TODAY in HISTORY: Northeast Blackout of 1965

A comparison map of the United States during the blackout of 1965. – ehstoday.com

by William “Doc” Halliday

Let me tell you a little about the place where I grew up. It is called Holyoke, MA, and is located on the west bank of the Connecticut River beside the Hadley Falls.

The Hadley Falls has a drop of sixty feet, making it the largest drop in the entire river.  Holyoke was one of the first planned industrial communities in the United States.  A dam was built at the location of the falls in 1849, and along with the Holyoke Canal System, provided water power for dozens of mills.  Many of these were paper mills.  In the last half of the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth century, the city was world renowned as the Paper City.

During the first week of November 1965, a human being made a mistake that would have serious repercussions.  A protective relay switch on a transmission line coming out of the Niagara generating station was set too low.  These relay switches are meant to protect the lines if they become overloaded.  For several days everything was fine, despite the error.

At 5:16 p.m. on Nov. 9 there was a small power surge from a generating station in Lewiston, NY.  The surge normally would have been accommodated by the system, but because the previously mentioned relay switch was set too low, it was tripped.

If this were to happen today, many of us would expect the criminal element in our society to take advantage of the situation.  There were only five reports of looting in New York City that night.

Instantly, the electricity that was flowing on the tripped line was transferred to alternate lines, causing them to become justifiably overloaded.  The protective relays on these lines, which are designed to protect the line from overload, also tripped.  This domino effect had dire consequences.  Station after station was exposed to load imbalances and automatically shut down to protect the grid.

The availability of water power from the dam on the Connecticut River allowed the City of Holyoke to support its own electric utility company.  Now operating as the Holyoke Gas and Electric Company, it is independent of the major regional electric companies in this country.  Fifty one years ago, on Nov. 9, 1965, when the Northeast Blackout of 1965 left 30 million people without electricity, the city’s residents were some of the very few people who were unaffected in the 80,000 square mile blackout area.

The area included all or most of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont, and well as parts of Canada.  When it occurred, it was the largest power failure in history.  There were some other geographical pockets besides Holyoke that continued to receive electricity.

As luck would have it, a full moon lit up the mostly clear sky over virtually the entire blackout area.  This did provide some light for the millions of people who were suddenly in the dark.  There were no street lights, or advertising signs.  Businesses and homes could not run any electrical equipment, and airports had their runway lights go dark.

In New York City more than 800,000 people were stalled below ground, in the dark, on subways that could not operate.  Hundreds more were stuck above ground in elevators that could not rise, descend, or open their doors.  Those not in elevators were forced to descend the stairs from their offices on the upper floors.  Vehicle traffic came to a virtual standstill. With traffic signals inoperable, and visibility so limited, cautious drivers were afraid to enter intersections. Vehicles became entangled in a nightmarish clutter.

If this were to happen today, many of us would expect the criminal element in our society to take advantage of the situation.  There were only five reports of looting in New York City that night.  According to David Frum, it was the lowest amount of crime on any night in the city’s history since records had been kept.

Stories circulated that with no television to watch, or anything else to occupy their time, many people turned to sexual activity that evening.  The result would have been a spike in the number of births nine months later.  That story has been thoroughly discredited by researchers.

Power was restored within thirteen hours to most of the affected area.  The next day was almost normal.  I did not experience the blackout that night.  I was not in Holyoke, or even on the North American continent.

Doc Halliday can be contacted at w_halliday@yahoo.com

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