You think YOU’RE cold…

It’s easy for me to say that things could be worse. I’m in Cape Town, where it’s 72°F, while my friends in the United States are shivering in the bitter cold. But, as glad as I am that I’m not there, I’m even more glad not to be suffering through the December 1917-January 1918 cold spell.

The New York Times reported on January 1 that New Year’s Eve, with a low of -7°F, was the second coldest day on record in New York, surpassed only by the day before, when it was -13. It was even colder if you went by the big thermometer in front of Perry’s Drug Store in Park Row, apparently the go-to place to check the temperature.

There was a severe coal shortage, so going inside didn’t provide much relief. The Times reported on the front page that some occupants of private houses and apartments had been forced to check in to hotels to keep warm. On Wall Street, bankers were working in their overcoats. The District Attorney’s office ran out of coal, so staff members finished their work by candlelight. You had to turn to the second page to read about the twelve people, mostly in poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn, who died from exposure.

Alfred Stieglitz photograph of New York Central Yards, 1903.

In the New York Central Yards, Alfred Stieglitz, 1903 (

Rail service was paralyzed. Locomotive boilers froze solid and pistons were encased in giant slabs of ice. Rail yard workers shot jets of steam to thaw the engines, but their clothes quickly froze. Coal trains finally made it into the city on New Year’s Day, after passenger service was suspended to let them through. When trains full of coal arrived at the 119th St. rail yard near the East River, hundreds of poor men, women, and children arrived with buckets. When they were told that the coal was reserved for city government buildings, they became enraged and attacked the wagons. Several tons of coal fell into the street, and a “wild scramble” ensued. Finally, the local police captain “used his reserves reluctantly and gently to disperse the crowd.”

So keep warm, and be grateful for the miracle of electricity!

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