On November 9, 1965, the 80,000 square miles of the northeastern United States went dark. It began at 5:16 when a surge in in electrical demand tripped a relay switch at a power station near Niagara Falls. Cut off from their supply, power lines up and down the Eastern seaboard slowly drained to a stop. Toronto went first, then Rochester and Boston.
It wasn’t like the power outages we get during a storm when everything goes dark at once. Instead, the electricity slowly faded away. So slowly that people at first didn’t know what was happening. Dan Ingram was on the air on 77ABC when the power outage began.
(courtesy of 77ABC, Dan Ingram and The Clown Radio Youtube channel)
Since this was during the Cold War, many people feared the blackout was part of a communist plot to take over the United States. In Boston, Governor John Volpe issued a statement assuring residents that the electrical grid had not been sabotaged, but since there was no television or radio available, his reassurance went largely unheard. (There was also speculation that the aliens caused the blackout, as people in 1965 were fascinated with all things space.)
In New York City, 800,000 commuters were stranded in subways and had to walk through darkened tunnels to the nearest station. Many of the stranded walked home or hitched rides from charitable drivers. Still more chose to wait out the blackout in place. Stairwells, offices, terminals and hotel lobbies were filled with people. Largely strangers, they huddled together to stay warm in the cold November night.
Some of the affected areas recovered power within a few hours. Others, like Boston and New York weren’t back up until the following morning.
Interestingly, despite the darkness and uncertainty, people remained calm. The major cities affected reported that, unlike future during future blackouts, there was very little crime or looting. In fact, in New York City, only five people were arrested for looting. In general, the people in 1965 treated the blackout like a giant adventure.
Following the blackout, the utilities industry established a number of guidelines and controls to try and prevent future massive blackouts.
I thought, since I’m writing an historical, that I would share some of the fun background information and history I’ve learned while doing research. The years 1964 and 1965 are fascinating years, as they are truly when the world transitioned from mid-century and the beat generation to the radical sixties. I’m sharing this particular story because the blackout of 1965 plays a key role in my current work in progress. November 9, 1965 is the night my character, Lisa Todd, is said to have jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge. The book, tentatively titled The In Crowd, tells of her rise and fall along with that of several others who lived in Greenwich Village.