Friday, December 27, 2019

The Christmas Blizzard of 1909

Evening Journal 12-28-1909
On Christmas Day in 1909 the snow started falling in Wilmington. The snow kept falling for two days straight and Wilmington, the surrounding areas, and much of the east coast were hit with one of the worst blizzards on record. Over 20 inches of snow fell and many high drifts wreaked havoc throughout the region. The main issue in snowstorms, back then as well as today, is primarily transportation. In 1909 travel through snow was a lot different than today.

Today we count on DelDOT’s massive plows, some weighing as much as 70,000 lbs., to clear our roads in short order. Then many people fire up snow blowers and then set out in
Evening Journal 12-28-1909
all-wheel-drive vehicles. In 1909 things were much different, Henry Ford’s famous Model T Ford, which was the cutting edge of personal transportation had only been around for one year. People in 1909 mostly relied on trolley cars, trains, horses, and their own feet to get around. As the snow continued to fall transportation became more and more difficult until it all came to a halt. And Wilmington did not own a single snow plow! The newspapers were filled with stories of people being stranded, helping each other, and making the best of the situation.

Everyone who lived through the Blizzard of 1909 has passed on, there are no films, and few photos, so what we have left are the colorful newspaper accounts. The piece is an attempt to highlight some of the interesting accounts.

Evening Journal 12-27-1909
Trolley cars were stranded all over, people made the best of it, and often strangers stepped in to help stranded folks with food and lodging. One People’s Railway car was stranded near Rockford Park with 6 men and 6 women on board. The men dug a path to a nearby house where the women spent the night. The men returned to the trolley car where the spent the night smoking cigars, singing, and telling yarns. The next day the Bancroft and Sons Company sent a team of eight sturdy horses pulling a plow to clear the way to rescue the stranded passengers.

Evening Journal 12-30-1909
A group of three hundred young people were roller skating at the Country Roller Rink at Brandywine Springs when the trolley line became impassable. They spent the night at the rink and about seventy went to the nearby German Kitchen restaurant where they were fed by proprietors Mr. & Mrs. L. C. Martin. A group tried to walk home but only made it as far as Greenbank where they were forced to take shelter overnight in the New Castle County Workhouse. Another trolley was heading from New Castle to Delaware City and became stranded and the whereabout of the trolley car and safety of the crew and passengers was unknown for several days.

The powerful locomotives of the Pennsylvania Railroad were no match for the drifting snow.
Morning News 12-27-1909
A locomotive attempting to push through a snow drift derailed at Middletown causing it to come to rest sideway across the tracks closing the railroad altogether. A Norfolk-bound passenger train near Dover with two locomotives became stuck for twelve hours in another massive snow drift. The passengers told to Morning News they broke out decks of cards and played pinochle while an orchestra onboard played music. When the train finally made it to Dover the Pennsylvania Railroad was ready with hundreds of fresh oysters, ham and cheese sandwiches, and gallons of hot coffee for everyone.

Over on the B&O Railroad a passenger train became stuck in a massive snow drift near Stanton holding its passengers captive for twelve hours while another train became stranded at Silverside. The Reading Railroad did not escape without calamity, two locomotives derailed in the vicinity of New Bridge causing much excitement in the area around Rising Sun and Henry Clay Village.

Evening Journal 12-28-1909
The trolley companies were paralyzed and rounded up a thousand men to dig out. These men were offered cash to labor with shovels to clear the colossal amount of snow. Many showed up with burlap sacks tied to their feet as protection from the cold. The Wilmington Police Department offered a deal to the local drunks locked up in the city jail, freedom in exchange for helping to dig out the snow-bound city.

The Wilmington Police Department had to disconnect its
Morning News 12-27-1909
callbox system because the heavy snow caused electrical wires to fall onto the police callbox wires. Each time this happened a high-voltage shock came through causing the reporting booth at the station became filled with a blue flame. The officers on duty reported “the display was pretty to look at, but very unpleasant for anyone who happened to be near the reporting instrument.” One can only imagine what that must have been like.

By December 30, 1909 Delaware was mostly dug out. The trolley lines within the city were operating but the lines to Newport and Holly Oak were still blocked and trolley car were reported as being stuck somewhere out on those lines. All of the railroad lines were reported
Morning News 12-29-199
to be operating and life was returning to normal. The Morning News praised the local milkmen who made their way through the deep snow to deliver milk to the residents of Wilmington. The Wilmington Police Department reported there was not much to do because since every able-bodied man was shoveling for the last few days there were no drunks getting into trouble. They turned their attention to youngsters sledding who were in danger of being run down by trolley cars or toppling pedestrians on sidewalks.

Another 87 years would pass until the next time Wilmington saw more than 20 inches of snow when the Blizzard of 1996 delivered nearly 2 feet of snow. There have been a few storms since then that have dumped more than 20 inches of snow, including Snowmageddon in 2010, but in no time in history has Wilmington dealt with so much snow using almost exclusively manpower.

1 comment:

  1. Silverside is the ruling grade from Wilsmere to Eastide, so the B&O train blockaded there must have been in the cuts--probably East of Silverside.


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