The Great Northeast Blackout
November 9-10, 1965

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It was my last year of high school; my older brothers were both off at college.  While my mother was fixing dinner, I was working in my basement electronics shop and listening to the radio.  The lights dimmed a bit and came back full, then dimmed again and came back.  The DJ's on the radio complained "What's going on? The turntables are slowing down... "  The lights faded a final time and stayed out -- for most of the night and into the next morning.
"Tuesday, November 9th – Approximately 80,000-square miles of the Northeast, a total of eight states, falls into darkness, as the triple conductor line fails.  [It] begins with a faulty relay in Canada.  Toronto, the first city afflicted by the blackout, goes dark at 5:15pm.  Rochester follows at 5:18pm, then Boston at 5:21pm.  New York, finally, loses power at 5:28pm.  The failure affects four million homes in the metropolitan area, and leaves between 600,000 and 800,000 people stranded in the city's subway system.

Late in the evening, around 11pm, President Lyndon Johnson calls New York Mayor Robert Wagner to offer assistance.  "Like a pinched aorta," journalist Theodore White later wrote, the blackout "caused an entire civilization to flicker with it."  By midnight, more than 90 percent of subway passengers are freed.  By 4:44am the next day, power is restored to Manhattan."

  -- George Mason University, Blackout History Project


At 5:15 p.m., the height of the commuter rush hour and at peak power demand, a faulty cutout relay tripped open on one of the major power lines that connected to the hydroelectric stations of Niagara Falls and Ontario Hydro.  On one side of the break there was too much power, on the other side not enough -- not nearly enough.  One after another, grid circuits cut out and power plants went offline in a cascade that reached east from the failure all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

By 5:30 p.m., New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, metropolitan New York City and parts of Pennsylvania were suddenly in the dark.  As LIFE Magazine put it in their November 19, 1965 issue:

"New York winked out as if someone had pulled the plug of a Christmas tree.  The great city of the sparkling skyline and glittering avenues went black -- suddenly revealing an alien beauty of stone and steel looming dark against the sky.  Then a full moon rose to light a city beset by the most massive power failure in history."

At first my mother and I didn't know how extensive the blackout was – until I remembered the DJ's remark.  The radio studios were in central Manhattan, and we were 17 miles north of Grand Central.  We realized then that it was a major problem! We lit our emergency candles and used the gas stove and the fireplace to keep warm, but my father worked in Rockefeller Center and should have been on his way home...

Several generators in Manahattan were destroyed because the turbine lubrication depended on electric pumps that were powered by the grid.  Planes in the air saw the entire city and all of the airports surrounding it go dark.  Many emergency power generators, seldom if ever used, didn't work.  People were trapped in tall buildings with electric elevators.  Street traffic quickly became chaotic without traffic lights.

My father was on his way home from midtown Manhattan, but he didn't arrive until after 6:00 the next morning.  The trains in and out of Grand Central are electric; his train stopped on the elevated tracks at 118th Street, 8 blocks north of the 110th Street station, 7 blocks south of the station at 125th Street.  Some of the passengers got off and walked – in pitch darkness, on open railroad ties 20 feet above the street.  My father stayed on the train and tried to stay warm, and he made it home safely in the morning.  The power was out entirely for over 11 hours in New York, though parts of Connecticut and other New England states recovered more quickly.

One power station supervisor on Long Island was quick enough to pull his generators off the inter-city grid before they were damaged; he saw a gigawatt-plus demand appear on the New York City lines and knew that there was no way he could handle it.  His local customers lost power for only a few minutes, but he lost his job -- it was against the rules to abandon the grid, even to save the station generators!

-- Dave Tuttle


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Copyright © 2013 by David B. Tuttle, Reading MA
This page last updated 24-Apr-2013

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