On November 9, 1965, at 5:26 p.m. and during the height of rush hour, a power failure originating near Niagara Falls caused a catastrophic blackout and left much of the Northeastern states and portions of Canada in darkness.
This unprecedented peacetime emergency occurred when a 230-kV line near Ontario, Canada, tripped. The resulting power surge cascaded down lines, disrupting the delicate balance of supply and demand. The blackout impacted 30 million people in eight states, including New York and portions of eastern Canada. Initially, government officials were concerned that the outage resulted from sabotage. Further investigation revealed that a faulty relay was the culprit.
In New York City, trains screeched to a halt, and subway tunnels were plunged into darkness, leaving 800,000 trapped underground. Passengers walked along the tracks and relied on the dim light from matches to return to a platform.
The darkness left eight million New York residents on edge. Many were caught in elevators, including at least 100 inside the Empire State Building. One man recalled being stuck on an elevator near the 21st floor with ten strangers for over six hours. Though the pitch-blackness was initially frightening, he said they began talking and playing word games to pass the time. Eventually, rescuers broke through a wall and guided them down the stairs to street level. They were hungry and tired but relieved to be free.
Businesses also felt the impact of the blackout. When the ovens stopped working at a New York bakery, employees were forced to throw out 10,000 pounds of dough – enough to make 120,000 loaves of bread. Despite the outage, city officials praised New Yorkers for keeping a cool head. Criminal activity was unusually low, and residents stepped up to help each other make the best of a terrible situation.
The civility continued in other affected cities, including Boston, where the Boston Globe reported that a “universal spark of graciousness glowed throughout the whole sorry mess.” One exception was a prison riot about 26 miles outside the city. More than 300 inmates used chairs and tables to ram through locked cell gates when the lights went out at the Walpole State Prison. The riot raged for four hours until police subdued prisoners with tear gas and engineers restored backup auxiliary power.
Following the Great Northeastern Blackout, power officials formed a coordinating council and developed new metering and monitoring equipment to prevent a similar occurrence. Despite best efforts, other blackouts have occurred, including a 2003 Northeast Blackout that affected 45 million people.
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