This Day in History: A massive blackout cripples the Northeast

On this day in 1965, a massive blackout cripples the Northeast. At first, no one knew what to think! The Cold War was then being silently waged. Had a missile struck somewhere?

“Was there anyone whose mind was not touched,” the New Yorker would ask, “at least fleetingly, by the conviction that this was it—that the missiles were on their way, and Doomsday was at hand?”

The blackout came just as commuters were attempting to make their way home after a long day at work. Tens of thousands of people were caught on subways. Some were trapped in elevators. One pilot was preparing to land when the lights on the runway in front of him suddenly went out.

In at least one hospital, doctors were in the middle of surgery! Fortunately, an emergency generator was found and the surgery—a brain surgery—was completed.

Few immediately realized just how extensive the outage was. How could they? They’d lost access to TV. Information traveled slowly and mostly through battery-powered transistor radios. Finally, though, the scope of the crisis began to sink in: All or part of eight states, plus two Canadian provinces, had been affected—80,000 square miles!

Not everyone reacted well. One prison was forced to deal with a riot. In New York City, a few taxi cab drivers took advantage, charging outrageous fees to get stranded commuters home. To be fair, some commuters began waving down taxis, offering the outrageous fees to get home. 🙂

For the most part, however, the blackout showed Americans at their best: First responders working overtime. Subway travelers helping each other—walking down dark tunnels, grabbing the coat of the person in front of them, relying on a total stranger to help them find the streets above. Elevator shafts were broken to rescue those trapped inside. People endured the trial together, with good humor, in whatever airplane seat, hotel lobby, or subway car they happened to be stranded in. They shared their food, their candles, and their company.

Indeed, in some cases, stranded commuters developed friendships. One group of strangers was trapped in an elevator together for hours. They were finally freed, but then decided they had to meet again. They ended up forming a Blackout Club.

Another bright spot was the media: They take a lot of bashing today, but on that day in 1965, they represented the American press at its best.

One newsman did a television broadcast from New York—by candlelight! Another group of reporters from the New York Times was determined to publish, electricity or no electricity. The reporters borrowed a press in Newark and produced a 10-page edition of the morning paper. The Times was the only newspaper to accomplish this feat. In the meantime, photographers and journalists from Life Magazine were “trapped in a skyscraper,” according to their own account. Nevertheless, they immediately went to work, capturing the various stages of the blackout on film.

It would be about 13 hours before everyone had their power restored. The cause of the blackout was later determined to be a faulty relay in Ontario, Canada. That small switch began a series of events that cascaded throughout the power grid.

“[M]achines control us at least as much as we control them,” one reporter later wrote. “The machines are quite all right as long as they do what they are supposed to do, but we are now so dependent on them that when something goes wrong in our machines our lives are disrupted.”

True in 1965. Even more true today.