How Did the Northeast of America Go Dark During 1965? | History Hit

How Did the Northeast of America Go Dark During 1965?

Manhattan in 1965, pictured from the Hudson River.
Image Credit: BEIC Digital Library / CC

On 9 November 1965 over 80,000 square miles of the north eastern United States, plus Toronto and Ottawa in Canada, were plunged into darkness when a transmission line near Ontario caused a succession of power outages. Over 30 million people were affected, in what was to become one of the biggest blackouts in history.

A domino effect

The outage was caused by a small variation of power tripping a single protective relay. Seems innocent enough, right? However this single relay tripping caused power to surge on other lines, each of which tripped their own safety relays.

Then the excess power transferred to over lines which themselves overloaded, eventually causing several generators and power plants to shut down, causing power-shortages across the north-east. All of this occurred within 5 minutes.

Southern states weren’t affected because power supply to them was somewhat limited, preventing the overloading which happened in the more densely populated and higher usage areas in the north east.

A map of states with areas affected by the Northeast Blackout of 1965

Image Credit: 08OceanBeach SD / CC

The Big Apple

Of course, the big city that was affected by the power outage was New York. The power cut came at 5.27pm in New York, the peak of rush hour, causing chaos across the city. An estimated 800,000 people were trapped underground on the subway system, while others found themselves stuck in elevators that suddenly stopped between floors.In the air, planes circled dark airports. In some hospitals, surgeons completed operations using flashlights after back-up generators failed.

Neighbours came together to eat dinner by candlelight and power was gradually restored during the night. Luckily there was a full moon that night, which illuminated the streets for the millions affected. Back-up generators kicked in in some areas: for example, the New York Times was able to produce a 10 page edition for the next day using the printing press of a Newark newspaper.

The NYPD later announced that the crime rate in the city had actually fallen during the outage. There were only 5 reports of looting, the lowest ever amount of nighttime crime during the recorded history of the city.

Claims that the affected region experienced a baby boom 9 months later have since been debunked…<

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Naturally after the blackout, measures were taken to try and prevent such a thing occurring again. Reliability councils were created to share information and establish standards, and new equipment and monitoring systems were developed and implemented.

Unfortunately, another blackout occurred in 2003, covering a wider area. The 2003 blackout was the second most widespread blackout in history at the time, affecting 50 million people.

Looking back on the 1965 blackout, many said they were surprised at the sense of community spirit that was generated. 5,000 police officers and 10,000 members of the National Guard were called up for duty, but people were generally calm, orderly and kind to one another.

Others said the event made them realise exactly how vulnerable to power failure the US was, and exactly how big an impact a blackout had on their lives.

Sarah Roller