A Calm and Anxious Darkness

At about 5:20 p.m. EST on November 9, 1965, New York City disc jockey Dan (“Big Dan”) Ingram was broadcasting from music radio station WABC; as usual, spinning all the hits of the day with his patented spin of rapid-fire wit. Everyone’s Gone to the Moon, British singer Jonathan King’s first and only hit song, was playing through the late afternoon, autumn air. Suddenly everything appeared to be slowing, as well as dimming, down at the radio station…and, unbeknownst to Big Dan (and to most people), throughout the entire city and across several U.S. states and into Canada.

(Listen to Ingram’s WABC air-check of 11/09/65; the moments before the darkness.)

While joking about the slow motion goings-on at the station, the energetic DJ was also genuinely trying to make sense of this sudden and inexplicable situation. After a few minutes spent at ad-libbing to support the increasingly decelerated state of affairs, he finally broke for the latest news.

The newsroom, apparently unaware of the problem, was in the process of issuing the latest report on the condition of Roger Allen LaPorte (a former seminarian who had recently set himself on fire to protest the growing war in Vietnam) when the station went dead. This was how some of us remember the first moments of what was (up to that time) the worst power failure in the history of the United States and of North America: the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, as it came to be known.

At around 5:16 p.m. the lights began going out on over 30 million people in the northeastern section of America (primarily in New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York) and in portions of Canada (primarily Ontario); an estimated 80,000 square mile (207,000 km) swath of darkness had descended on most of the land.

The power began to fail in western New York when an improperly set relay switch between the Robert Moses generating station in Lewiston and the Niagara generating station (Adam Beck Station No.2) in Queenston, Ontario was tripped due to a slight but, as it turned out, critical surge of electricity; the two stations formed a significant part of North American Interconnected Systems.

The tripped relay set off a sequential escalation of overloads throughout the entire power grid; power plant after power plant automatically shutting down to prevent damage to their own turbines. Six days later, Federal Power Commission investigators would refer to these sequential shut-downs as having a “cascade effect “similar to a row of dominoes falling in succession.

New York City was particularly hit by this blackout, due to its reliance on electricity for nearly all aspects of city life. Office workers, ready for an evening home with their families in the suburbs, were forced to find alternative lodging, some seeking shelter in their offices or on benches in Grand Central Station. Theaters closed for the night. The “Great White Way,” Times Square, usually a glimmering crossroads of light, was covered in darkness. Thousands of travelers stranded in New York were forced to sleep in hotel lobbies, leading the Times to report that the “city’s hotels looked like bivouac areas.” Approximately ten thousand commuters were stuck on subway cars, unable to escape the darkened tunnels. By midnight, the Transit Authority began sending food and coffee to those trapped underground.

The countryside abounded with rumors over who (or what) caused the power outage. Amid the Cold War climate of the time, those “Commie Red Ruskies” were many a peoples’ favorite target of suspicion. Of course, these were the same sort who blamed the Russians for almost every ill and misfortune besetting us even during the brightest times of day.  Then there were the more “starry-eyed” type of rumormongers who believed that mischievous extraterrestrials were the culprits behind the whole thing.

Indeed, UFOs were reportedly seen cruising around in the vicinity of Niagara Falls shortly before the lights went out. Whether or not these sightings were factual, the fanciful is invariably more intriguing and, hence, more entertaining; certainly more entertaining than the aforementioned improperly set relay switch.

Nonetheless, despite the silly rumors, the widespread traffic snarls, the hordes of stranded commuters, etc. (in short, the resultant disarray of a modern city deprived of its electricity), everything was peaceful. In fact, here in New York City, perhaps owing to the shared uncertainty that everyone was experiencing, people were amazingly courteous.

Neighbors who had never spoken came to know one another, sharing candles, flashlights, food and blankets, and other essentials. Individuals took it upon themselves to direct traffic at busy intersections, while others helped each other to get home. Various small stores and department stores opened their doors to people, as a refuge from the cold evening, providing them with coffee and sandwiches. These and many other acts of human kindness and decency were exhibited that night.

Power began to be restored at around 11 p.m. to at least half of NYC; at 6:58 a.m., nearly fourteen hours after the lights went out, electricity was restored to the entire city; the Great Northeastern Blackout was now the stuff of history and legend.

For the first time, both producers and consumers of electricity felt vulnerable. They could no longer rely on electrical power without thinking about the night of November 9, 1965. Thus, the blackout holds a particular resonance for people who lived through “The Night the Lights Went Out.” One woman who spent her evening in a Lexington Avenue luncheonette said, “This is the type of day where you remember everything…everything you did, everything you ate. I’ll remember it all.”

Source: Blackout History Project

Check out “The ‘Great Northeastern Blackout’ of 1965” at CBS Digital Archives (featuring TV/ radio clips)