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Historic cold in the Big Apple

One of the saving graces of the polar vortex was that it came and went in a matter of two or three days. When cold settles in for a longer period of time, conditions get even worse.

Rockland Lake Lighthouse on the Hudson, circa 1915

Take New York City in the winter of 1888, the year of the Great Blizzard. It was so cold that the East River froze over from Wall Street to the Brooklyn Bridge. Covered with hard-packed snow, the 6-inch-thick ice was “solid from shore to shore,” the New York Times reported. A group of Brooklyn men paid a boy 2 cents for the use of a ladder to descend onto the ice and test its strength. When they reached Manhattan, they found another youngster, this one charging 5 cents to use his ladder — a good New Yorker.

In 1821, freezing cold turned a host of harbor waterways into virtual highways. The East and North rivers, the Kill Van Kull, the Narrows between Staten Island and the Long Island shore, and the Upper Bay were a solid mass of ice, according to reports. “The ice was for some time the only means of getting from New Jersey to this city,” the Times said. “Some adventurous person built a temporary tavern on the ice on the North [Hudson] River, midway between New York and Hoboken, and dispensed eatables and drinkables to travelers between the two states.” Probably made a small fortune.

Crossing the Husdon, circa 1925

Here are some 19th century reports on cold winter conditions in New York and the surrounding region.

• February 1813: The cold was so severe that Long Island Sound was closed between Cold Spring and the Connecticut shore. “People had no trouble crossing both the East and North rivers on the ice during two days that month.”

• February 1817: The East River was frozen and crossed for a few hours one day before the ice bridge broke apart.

• January 1851: The East River was closed over “so that both foot passengers and horses and sleighs” could cross the river. The following day, it was estimated that 15,000 had crossed the ice bridge.

• January 1857: An ice bridge formed on the East River between the Fulton and Wall Street ferry slips, over to the Brooklyn piers. When the bridge broke up, a number of people were caught on the floes and were saved by the tug Rattler, which “rushed about and rescued the adventurers.”

• Winter of 1867: The East River froze and prevented boat traffic. The city decided that it needed a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Bridge was born.

• February 1875: For four days that month the East River and the Hudson were frozen solid enough for people to walk across — not quite enough time to get a tavern built.

See related article:

- Frozen

March 2014 issue



A Big-Apple Builder

Howard Wheeler founded Wheeler Shipyard in 1910, and for more than five decades the New York City company would be one of America’s most innovative and influential builders.