Thursday, January 20, 2011

Those Places Thursday: When the NYC Skyline Went Dark in 1965

Browsing through a book on New York Deco, I saw photos of the Chanin Building, located at 122 E. 42nd Street in New York City, opposite Grand Central Station.

Instantly it brought back vivid memories of the Great Northeastern Blackout of November 9-10, 1965--the one that left most of the Northeastern US and Canada in complete darkness overnight and into the next day. As a young teen, I was already home from school on that Tuesday, when the blackout hit during evening rush hour. Electricity was out and there was no way of knowing when it would return. We had battery-powered transistor radios and soon found out what had happened.

My mother was just finishing her work day on the 22nd floor of the Chanin Building when the power went out. Unless she walked down all the way to the street level and then hitched a ride from the middle of Manhattan to the northeast tip of the Bronx, she wasn't going to be able to get home that night. She didn't know then how lucky she was: If she had left 15 minutes earlier and gotten on a subway train for the hour-long ride home, she would have spent the night in a darkened subway tunnel awaiting the return of electricity.

For two teen twins and our younger sister, it was the start of a one-of-a-kind tame adventure. We were home, safe, in our apartment overlooking the Dyre Avenue subway line in the Bronx. In fact, because the outage happened when dusk was fast arriving, we could easily see that there were NO lights on the New York City skyline. This was a most unusual and memorable sight, to say the least.

Still, the phones worked, the gas stove and oven worked, so we could (and did) cook and play games by candle light and using flashlights. But Mom was stuck in the Chanin Building for the duration of the blackout. As it turned out, the lights came on about 13 hours later.

Mom had to wait her turn to call us, since the law office where she worked had only 1 or 2 phone lines. She called as soon as she could, before dinner, to check on us, and reassure us that she was OK. She called again later in the evening and told us that the people in the office had pooled their money to order from a sandwich shop down on street level, paying about $10 each for a sandwich that would have cost $2 or $3 on any other night. Of course the delivery guy had to walk up 22 floors to reach his customers, and then down again, so I understand why the shop raised its prices on blackout night, even though Mom fumed at the price gouging. That night she slept (poorly) on chairs pulled together to make a kind of bed.

At least Mom knew we were responsible teens and she didn't have to worry much about our safety, since we were already home. We kids were in a great mood, calling all our friends to yak endlessly about the blackout and ask whose parents were stuck where. My memory is that we even invited a friend to come over, and at some point she arrived (probably the next morning after the subways started running). I don't think there was school on Wednesday, Nov. 10th, and the day after that was Veteran's Day, which may have helped get things back to normal. 

Reports say that this was a peaceful blackout, with New Yorkers treating each other civilly and offering assistance where possible. My mother was tired but happy to be home when the lights came on and she could ride home on the subway. And I still remember the night of no lights in the New York City skyline. Very spooky.


  1. What a great memory! My husband remembers that, too. We had a multi-day blackout here after Hurricane Isabel, but it's not as dramatic as NYC going dark....

  2. Greta, thanks for reading and leaving a message. I remember Hurricane Isabel too, quite a powerful storm!

  3. I grew up in the NYC suburbs and vividly remember that evening. I was actually in the shower and more than a little startled when I was suddenly showering in the dark. I'm not sure how dinner was managed - we had an all electric kitchen - but we ate by candle light in front of the fire and felt a bit pioneerish. We had no views of the city, but the knowledge that lights were out across the region definitely made an impression.

  4. Hi and I'm glad you took a moment to write about your memories of that night!

  5. Wow. This is the first I've heard of the blackout. Of course, in 1965 I was 7, and since I lived in Arkansas, I guess my parents were not discussing what was happening in New York at the dinner table.

    Great post.

  6. Hi Dee and thanks for stopping by...I just read some of your blog entries and think your cousins are lucky to have found you because you're so excited about shaking' the family tree! Take care,


  7. Just stopping by after seeing your blog reccomended in Weekly Genealogy Tip of Stephens Genealogy newletter. Having just graduated from high school in 1965, I have a vague memory of the blackout. What I do recall is the babyboom that happened 9 months later! Is that truth or lore?

  8. Hello and thanks for reading and taking a moment to write me. According to what I've read recently, the supposed baby boom 9 months after the big blackout was a myth, but remember, I was a young teen so I don't know for sure :)