When I was a college student, November seemed to have a significant event each year.
1962 End of the Cuban Missile Crisis
1963 Death of John F. Kennedy
1964 Election of LBJ as President
1965 Great North East Black Out
While it can be argued that the death of John Kennedy and election of Lyndon Johnson changed the trajectory of many lives, it was the great North East Black out of 1965 that comes to my mind these 50 years later.
The event began about 5 p.m. on November 9, 1965. It was later traced to a maintenance mistake made by workers at a power station in Queenston, Ontario, Canada, which had caused a relay to malfunction. This caused a cascade effect as power was transferred to additional lines with no place to go, which in turn tripped additional relays. With no place to go the power continued to flood the grid and tripped additional relays in its path.
When the grid went dark, a sort of reverse effect occurred and lines began to drain power from the New York City area back to the grid. By 5:30 New York City was blacked out. Luckily there was a bright full moon that night which helped the many who were not trapped in the subways or in elevators in the high rise buildings of the city. There was a photo taken of the New York City skyline completely darkened, which later appeared in the National Geographic. The power was not restored to the City until the next day.
The amazing thing is that I was actually in one of the few places in the North East that had power. Geneva New York appears to have gotten its power from a different transmission system than those affected. According to the Canandaigua Messenger Newspaper of November 10: “Harold Allen, [Rochester Gas and electric] district manager in Geneva, said customers of his company in Ontario County suffered no outage during the evening. “There were two momentary dips in power and a short period when power was low, but our customers were not without power at any time.”
At the time I was working in the student dining hall. The lights dimmed but the power did not go out. Life went on as usual and only later as the word spread of the extent of the blackout did we learn of its magnitude. So that was our part of the great blackout — non-existent. A big adventure, no. And, yes it seems a bit anticlimactic thinking about it now.
I later heard stories of how friends who had family members in New York coped with the loss of power. And amazingly, there were very few episodes of looting reported, few seemed to panic on the subways, and I recall several stories at the time of sing-a-longs that New Yorkers began. Imagine being trapped on a subway today and joining the others singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” No the people weren’t stupid or naive. It was much more of an innocent time and showed how much faith people had in the authorities to help them. People in the subways “knew” that help was on the way; today it would be hard to feel that much confidence. It was truly reflects a lost world.