The Blizzard of 1888

Rail tracks between Wilton and Norwalk with snow from the Blizzard of 1888 piled high on both sides. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo
Rail tracks between Wilton and Norwalk with snow from the Blizzard of 1888 piled high on both sides. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo

One hundred and 30 years ago, 24 to 36 inches of snow fell on the town of Wilton during what is known as the Blizzard of 1888.

During the three-day storm, from March 12 to 14, the temperature ranged from zero to 10 degrees.

In his book Wilton, Connecticut: Three Generations of People, Places, and Progress, town historian Bob Russell referred to blizzard as “the defining event of the era,” and said the “combination of snow, high winds and extreme cold had never been seen” in Wilton before.

The storm — also known as the “Great White Hurricane” — l paralyzed the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine, and was one of the most severe recorded blizzards in the history of the United States at the time.

Some parts of Connecticut saw up to 50 inches of snow, according to the Connecticut State Library, and winds up to 60 miles per hour piled snow drifts up to 38 feet tall.

Men work to clear the railroad tracks following the blizzard. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo
Men work to clear the railroad tracks following the blizzard. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo

Snow management

There was no snow removal budget at the time, according to Russell, and motorized plowing did not exist.

Since most people walked rather than rode back then, sidewalks were the first to be cleared with heavy wooden shovels, according to a 1988 Wilton Bulletin article.

After walkways and access to houses were cleared, railroad beds and finally roads were worked on. According to the article, crews of men would shovel the roads, put the snow into horse-drawn wagons and probably dumped it on the village green.

First-hand accounts

On the 75th anniversary of the blizzard in 1963, Wilton Bulletin reporter Bob Carboni gathered first-hand accounts of Wilton residents’ experiences during the Blizzard of 1888.

One of those residents was Richard Fitch. Twenty-two at the time, Fitch took a train from Wilton to Norwalk the first day of the storm and recalled the train arriving at Wilton station “covered with snow to the top of its broad smoke stack.”

The train got about 500 feet from the station before running into “a big drift,” according to Fitch, and passengers got out to clear a path. The train carried on, but ran into another drift and passengers got out and dug again. According to Fitch, the train didn’t reach Norwalk until noon.

It wasn’t until three days later that the next rain arrived at the South Norwalk station.

For days after the blizzard, snow continued to drift onto the railroad tracks. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo
For days after the blizzard, snow continued to drift onto the railroad tracks. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo

Fitch’s sister Helen (Nellie) Fitch Sturges kept a diary, in which she wrote that snow piled five feet high outside the door of her home during the storm, and some people actually had to exit their homes from their second-floor windows.

Another first-hand account was that of Charles T. Gregory, who served as Cannondale postmaster for many years, lived in Weston at the time of the blizzard and carried mail by horse and buggy between Weston and Norwalk eight miles a day.

Gregory got up at 4 the morning of the storm. The snow “didn’t seem too bad” around 6, Gregory recalled, but he stopped and got a snow shovel anyway.

After making good time for a while on his route, Gregory came to a drift that his horse couldn’t go through. Luckily, he had his shovel and was able to “shovel out the thickest of it” and lead his horse through. It wound up taking Gregory six hours to reach Norwalk from Weston.

A man rides through the snow in Norwalk on horse and buggy following the Blizzard of 1888. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo
A man rides through the snow in Norwalk on horse and buggy following the Blizzard of 1888. — Wilton Historical Society/Wilton Library History Room photo

On Wednesday, after the snow had stopped, Gregory made a pair of snowshoes for his return home. Along the way, he recalled being “the first person [many] had seen outside of their own neighbors since the storm began.”

After safely reaching Weston, Gregory was able to resume his mail trip to Norwalk by walking three miles and catching a train at the Cannondale Station. It took three weeks for the road to become passable for his horse and buggy.

J. Clinton Seymour was in his late-teens at the time of the blizzard and ran the 100-acre Seymour farm on Millstone Road with his father.

During the storm, Seymour said, he and his father had “a hard time” feeding the farm’s many horses and cattle because the snow kept drifting over the top of the barn door and “the wind blew the snow so hard and the air was so cold” that the ice froze over their eyes.

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