Fifty years ago today – just before 5:30 p.m. – Boston was plunged into darkness: Subway riders stranded underground. Workers trapped between floors in elevators. Streets packed with honking cars. And illuminating it all, only the light of the November moon. It was several hours before Bostonians realized they were not alone.
The Great Northeastern Blackout came at the height of the evening rush hour on Nov. 9, 1965, and plunged tens of millions into darkness across the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada for hours, including New York and Toronto.
The nation had never seen a power failure of such scope before, and Cold War tensions instantly stoked fears of sabotage. In New York, the nation's communications capital, news organizations were stymied in finding out what happened and in getting the word out to the public. Ignorance was not bliss, but it was almost total.
It was soon established that problems with the electrical grid caused the blackout, the first large-scale realization of infrastructure worries that would resurface in major blackouts in 1977 and again in 2003.
Here is the original report of the blackout, culled from the archives of The Associated Press:
NEW YORK — The worst power failure in history blacked out and crippled the mighty cities of the Northeast Tuesday night, trapping hundreds of thousands in stalled subways and elevators and affecting up to 30 million persons.
President Johnson ordered the Federal Power Commission, with the help of the FBI, to launch a sweeping investigation of the blackout which enveloped New York, Boston and countless cities and hamlets in half a dozen states.
Mr. Johnson was advised, however, that utility experts were "pretty well agreed" that no sabotage was involved, although no one seemed sure where or how the breakdown occurred.
The failure hit during the rush hour, at about 5:30 p.m., and made a mess of transportation and communications. Even though the lights began flashing on in Boston and most other areas hours afterward — including Ottawa and Toronto in Canada — glittering New York was still a dark, powerless city as the clock crept into a new day.
At one time, more than 850,000 persons were trapped in stalled cars in New York's subway system.
Looking up Broadway's "Great White Way," it appeared as if thousands of fireflies were lighting up the area as New Yorkers trudged along dark streets carrying flashlights.
An airline pilot coming in for a landing at Boston's Logan International Airport at 5:21 p.m. saw "a startling sight. There below is a brightly lighted city and suddenly it plunges into darkness. You just don't know what to think."
Like the pilot, thousands upon thousands of Easterners were caught in mid-stride.
Elevators stopped between floors. Subway trains slid to a halt in the miles of labyrinths under New York and Boston. Movie screens went black. Airliners sought out landing fields outside the blacked out zone.
Off-duty policemen were called back to work. National Guardsmen in some areas were alerted in case of looting, and convicts at the Massachusetts state prison at Walpole took advantage of the excitement to throw a riot which was quickly quelled.
The great luminous cities looked as if they had been struck by some awesome tragedy. But reports indicated most people took it all calmly. Restaurants did a thriving business by candlelight.
As late as three hours after the power failure hit, the New York Transit Authority estimated 300,000 passengers were still stranded in subway tunnels.
By late Tuesday southern Brooklyn was the only part of the blacked out New York City that had gotten any power back.
An official of Consolidated Edison said the concern had to build power very slowly and could supply it only to small parts of the city at a time.
Electric clocks in New York stopped at 5:28 p.m., in Boston at 5:21. Traffic signals also went dead, producing monumental jams.
The power blackout affected Associated Press headquarters in New York, and the AP's Washington Bureau took over to round up news of the power blackout and to supervise distribution of other news.
The radio and television networks also switched operations for a time to the nation's capital or to other network points.
Many stores, including those selling suddenly needed flashlights, put up shutters and closed down, to escape possible looting.
In New York City, thousands of persons made their way to the Grand Central Station only to learn that no trains were moving to suburban areas.
Hundreds of persons jammed into St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral where many knelt to pray while others sat waiting out the return of power.
New York police ordered all taverns to stop selling intoxicating beverages. Women walked in the middle of the blacked-out streets in some sections of the city rather than venture down sidewalks.
At Bellevue Hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan 500 student nurses and 500 medical students were summoned to duty. The fire and police departments supplied auxiliary lighting for emergency use in the psychiatric ward. Emergency generators were functioning in Bellevue's operating room and nursery.
Reports of looting in Rochester, N.Y. , were described by police there as "greatly exaggerated." Officials said they had heard of three or four cases of vandals breaking windows but that the situation was under control.
Government officials in Washington appeared to accept the explanation that the breakdown stemmed from a technical difficulty, not a planned act against the power system.
However, the huge power failure raised the question of vulnerability of the power system to a deliberate attack. It was considered likely that officials would look into this question.
Radio City Music Hall in New York managed to put on its stage show by the use of auxiliary power but was unable to show the movie that accompanies it. Patrons were offered refunds but many of the audience stayed.
At the swank "21 Club," business went on as usual despite the lack of power. The club distributed candles for each table.
"It's very gay," said club president Bob Kriendler. "Everybody is acting as though it were New Year's Eve."