The Biggest Snowstorm to Ever Hit New York State in the Month of October

Written by John Perritano
Published: October 8, 2023
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The maple and oak trees were the first to come crashing, their leaf-filled branches buckling under the weight of wet, sloppy snow. It was the second full week of autumn — October 4, 1987, to be exact — and the residents of upstate New York had found themselves in the middle of what the National Weather Service would later call an “unprecedented” early-season snowstorm. The storm was a nor’easter, the biggest snowstorm ever to hit New York state in the month of October. As it barrelled through, it crippled parts of the state and portions of New England.

While such storms can and do rear their heads in October, this tempest dumped more than two feet of snow in some areas. At the time, the Times Union and the Knickerbocker News, Albany’s daily newspapers, declared in a banner headline that the storm was “Fall’s Snowy Crippler.”

It was not an overstatement. People were left shivering for days because power lines snapped under the weight of falling branches. The storm forced Gov. Mario Cuomo to declare a state of emergency as community centers became emergency shelters and church basements morphed into soup kitchens. Schools shuttered. Some students wouldn’t be back in class for a week. Businesses closed. Five people died.

The blizzard, strong wind, sleet, against the background of houses blurred silhouettes of people, they try to hide from bad weather, overcome all difficulties of severe climate. go to the bus stop.

When snowstorms strike unexpectedly, people do what they must to survive.

©justkgoomm/Shutterstock.com

Stormy Weather

Upstate New York is no stranger to heavy snow. The western and central parts of the state, for example, are often pounded by driving wind, rain, and snow as moisture from the Great Lakes creates blistering blizzards and lake effect storms. These storms form when cold air travels against the warmer waters of the Great Lakes. As that happens, warm air rises, clouds form, and narrow, heavy bands of snow rip through the region, sometimes dropping 2 to 3 inches an hour.

Nor’easters are much different. They form off the coast, far out to sea. When these storms form, cold air out of Canada rushes south and east toward the relatively warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. When warm water meets cold air, an atmospheric low-pressure forms, and a storm is born. As it moves to the north, the storm increases in intensity. Wind, rain, snow, and flooding are hallmarks of a nor’easter.

Surprise, Surprise!

That’s what happened in October 1987. The storm was beyond surprising. Summer had just ended. The first week of autumn was unusually warm. The leaves were just beginning to sparkle in autumn splendor. Forecasters did predict that unseasonably cool weather, with some snow showers, would strike parts of New York and New England. No one, however, predicted the ferocity of what was coming. It was the freakiest freak storm that anyone at the time could remember.

As the Times Union and Knickerbocker News reported: “Not only did Sunday’s heavy snow surprise Capital District residents, it surprised weather forecasters as well. It was the earliest snowstorm in area history and the biggest ever in October…Meteorologists were at a loss to explain the sudden shift in weather conditions, which were first forecast as cool and sunny with highs in the low 50s. Sunday’s storm came only five days after the temperatures reached the 80-degree mark.”

Albany, New York’s capital, creaked under 6.5 inches, the most snow it had ever seen in October since scientists have been keeping records. It wasn’t just upstate New York that got hammered. The storm whipped the coastline of New Jersey all the way to Connecticut with biting cold rain and frothy waves. The temperatures dipped well into the 40s, sparing the coast from snow. Yet, inland, the temperature dropped, seeding an all-snow event. Some 18 inches fell in western Massachusetts. The storm blanketed Vermont with 12 inches and parts of Connecticut in 9.

a big snowstorm in the woods

Snowstorms can be pretty, but they can also be dangerous.

©Corrado Baratta/Shutterstock.com

What Happened?

The nor’easter that hammered the region was born when a series of low-pressure areas came together off the coast of the Carolinas. The resulting cyclone grew stronger as it moved up the coast. When it reached Maryland, the storm took a turn toward the east. As it did, the storm intensified yet again and continued its northerly sojourn and cut a path of destruction.

The storm was so devastating because trees had yet to shed their leaves. The limbs simply could not hold the weight of all that moisture-packed snow. They came crashing down on cars, powerlines, and houses.

The storm forced roads to close, leaving many people stranded and entire communities isolated. Three hikers were left marooned on Hunter Mountain in New York’s Catskill Mountains, imprisoned by six-foot snowdrifts. State police tried to rescue them with a helicopter, only to be turned back. Instead, the hikers hunkered down on the mountain’s 4,025-foot peak until it was safe to return. Luckily, forest rangers were able to lower provisions to them, including warm clothes.

A Stormy Mess

The mess created by the storm was so bad that prisoners worked alongside state road crews to clear debris from a 26-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway from Albany to Massachusetts. Some 800 people crowded into 55 shelters across the state. Two people from Long Island died when limbs from a tree crushed them in Columbia County, just south of Albany. Another man died after touching a live power line. Two Massachusetts women died in a car crash on a slippery road.

A day after the pummeling, officials in New York reported 331,000 homes and businesses were without power. Of that number, 109,000 customers lived in the Albany area. In Connecticut, the storm pulled the plug on 69,000 homes and businesses. The lights were out for days, upending life. Generators were few and far between. People resorted to candles and refrigerated their food by encasing it in the newly-formed snowbanks. Electric officials asked Canada and other parts of the Northeast for line crews to help restore power.

Yellow tractor removes a pile of snow from a road in El Berrueco, Madrid.

Removing feet of snow is a difficult task.

©Juan Carlos L. Ruiz/Shutterstock.com

Coping

Others tried to make the best of things. They boiled snow for baths and drinking water and to flush toilets because electric water pumps could not work. Others went sledding down steep streets where the snow piled high. Families played games and listened to battery-powered radios.

The Albany Times-Union, the city’s morning newspaper, refused to stop the presses even though there was no electricity. As a result, the paper’s editor turned to the rival Troy Record, just up the Hudson River from Albany. The Times-Union and its afternoon sister paper, the Knickerbocker News, printed their October 5 editions with the Record’s presses.  

Life Goes On

The storm disrupted the lives of millions. But one Rensselaer County couple was determined to go ahead with their wedding plans. Their church in the small city of Troy was without power, the couple told a reporter from the Times-Union many years later. Friends with four-wheel drive vehicles took the bride and bridesmaids to the church. The grooms and the groomsmen had to take a limo, which kept getting stuck in the snow and slush. They got out and pushed.

Everyone made it to the church, or almost everyone. The couple invited 250 guests, but only 100 showed up. Instead of electric lights, candles illuminated the sanctuary. As the bride walked down the aisle, those in attendance hummed, “Here Comes the Bride.” The reception at the local American Legion Hall went off without a hitch. A generator lit up the event.    

Easy Come, Easy Go

Some people weren’t so lucky. One 14-year-old boy and his brother spent the night before the storm camping in a state forest near their Schoharie County home. They lit a campfire. When it was time to go to sleep, the brothers went inside their tent. They woke up to 18 inches of snow. Undaunted, the brothers gathered their gear and trudged toward their car parked by the road. Snow had buried it. It didn’t matter. The road was impassable. The pair eventually got home and came back a few days later to get their car.

The snow went as fast as it came. Warm temperatures once again settled over the region, melting any trace that a meteorological calamity took place. It didn’t take long for newspapers to relegate the biggest snowstorm to hit New York State in the month of October to the back pages, only to disappear entirely. Today, it’s the stuff of memories.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Xprtshot/iStock via Getty Images


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About the Author

I am an award-winning journalist who has a written numerous articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for adults and children. I've worked for some heavyweight publishers include Scholastic, Time/Life, National Geographic, among others. I have a passion for animals, including my dogs, cats, and a frog who doesn't have a name.

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