On that Tuesday, the lights began to flicker at about 5:15 p.m. By 5:27 p.m. -- at the height of the evening rush-hour -- more than 30 million people were plunged into darkness in seven states for as long as 13 hours in what is referred to as the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965.
“Nowhere were the effects more evident than in NYC, where 800,000 rush-hour commuters were stranded in subways, cars clogged every road, Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports closed as at least 200 airplanes were diverted, and Broadway stayed dark,” the New York Times reported. “Thousands of people were stuck in elevators for hours on end and suburban commuters gave up on getting home.”
But here’s a first: Staten Island, which usually bears the biggest brunt when things go wrong in the city, remained virtually unaffected because it was connected to backup generators at the Travis plant of Consolidated Edison. The Staten Island Advance was one of the few citywide newspapers able to print an edition the next day, carrying stories with headlines that included, “Millions Grope In Darkness,” “Travis Plant Save Lights” and “Ferry Riders Stopped On A Dime.”
“Both the Island and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge had lights because the Travis station gave the borough an independent source of power,” a Con Ed spokesman told the Advance. “He said that the plant ordinarily can supply electricity for nearby communities in Brooklyn and New Jersey but did not last night because of a reduced power surge. He added that the power supply was reduced, presumably because the demand in the other communities would have been too great for just the Travis plant.”
And, it was business as usual on the Staten Island Ferry: The John F. Kennedy, which joined the fleet only three months before the blackout, “was an oasis of light” keeping the ferries running on their regular rush-hour schedules, even though they typically relied on the city’s electrical system to lower and raise the ramps and bridges that allowed passengers and cars onto the boat.
“A generator from the ferryboat John F. Kennedy, docked in an adjoining slip, supplied electrical power to cables running along the shoreline, which were hooked up to another generator in Slip 2,” the Advance reported. “The home-bound commuters had to wait their turn as the ferries drifted into and out of the slip one at a time.”
Passengers interviewed by an Advance reporter detailed their harrowing journey to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal under the cover of darkness.
“I just got here after three hours on the subway,” said Mrs. J.K. Fitzpatrick, of 200 Hart Blvd., Randall Manor. “I was on the train when everything went out. We had to climb out and walk along the tracks and through the darkness with matches.”
As the ferry made its way toward St. George, they found another beacon: The Statue Of Liberty’s lamp was still lit.
During the ride to St. George, passengers scavenged to borrow dimes -- the cost to use a pay phone was 10-cents in 1965.
“The crowds poured down the ramps, dashing madly for phone booths, anxious to notify relatives they had arrived safely,” the Advance reported. “Commuters jammed the long lines in the booth, asking those around them for change. The dimes were scarce and many a quarter found its way into the slots. But on the Battery side, traffic was backed up all the way to the West Side Highway and even further. Buses and cars were at a virtual standstill, waiting to enter the lone operating slip.”
Con Ed took out a full-page explainer ad in newspapers in the states impacted by the blackout, including the Advance.
“We don’t yet know what triggered the blackout that affected the whole Northeast on Tuesday night,” the ad read. “We do know that an electrical disturbance somewhere on the interconnected system north of our territory caused an instantaneous and enormous drain on our power plants. This had the effect of tending to ‘stall’ our generators -- just as any other machine will stall with overload. Then, instead of sustaining damage which might have taken weeks or even months to repair, our generators went down automatically, just as they were designed to do. The effect of this on almost all the people we serve was total darkness.”
The ad noted some “bright spots”: “On hundreds of streets, citizens using flashlights calmly helped direct the flow of traffic. Elevators in countless buildings stalled between floors, and perfect strangers became friends. Hundreds of thousands of commuters trapped in the subways and the railroad kept their heads and their spirits and took this most trying experience in their stride. City departments -- police, fire, hospital and all related emergency services -- responded to the situation with skill and dedication. The National Guard reported for duty and remained on duty for hours. Civilian Defense volunteers turned out in force to help…and they were most helpful, indeed. Thousands of off-duty Con Edison people returned to their stations and worked through the night at the seemingly impossible job of restarting the electric system in a matter of hours…In the meantime, we want to express our gratitude to the people we serve -- and our pride in being part of this responsive, responsible community. And last, but perhaps farthest from least, we want to thank our own people for the job they did in restoring power.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered a full-scale investigation of the power outage.
“Con Edison is working with their task forces and will give all possible assistance to reach an early answer to the questions of why it happened and how it can be prevented from happening again,” the ad read.
A report by the Federal Power Commission (FPC) placed the blame for the 80,000-square-mile power outage on the Hydroelectric Power Company in Ontario “where the blackout began” and Consolidated Edison of New York, which “could have prevented the spread of the blackout to New York City.”
Ontario Hydro was “operating with relay settings established more than two years earlier and never subsequently reviewed, the report said -- settings that were too low for the power load now being carried,” the Times reported. “One of this mis-set relays activated a circuit breaker when there was no good reason for it. Power was cut off in a high voltage line at the fateful moment of 5:1:16:11, and this triggered other cutoffs, in turn, across the northeastern United States and Canada.”
“The report said that New York City’s blackout might have never occurred if the Con Ed engineer in charge had moved more quickly to cut New York City off from the rest of the troubled area,” the Times reported, citing the FPC report. “The report went beyond blaming just an individual employee, however. It said that if the man in charge had had more explicit instructions concerning the conditions under which he should break away from the interconnected companies to the north -- instructions that Con Ed failed to provide – that might have prevented the collapse of the Consolidated Edison system.”
Some interesting notes from the blackout:
-- Radio became king: TV news shows went dark unless the station had backup generators, so people turned to their battery-powered transistor radios. Smithsonian Magazine would later refer to the blackout as “the day of the transistor” and radio’s “greatest hour since D-Day.”
-- 5,000 off-duty police officers were summoned to work by NYC public radio, joining the 7,000 already on duty when the power went out.
-- The blackout “spurred a sharp increase in sales of jet-powered peaking and emergency electricity-generating units,” according to the Worthington Corporation, a large manufacturer of such equipment as reported by the Times. Sales amounted to some $31-million.
-- There were a record number of phone calls made: The New York Telephone Company, which operated at full-capacity on emergency-diesel generators, had no formal count, but a spokesman told the Times that “the company put through a record number of calls.” The spokesman also said that “double the usual complement of workers was on hand during the blackout and about 6,000 employees stayed at their place of work through the night. Collections of coins at pay stations was also stepped up to prevent clogging of the mechanism.”
-- “Commuters stuck in Manhattan with the prospect of a long wait before getting to their homes found time to admire the unexpected sight of a moonlit Manhattan sky, with stars, clouds and no moon,” the Times reported.
-- Doctors and nurses treated the 2,300 patients at Bellevue Hospital by candlelight.
-- A line stretched down Lexington Avenue outside a Woolworth’s store where customers waited to buy flashlights.
-- Bars filled quickly: “The Astor Bar in Times Square, always a popular place, was more popular than ever,” the Times reported. “The candles planted in ashtrays seemed to provide more than enough light for drinkers.”
And here’s another tidbit: There was a sharp increase in births reported nine months after the blackout.
“Sociologists and obstetricians were reluctant to attribute the birth increase to the blackout," the Times reported. "Some, said, however, that the disruption caused by the absence of television might have contributed to the phenomenon."
(Photos courtesy of the Staten Island Advance/SILive.com: Harried commuters stand on line to use pay phones at the St. George Ferry Terminal to let their families know they arrived safely)