The Lights Go Out in 1965

1965 blackout in New York City

In 2003, the largest blackout in US history took place. Affected areas included New York City, as well as surrounding states and Canada all the way up to Hudson Bay. The world was stunned. But Baby Boomers, particularly residents of the affected areas, said “here we go again!”

On 5:27 p.m., November 9, 1965 (that would be the middle of rush hour), much of the same area was affected by what was then the greatest blackout in history. The event would go on to inspire a movie (and a new phrase for the English language), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

Traffic lights went dark, subway trains stopped in their tracks, and the world learned just how dependent we had grown on electricity’s being there when we needed it.

The power grid, long touted as a system with multiple failsafes that simply couldn’t and wouldn’t collapse, was revealed to be a long string of dominoes on edge. When a relay failed to operate at the Sir Adam Beck Station no. 2 in Ontario, Canada, a bizarre series of overloads began a chain reaction. The overload shot down the main trunk lines of the power grid, separating power generation sources from load centers and weakening the grid’s structure with each subsequent separation. As the outage progressed through the northeast, power plants in the New York City area automatically shut themselves off to prevent the surges from overloading their generating capability. Within a quarter of an hour the outage had wreaked its havoc, and the entire Northeast was dark and quiet. Well, except for about ten million car horns, that is.

In a scene that was replayed on September 11, 2001, New Yorkers pitched in and helped each other. Volunteers directed traffic, assisted firefighters and rescue teams, and generally refrained from looting.

So what did we learn from the great 1965 blackout? Not much, I’m afraid. The 2003 outage (greatly feared to be terroristic in nature) was attributed to untrimmed branches in Ohio.

Oh, and much more looting took place than in 1965.

But on the other hand, urban dwellers during both blackouts saw something they possibly had never seen before: a sky full of stars.

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