Mired in a winter that keeps insisting on snapping back to sub-freezing temperatures and traffic-clogging snow and ice, it warms the cockles of my frozen heart to see the first film footage of New York City during a monster snowstorm. It was filmed for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on February 17, 1902, by Edwin S. Porter, a groundbreaking director who pioneered techniques like dissolves, cross-cutting and close-ups. It records a view of Madison Square, back when Madison Square Garden was actually on Madison Square, buried under massive snowdrifts.
Those are the New York Fire Department’s horse-drawn engines trying to negotiate the snowy terrain. You can see the trolleys trying to keep on schedule, a myriad dedicated pedestrians, carts hauling large barrels of what I assume are spirituous beverages but really could be anything, the snow-covered statue of William Seward and the luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel, once host to US Presidents and crowned heads of Europe but in decline by the time the film was shot. The always awesome Bowery Boys think the beams at the end of the film are a glimpse of the construction site of the iconic Flatiron Building which would be completed just a few months after the film in the summer of 1902.
I think my favorite part is the hansome cab that appears horse-first at 1:24. Patented by Joseph Hansom in England in 1834, by the end of the 19th century these small, fast, highly maneuverable carriages were ubiquitous in cities like London and New York. Cab is short for cabriolet, the type of carriage, and when automated taximeters were added to calculate fares, the hansomes became known as taxicabs. That low little one-horse carriage is the progenitor of the yellow cars that are ubiquitous in New York today. You can see in the film that the era of the hansome cab was already winding down in 1902. By the 1920s, motor vehicles had taken over.
Edison titled the film “New York City in a Blizzard,” but he was being dramatic. The storm didn’t actually rise to the blizzard level. Although this snowstorm produced crazy drifts up to five feet high, on the whole New York City wasn’t actually hit that hard. Winds of 40 miles an hour and deep snow caused traffic, train and shipping delays, but there were no major accidents which is impressive considering you can see the horses struggle to keep their footing in the film. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees, keeping the snow relatively wet and conditions bearable. The blizzard of March 1888 saw temperatures drop to six degrees below zero, winds of 60 miles an hour and two feet of snowfall. Compared to that, the 1902 storm was a cakewalk. Connecticut and the rest of New England were hit much harder.
The year after he shot the snow storm, Edwin S. Porter would move very far beyond the shots of daily life and secure his place in film history by directing the seminal picture The Great Train Robbery.