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Contributed by: Fran Rensbarger
Contributed on: September 8, 2003

Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1965 (Great Northeast Blackout)

In your own words, tell the story of your experience in the blackout(s). Try to recall specific events and the people, places, and things involved; also include more general reactions, images adn last impressions?
I was in the Boston subway (the T) when the lights went out.

I had gone after my college classes to the Boston Public Library main branch to do research, and was heading home.

I was standing in Copley Square Station when the lights dimmed, went out, came on, flickered, went out, and finally came on again, a little dimmer than before. The handful of strangers standing waiting for a trolley groused to each other that the power outage was typical for the T, and got on the next trolley. The trollely stalled just outside the last tunnel stop, Kenmore Square. The tracks were somewhat elevated, and someone panicked, demanding to be let out. Nearby passengers tried to reason with her, telling her she couldn't get out because there was nowhere to step. The trolley then started up and pulled out of the tunnel.

Were we ever surprised to find the lights out in Brookline and Boston when we got out of the tunnel! Street lights and traffic controls were dark, and people were directing traffic with flashlights. Even the Prudential Tower was dark. The streets were filled with people walking and standing around, as well as rush-hour auto traffic. Because of the power outage, the trolley could not go beyond the entrance to the tunnel, so everyone had to get off and walk the rest of the way, probably a few miles for some. It was too soon for the T to have gotten buses out.

When I got home, the apartment was dark, of course. At the time, I was living with a university professor and his family, helping out with the children. At first everyone was calm, using flashlights and candles. The neighbor downstairs was listening to his car radio, and reported to us that he learned that the entire Northeast was blacked out.

Willie, the mom, started throwing canned food, medical supplies and liquor (for sterilizing, she said) into boxes to prepare to escape to their summer home northeast of Boston. She had the children pack warm clothes, since the weather was cold that day.

Many people, including this family feared the blackout was part of a communist plot. We were still in the height of the Cold War, and nothing seemed too absurd at the time.

By the time we were ready to flee, the true source of the blackout was beginning to be suspected, then confirmed. We unpacked, and went to bed. The lights came on sometime after midnight.

Meanwhile, I worried about whether I should go with this family or try to get home to my own. I would have to walk several miles to get to the bus I needed, since the trolleys were not running above ground.



Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
Apparently it was a rolling blackout caused by a succession of utility failures that drained the next utility downline, and caused that also to fail. I believe the starting point was Niagra Falls.

What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Most of the ones I've experienced have to do with trees falling on power lines during a storm. I've also experienced power failures after lightening strikes a relay station.

The T, with it's antiquated system also had frequent blackouts, but had a series of generators that got the system up and running within a short period of time.

Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
1965 only

Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
It was frightening because it was so widespread and because no one seemed to know the cause. Also, we were in the midst of the Cold War, and the possibility of a nucear attack was real.


How did the blackout(s) affect you?
See above. I didn't get much work done that night because of all the unnecessary preparations to flee.

What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
When we heard about the full scope of the blackout, it became more frightening, because it seemed more ominous, not just an accidental occurrence.

How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
The blackout was unexpected, because the rain storm at the time was not severe enough to have caused it. Usually, a storm-caused blackout is somewhat anticipated. Fortunately, the blackout was of shorter duration than most storm-caused blackouts.

Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)

If yes, please explain:
At first, when we heard of the extent of the blackout, we thought it could be part of an attack against our country by Russia.

Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
No

How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
No effect / same reliance

This is how the story goes: In November of 1965 the lights went out in New York and crime rates temporarily dropped; there were widespread reports of extraordinary cooperation and trust between strangers caught together in the power failure. In July of 1977, little more than a decade later, the lights went out again in New York. This time, a devastating wave of looting and arson broke out. Does this story ring true to you? Explain why or why not:
In Boston, the blackout caused people to help each other. I don't know about how crime was affected.

Cite as: Fran Rensbarger, Story #300, The Blackout History Project, 8 September 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/300/>.
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