LOOKING BACK 1904: The night the lights went out in York

James Rada Jr.
For The York Dispatch
Snow removal in 1899 from East Market Street.

Tromping through the heavy snow was not too hard for the large horse even as it pulled the dairy wagon along behind it. Emigsville Dairy Co. was determined to see that its customers got fresh milk and cream, despite the fact that the storm had shut down just about everything in York.

The horse made its way steadily through the continuing snowstorm. Then, near the intersection of South Queen Street and Mason Alley, it stopped suddenly and fell over.

The driver jumped down from the wagon and discovered the horse had stepped on a live electrical wire lying in the road. It had been covered by the falling snow. The wire had become laden with snow during the evening, pulled away from the poles supporting it and fallen to the ground, where it nearly electrocuted several pedestrians.

Avoiding the live wire, the driver attempted to notify the power company to shut off the power to the line while another horse was procured for his wagon.

The horse was the only fatality in York in the 1904 blizzard The York Dispatch called “a storm without precedent in this section of the country.”

The snow began falling about 11 a.m. Nov. 13, 1904. It began more as mist and sleet, but it quickly changed over to  “great heavy flakes of what seemed to be more slush than snow falling,” according to the newspaper. Driven by the fast winds of a nor’easter, The York Dispatch said, the snowfall at times seemed more like a continuous wall of snow rather than individual flakes.

By the time the storm ended at 11 p.m., nearly a foot of snow had fallen. While not a massive amount of snow for a blizzard, it had left York in the dark and “as isolated from the outside world as was the average citizen, who remained closely indoors and depended upon candles and coal oil for illumination,” the newspaper reported.

Trains and streetcars halted. Many of the streetcars halted in the middle of their routes because they could go no farther on the covered tracks. Passengers on the cars had to disembark and make their way home on foot, which was no easy feat.

The major roads in and out of town also shut down because they were too snow-covered.

York Telephone Co. suspended its operation about 6:30 p.m. Bell Telephone continued throughout the storm but could only offer intermittent service. What service it did offer was slow and irregular. To complicate communications even more, a morning newspaper in town didn’t run because there was no power to run the printing presses.

The Edison and Merchants power companies shut down over worries that the snow would pull down live wires and injure or kill someone as it had downed the dairy horse. With the power off, York was left in total darkness except where people lit candles and fires in fireplaces.

Anything could have happened amid this isolation, and it is unlikely help would have arrived. In addition to all of the other problems caused by the storm, the police telegraph and fire alarms were useless. Off-duty officers were called in to make rounds throughout the city, relaying information to the officers patrolling the streets. The York Dispatch noted that it was the old way the police had communicated and ensured “that the city was thoroughly patrolled despite the inconvenience occasioned by the prostrated police telegraph system.”

Once the snow stopped, crews got to work clearing roads and power lines of snow. By nightfall on Nov.14, if not totally cleaned of snow, at least everything was open and operational again.

— James Rada Jr. is an award-winning freelance writer and author from Gettysburg who enjoys writing about historical topics. Learn more about his books at jamesrada.com or contact him at jimrada@yahoo.com.