It was 5:17 PM on November 9, 1965 and the New York City evening rush hour traffic was in procession. The vast majority were unaware that lights were flickering and power was failing in areas of upstate New York. A long series of power plant switches were being tripped, and by 5:27 PM, most of New York City went dark. Only Staten Island and part of Brooklyn were unaffected. The power outage spread into Massachusetts, Connecticut and the northern New England states as well as Long Island, New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania.
The power outage would last for thirteen hours. Legends have arisen from those hours, spanning the likes of UFOs causing the power failure to stories of a dramatic increase in the conception of children. Through these thirteen hours, a night of almost complete darkness in New York, there were few reports of violence and looting. For whatever reason, New Yorkers and many citizens of the northeastern United States banded together. Considering that nearly a million New Yorkers were trapped during this time, either on subways, office buildings or in elevators, it was a remarkable triumph. Twelve years later, a second blackout would hit New York. The 1977 blackout would result in heavy looting and violent crime.
The causes of the blackout could be traced to the failure of a 230-kilovolt transmission line that triggered other overloaded lines to fail in succession. New York City was operating near maximum capacity and there was insufficient line capacity to support the city. When the transmission line failed, power had to be instantly diverted elsewhere. Because New England and New York were supplied on the same power grid, the diverted power caused a sudden excess of supply that overwhelmed New England as well as Ontario and Quebec, which were also on the grid. This triggered shutdowns of generators by operators needing to protect their equipment from the sudden surge of power.
The modern observer might quickly see this as chaos ready to unfold in a cloud of evil-doers. Ten thousand National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty policemen were immediately called into emergency service. New York City expected the worst, but it did not happen. At least not in 1965. During the 1977 blackout, there was no controlling the mayhem. Why the disparity?
There was a different mindset in 1965, before the real unfocused revolutionary groundswell of "the sixties" began. This was an event, not an opportunity for profit and destruction. The 1977 blackout would happen at the height of summer. The weather was hot, unemployment was high and people had seen this sort of thing before. It was not a mystical event. Anytime something happens for the first time, it is an event. It is something that stuns us. Just as the events of September 11, 2001 were an event because it was inconceivable that such events could happen, this blackout was overwhelming and the human spirit rose to the challenge. If similar events happen, it is a different story.
For the record, I was in New York City for both blackouts. The 1965 blackout happened six days after I was born, so I probably had something to do with it. The 1977 blackout happened while I was in the city visiting my grandparents and during the blackout I had horrible dreams of gorillas walking up and down the street terrorizing people. For me, it was strange being in the dark. Then again, I was in Brooklyn in 1965 and Queens in 1977 so that has a lot to do with it as well.
Go back to worshipping all of your electrically powered toys, especially the one that lets you read this.
New York Post archives
"The Night the Lights Went Out," New American Library, NY, 1965, A New York Times chronicle of the Northeast Blackout of Nov. 9, 1965, A. M. Rosenthal & Arthur Gelb, editors