It officially became the coldest January 7 New York City has ever seen when the mercury dipped to five degrees this morning, beating out January 7, 1896 by a single degree.
Forecasters say it “feels like” 14 below. And, yes, it’s miserable, but it’s nothing compared to January 6, 1896 when the temperature fell to 3 degrees below zero.
The weather pattern New York City experienced in 1896 was not dissimilar to our present “polar vortex,” according to the New York Times‘ account of the chill of 1896. “The cold wave was central over Canada, and, moving rapidly eastward, passed out to sea to meet incoming vessels, which may for a day or two be heavily coated with ice.”
Not all that much has changed since 1896, in fact. Back then “vendors of ear muffs hawked their wares about the streets and did business,” the Times reports. “Until the temperatures became more bearable, all the street cars were uncomfortably crowded and the elevated trains were filled almost to suffocation. House, store and car windows were heavily frosted, and all pedestrians were diligently engaged in rubbing their ears and slapping their hands for warmth during all hours of the day.” New Yorkers of 1896 — they’re just like us.
Like us, they griped about subway delays. The difference is, between the overcrowded platforms, below freezing temperatures and bad smells, their commute could, quite literally, kill them. Per the January 7, 1896 New York Times:
The Brooklyn Bridge again emphasized its ability yesterday to do the wrong thing at the right moment to inconvenience the greatest number of passengers within a certain time.
A train slipped the cable about 8:15 A.M., just after it had left the Brooklyn station, and so delayed the traffic for a full half an hour, while passengers stood on the platforms awaiting transportation. The biting northwest wind swept through the station and chilled them through and through.
For a time, until the platforms were so crowded that it was impossible to get another person on them, no effort was made to keep passengers from going up stairs, and nothing was said about the delay to those who passed the ticket takers, anxious to get to this city. Consequently, about four times as many as the platforms are meant to hold became massed on them, and no one was able to leave the exposed position and come to New-York in another way.
After it became impossible to get another person on the stations on in the lower passed of the building, the street doors on the lower floors were closed, and those who were inside the building were kept there, and those who wished to cross the bridge were driven to do so by walking.
Hundreds of anxious business men and clerks then started across, with the thermometer at 3 degrees below zero and the wind blowing in their faces at thirty-four miles an hours.
A pause here to note that at -3 degrees, with winds blowing 35 miles per hour, frostbite sets in in about 10 minutes. Now back to 1896, where four times as many commuters are gathering on the subway platform than the platform is designed to hold.
All the time of the delay one train stood in the Brooklyn station, waiting for dispatch. Into it, men, women, and children were packed, until it was impossible to move. So foul did the air become within the car that one man fainted, and so close were they all packed that it was impossible to do anything for him. Word of his condition was passed to the guards and policemen, but they paid no attention to him, and when the train ultimately crossed the bridge he was still aboard it in a semi-unconscious condition.
Remember this tale next time you’re tempted to complain about your own commute.