On November 9, 1965, a massive power outage that hit eight Northeastern states and parts of Canada plunged New York City and other metropolises into darkness. On the 50th anniversary of the Great Northeast Blackout, look back at the night the lights went out on 30 million people in one of the largest power failures in U.S. history.
It all started with a flicker. Around 5:17 p.m., streetlights around Buffalo, New York, sputtered. Television sets blinked. The melodious tunes of sweet-sounding crooners emanating from radios turned sluggish as disk jockeys’ turntables rotated in slow motion. Then everything went dark.
Like a contagion, the blackout quickly spread throughout the state’s electric grid, plunging Rochester, Syracuse and then Albany into darkness before spreading into Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. North of the border, the power failed in parts of Ontario, including Toronto.
About 10 minutes after the massive power failure began, the lights went out on Broadway. Times Square’s blinking neon signs stayed permanently asleep. Darkness cascaded down the floors of New York City’s skyscrapers as the familiar skyline faded to black as if a magician had made the city disappear. In the midst of evening rush hour, subways screeched to a halt, forcing 800,000 straphangers below ground to walk through darkened tunnels to stations illuminated by emergency floodlights. Meanwhile, high above street level, thousands trapped in elevators spent nervous hours dangling in the dark until they could be rescued.
Stranded commuters stood in lines outside payphone booths, camped out in sold-out hotel lobbies and downed drinks in candlelit bars choked with cigarette smoke that could no longer be dissipated by the motionless exhaust fans. Traffic snarled as automobiles crossing the bridges across the East River crawled behind the lines of pedestrians four or five abreast who chose to walk home. As airplanes circled overhead waiting for emergency crews to light flares to illuminate runways, passengers looking down could only see the spider’s web of red and white taillights from cars stuck in massive traffic jams.
Some work could not wait for the power to be restored. At St. Vincent’s Hospital, doctors in the midst of brain surgery persevered with the aid of flashlights and battery-powered lamps. The extraordinary circumstances caused hospital delivery rooms to take the then-extraordinary measure of permitting husbands to remain at the sides of their expectant wives to give them comfort.
To the surprise of some, New York did not descend into chaos and violence during the blackout. “Amazingly enough,” reported the Associated Press, “despite the city’s reputation for crime and disorder, and despite the fact that the blackout came at the height of the commuter rush hour, there was no general panic.” The lack of alarm could be tied to a bit of fortuitous timing as the full moon in the heavens offered backup illumination. Bathed in moonlight, New York took on a festive atmosphere usually reserved for snowstorms. “For a change, most new Yorkers were polite,” quipped the Boston Globe. Neighbors helped neighbors, such as the businessmen in suits and ties who jumped into service to direct traffic at busy intersections.
“City’s Glitter Goes But Not Its Poise,” read a New York Times headline the following day. Instances of looting and vandalism were few and far between. The New York Daily News reported that crime in the darkened city fell with police making a mere 76 arrests during the blackout. Power was restored to many areas of the Northeast after just a few hours, but in parts of New York the blackout lasted more than 13 hours until dawn.
Since the electrical failure occurred during the height of the Cold War, some jittery Americans first wondered if Soviet saboteurs were to blame. A few even speculated that the blackout may have been the work of aliens. It was quickly clear, however, that the responsible party was neither an enemy nor an extraterrestrial.
Human error was to blame for what was then the largest power failure in American history. A safety relay near Niagara Falls, Ontario, which prevented massive power surges over transmission lines, had been set too low. Once the sun set and customers turned on their heat and lights, a small power surge caused the safety relay to trip. As a result, a torrent of electricity was diverted through the tentacles of the Northeast’s power grid, which subsequently became overloaded and automatically shut down.
History would repeat itself nearly 40 years later when a massive power failure struck parts of Canada and eight states in the Northeast on August 14, 2003. The largest blackout in American history, caused by overgrown trees coming into contact with high-voltage power lines in Ohio, impacted nearly 50 million people, but just as in 1965, there were very few reports of looting or crime throughout the long, dark night.