This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
New York City blackouts come with their own lore: There was the “Bronx is burning,” Son-of-Sam summer, and the looting of July 1977. Then there was the shadow of terrorism that hung about the darkened streets in August 2003, when suddenly the grid seemed vulnerable to sabotage, and the transit system shutdown was far too close to memories of 9/11/2001. But first, there was 1965: the massive rush hour blackout of Tuesday, November 9. As we look back to 50 years ago, it seems, by contrast, a novel and innocent experience.
The power failure affected 30 million people in the Northeast, including Boston, Buffalo, and Toronto, as well as most of New York City (Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn were spared). The cause was traced to power plants on the Canadian-United States border where a rather routine surge tripped a faulty setting at the Canadian plant causing a chain reaction of relays and overloads. It was human error, but journalist Theodore White tried to explain this “cascading effect” in 1960s lingo for Life Magazine as, “electricity systems linked to the Northeast grid and guided by unreasoning computers began to quarrel with one another for more electricity.”
In New York City, the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows had just ended, the severe summer drought continued, and fresh-faced John V. Lindsay had just been elected mayor. Theodore White noted that the unusual, hard-fought mayoral campaign had further “shredded” New York City’s reputation and that “New Yorkers expect the worst of each other—as does the nation.” But, instead, “what happened during the next 12 hours was an event of political magnitude fully as important as the implications of the technological breakdown: New Yorkers behaved superbly. Eight million people became friends, neighbors, citizens.”
Still, the discomfort was real in what was uniformly described at the time as “the most massive power failure in history.” The elevators in the Empire State Building were not vacated until nearly midnight, some by ladders and trap doors, but some by breaking down walls. In what must have seemed exotic then, a trapped passenger in an elevator gave his three similarly-confined companions lessons in yoga positions.
Evacuation of 800,000 people from the subway was laborious, and especially perilous was the rescue for subway riders stuck under or over the East River. Police took five hours to assist passengers along catwalks on the Williamsburg Bridge, but other commuters chose to wait it out, rather than move on foot among mud and rats in the subway tunnels. Train commuters either slept in cars marooned in stations or simply stretched out on the floor of Grand Central station.
Broadway shows were dark. Radio City Music Hall had emergency lights but could not run its movie projector. Rather than throw its audience out in the unusually cold November weather, the staff and crew improvised a stage show and then let customers remain in their seats to sleep. Churches and synagogues were especially helpful, having both supplies of candles and pews to serve as cots.Blackout lore maintains that jovial New Yorkers played charades on street corners and joined in song in subway cars. As for stranded commuters, Theodore White’s simple statement reminds us of how we communicated in those days, “They lined up outside telephone booths to call home.”
Hospitals made do with generators, dry ice, and the resourcefulness of their staffs. The most heroic work may have been that of pilots and air traffic controllers, and most expressed thanks for the clear weather and full moon. The New York Times managed to put out a 10-page edition the following morning “courtesy of the Newark Evening News” where the paper was set into type and printed. The reporters themselves remained in Times Square working by candlelight and flashlight. Today, we read with wry amusement The Times writers’ aghast report that “some taxi drivers were demanding $10 to $15 for rides between points in Manhattan.”
Compared to the later major blackouts, restoration was brisker in 1965, as Brooklyn, followed by Queens and the Bronx had electricity by midnight, and full restoration came to the city by 7 am. Much of midtown came back, coincidentally, exactly twelve hours later at 5:28 am.
For all the good vibes this blackout seemed to leave, there was a political context as well: the Cold War. Some speculated that the Russians were up to something, while Time Magazine reported that “many clung stubbornly to the belief that it was all a Government-ordered test to see if Americans could stand up to an air raid.” A Cuban official at the United Nations couldn’t resist joshing a U.S. delegate, “You can’t blame me, I was right here all the time.”
Although this blackout was readily traced to human error, the interconnectedness of “the grid” was already a reality, and back-up sources of energy at hospitals, airports, and transit systems were soon implemented. Pundits of the time remarked on the Space Age’s dependence on electricity for household appliances such as hair dryers, can openers, electric blankets, and automatic garage door openers. We would continue to embrace some of these consumer wonders; others would become superfluous, only to be replaced by cellular telephones, home computers, and more power-dependent gadgets not then anticipated. Power failures would come again, but we sense that the Time writers were accurate in predicting, “As it was, for most of those who slogged through it, memories of 1965’s Biggest Blackout would probably last the rest of their lives.”