year was 1888 and it came in with a roar. Following an unseasonably warm morning, on January 12, a violent cold front brought with it a disastrous blizzard with raging winds and sub-zero temperatures that swept across the northern prairies of the Midwest. Caught in the storm, often referred to as the “Children’s Blizzard of 1888,” it has been estimated that between 250 and 500 people perished, many of them children on their way home from school. (See the end of this article for links to more information.)

And Mother Nature wasn’t finished. In March, another blizzard struck the eastern seaboard states. Known as the “Great White Hurricane,” the nor’easter dumped between forty and fifty inches of snow on the northeast region. Over 200 ships were sunk, and telegraph lines snapped, cutting off communication for cities like New York and Philadelphia for weeks. More than 400 people perished in the storm. Photographs from the aftermath in New York City are available on the NOAA website.

Over the ocean in London’s East End (England), fear spread as the police raced to discover who was committing a string of gruesome murders. Nearly 118 years later, the identity of “Jack the Ripper” remains unknown and the mystery has spawned books and movies that have horrified and mystified audiences worldwide.

An election year in the U.S., 1888 culminated with the election of Benjamin Harrison, who defeated the incumbent Grover Cleveland in a particularly tight election, with Cleveland winning the popular vote, but losing key states and the electoral vote.

Also in politics, Susan B. Anthony helped found the International Council of Women, an international coalition established to help secure women’s suffrage and rights in many areas.

Technological advances that year include a patent obtained by Thomas Edison for his “Kinetoscope” used for motion pictures.

George Eastman began the Eastman Kodak Company and introduced rolled photographic film. With the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest,” he led the way in an industry that has given family historians (and the rest of the world) glimpses into the lives of their ancestors and preserved memories for future generations.


AWJ Editor’s Note: After last week’s article on disasters by Mary Penner, I heard from several people with comments regarding “The Children’s Blizzard of 1888,” which is why I selected 1888 to feature this week. As I looked for more information on the subject, I ran across several first-hand accounts:

The Big Brash Blizzard of 1888
(Pawnee County History-Nebraska)

The Blizzard of 1888
(Lyon County, Iowa GenWeb Project)

Blizzard of 1888 Accounts
(Nebraska Historical Society)
Mr. and Mrs. T. C. Porter of St. Paul, Nebraska
Frank Carney, West of Omaha, Nebraska

For more information, see the book, “The Children’s Blizzard,” by David Laskin.

A printer-friendly version of this article can be found in the Library.



6 thoughts on “The Year Was 1888

  1. This is strange! I am just about to finish the book “THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD”! Such shenanigans that the government, the telegraph personnel and the “weather guessers” were having while these people and their animals were being frozen to death should not have been allowed to happen. There was very poor weather predictions at that time, and most of it was guessing, I suppose. Even in 1890 with the Galveston hurricane–things were not any better. Lack of communication.

    I wonder if any studies have been done about the explosion of Karakatoa and how it may have affected the weather in Canada and the midwest some years later. So much devastation occurred in later years from that and other volcanic disturbances.

    We cannot do much about the weather; but at least we are getting a little better at giving advance warning!

  2. FYI:
    The Galveston hurricane was 8 September 1900. A very readable book which clearly shows the events leading up to this storm and how far we have come in hurricane forecasting is the paperback entitled “Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History” by Eric Larson.

    My family story is that my gt-grandfather escaped with his horses to Bolivar Peninsula, although I have found no mention of him in any of the accounts. (At the time, the channel between the two land masses was much shallower and narrower than present day.) Other books that I have read include:

    “Galveston: A History of the Island” by Gary Cartwright, a hardback published by Atheneum in 1991.

    “A Weekend in September” by John Edward Weems, a paperback published by Texas A & M University Press in 1980.

  3. I love reading about things that happened in 1800’s.

    Respectfully, Edna

  4. The March blizzard of 1888 was one of the major family history stories I heard as a child. My grandmother had just turned 15 and along with her two younger sisters worked in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey. They went to work, or tried to, that day despite the beginning storm. My great grandmother was heartsick when they didn’t return that night. Fortunately, each of the girls, separately, had been able to find shelter with welcoming neighbors. By the next day they were able to struggle home. My great grandfather didn’t fare as well. Although he made it through the storm, the weather probably aggravated the lung disease which had developed from years of working in the silk mills. He died later that spring.

  5. My grandmother, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, used to talk about the Blizzard of ’88 and I never realized the significance. She was born in 1986 so it may have been one of her first memories.

  6. Last Christmas my brother gave me a copy of “The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin and, since he is a retired teacher, gave me the assignment of finding out where our great grandparents (Emma & Levi DeLine) were and what they must have been doing during the blizzard. What a sad, sad story but what a wealth of information we found as a result of reading the book! Our family homesteaded in Jerauld County SD in 1883, built a wood frame home and began farming the land. We now have copies from the National Archives of the land transactions between 1883 and 1901. Our grandmother, Edith Anna DeLine (Austin) was born in 1885 and would have been three at the time of the blizzard. It appears the DeLine’s wood frame home burned and at the time of the blizzard they apparently were living in a “soddie” (10’x10′ built of sod squares) on the prairie. All of their possessions were lost in the fire. We know that the family stayed there at least until 1901 and that a son, Merle DeLine, was born in Missoula MT around that date. My grandmother and great grandmother eventually made it to Spokane WA, and my great uncle Merle was killed in WWI. But we have been unable to find a trace of Levi DeLine and must assume he either died in Wessington Springs SD or somewhere between there and Spokane WA. The book was fascinating and provided many details we are very grateful to have. Our search for Levi continues!

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