The Northeast Blackout of 1965

The Great Northeast Blackout
November 9-10, 1965

It was my last year of high school; my older brothers were both off to college. While my mother was fixing dinner, I was working in my basement 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.

In upstate New York at 5:15 p.m., at the height of the 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 their 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 of the emergency generators 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 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, but he did make 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 2003 by David B. Tuttle
This page updated 08-Apr-2003