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When the lights went out, Bostonians who were stuck downtown lined up at pay phones to call home

People waiting to make phone calls in a downtown Boston subway stop

Waiting to make a call at a downtown subway stop. Source.

Around 5:20 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1965, Boston blinked out as a quickly spreading blackout that started with a failed relay on a transmission line in upstate New York just five minutes earlier cascaded across the Northeast. Lights, radios and TVs went out, subway trains slowed and stopped.

As people slowly poured out of downtown offices and stores, of course they wanted to let the folks at home know - so they quickly formed lines with their dimes and quarters to use the one thing that was still working: New England Telephone pay phones, on a network that had its own generators not connected to the grid that collapsed that night.

The Boston Public Library's Brearley Collection has numerous news photos of a bygone Boston in the grip of a power failure that was not fixed locally until about 1:30 a.m. - after Boston Edison disconnected its system from the Northeast grid and slowly brought its own generators back online.

Only car headlights and the occasional emergency spotlight or flashlight - and, inside, candles - provided illumination downtown:

Darkened downtown buildings

Boston's skyline was not quite as dense back then:

Darkened downtown buildings

People crowded outside Filene's on Washington Street and along downtown streets:

In front of Filene's
Darkened downtown Boston
Darkened downtown Boston

On one subway car in the nascent MBTA system, only a photographer's flash illuminated riders:

Darkened subway car

With the train stopped, what else to do but read a newspaper?

Darkened subway car

Getting to the trolley in the dark:

Boylston in the dark

Pay phones aren't the only thing missing from subway stations these days; you could also rent a locker to store your stuff for the day:

Pay phones and storage lockers

Computers? Without them, people could still do some business, as long as they had flashlights or candles.

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Comments

I remember it well. I was not able to watch "My Mother the Car". One of the best TV shows ever. Very sad day.

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I was a Freshman at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, in Sudbury, MA. My sister was only a 12 year old seventh grader, and my brother had just turned 2 not that long ago.

I had stayed after school for something (I forget what, now.), and had taken the 5 o'clock bus home. Our bus rode out of Sudbury, and through both North and South Lincoln, MA. Everything was totally dark, with no streetlights or household lights on, and I didn't yet know why, until I got home to my own house, and found the same thing going on. Our house was also totally dark, and no supper could be cooked, so we all just had snacks. We all survived that night, and forgot about it the next morning.

A girl in my grade who was also from my old hometown of Lincoln, MA, who was attending the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY, and who I saw in camp up in Plymouth Union, VT that following summer, said that she was sitting under her hair dryer when the power went out, and she could see the lights of the Tap Pan Zee Bridge go out, one by one.

Interesting time that was, although freaky, as well.

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"And the lights all went out in Massachusetts!"

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I never knew that song was by the Bee Gees. Learn something new every day!

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Roadrunner is way better. The Bee Gees didn't even mention Stop 'n Shop.

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having set foot in the Commonwealth. They did eventually visit on tour some years after this song became a hit for them.

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I read that they were actually on a ferry in NYC when they wrote that and "Massachusetts" simply had the right number of syllables.

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They had their own power generators with the Navy Yard of course being a military base at the time. With the T it is why there are lights on at Park Street Upper above.

Ironically - With the Agony and the Ecstasy playing at the Saxon (click on the link) - How many people in the blackout asked "When Will It Be Finished"?

In case you are wondering, that second photo with the headlights is Winthrop Square. You can see the parking lot to the right which was filled in with 101 Federal in the late 1980's and the soon to be removed building that is now where 1 Federal is.

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I guess people actually respected strangers in those days.

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But in Walpole State Prison, where 300 inmates ran amok.

In Chelsea, meanwhile, many cops were at a benefit banquet when the lights went out - they rushed out in their tuxedos to direct traffic and patrol the city, according to a Globe account.

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after Boston Edison disconnected its system from the Northeast grid and slowly brought its own generators back online.

Even though my grandfather never worked there, he always enjoyed telling the story about the heroism of that plant in South Boston. In those days nobody had ever given any thought about the need for a black start and without power in the in the grid or any available steam it was impossible to get the generators back running. But the South Boston plant still had a single wood-fired boiler that remained even though it had been slated for decommissioning.

There was an engineer who took charge--I think his name was Jack--and he immediately set about to get it back into operation. Lacking fuel for that boiler, he ordered all the plant workers to grab whatever wood they could find at a construction site across the street, and he even went upstairs with an axe and started breaking up all the desks, office furniture, and doors so that they'd have enough to get that boiler up to temperature to produce enough steam to restart the other generators and successively bootstrap the entire regional grid.

Until the pandemic, I used to drive by that on my way to work every morning, and I'd often think of Jack. I'd also think of how my grandfather told that story to my father, and how my father passed it on to me.

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Always have a backup. That is a wonderful bit of history. Hope it gets recorded in a permanent place not just the ether.

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I was an 8 y.o. in NYC. My mom had just come to pick me up from a friend's house. We were watching TV and the set started to fizzle out several seconds before the lights went out. It was eerie walking the half mile home along dark Manhattan streets with no streetlights or traffic lights. My brother was upset because my father had made him finish his homework by flashlight and when he got to school the next day no one else had done it and the teacher gave them all a pass.

Manhattan has underground infrastructure, so we weren't used to occasional blackouts the way people are here. The rare times we lost power, it was a major even affecting huge swaths of the city at the very least. We were stunned to learn the whole Northeast was dark.

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There's an aircheck of WABC's Dan Ingram from when the power went down- Ingram reportedly went out to transmitter in NJ w/ box of records to continue broadcasting

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-kjUBpd2ks

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There was also an episode of "Bewitched" called "The Short Happy Circuit of Aunt Clara" that blamed the 1965 blackout on a spell gone wrong by bumbling witch Aunt Clara. I also recall all kinds of rumors and wild tales about the blackout being caused by UFOs. Fun times!

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Filene's Bargain Basement.

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My parents were juniors in high school in Brighton. They never talked about it.

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I was too young to remember this, but my father swore that he would never be without power like that again. He went out and bought an alternator (and he would correct any of us that called it a generator) and installed it in the basement, with an exhaust pipe running out through a basement window. A couple times a year we'd have to start it up to make sure it was ready. It had a pull rope that you had to wind by hand and re-wind again when it didn't start. My brother and I HATED the prospect of spending what seemed like an hour or more, pulling and rewinding that thing until it finally (and horrifically noisily) started up. Over the next 35 years, until they sold the house, we never had a power failure of more than 20 minutes. You can thank my dad.

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August 14, 2003.
IMAGE(https://i1.wp.com/blog.cheaperthandirt.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2003blackoutmap-copy.jpg?w=600&ssl=1)

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And the protection he had provided passed with him.

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Hate to point out weird things like facts, but you notice Eastern New England has lights in that picture, right?

There was no blackout here in 2003 like the one that hit New York PA, and Ohio. Perhaps you should revise your statement.

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I remember this blackout cuz all my NYC friends were complaining, yet we were fine in Boston.

Its because we get much of our power from Canada, which was unaffected.

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Pretty much ended at the NY state line. My grandmother was still alive at the time and living in
NY State maybe five miles from CT. No power at her house so she drove over to Connecticut for a nice dinner out where the power was still on.

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Sorry, honey, but while that blackout didn't hit NH, ME and spared most of VT - which is why the lights are on in the picture - it extended west and north into Ontario and a lot of Massachusetts had outages even if Marshfield had power.

The duration of the outage may have depended on how quickly the utilities could reset their systems, and what order (including the usual load shedding). If you have any sense of geography of the continent and metro area boundaries, MA is pretty spotty and otherwise dark in that picture, taken about 10 hours into the outage.

We left Six Flags NE around 3 pm (thankfully!) to get to Bartlett to stay with my brother-in-law and had no idea what was happening until we got there and tried to buy groceries with a credit card. The only impact there was that the Milky Way was incredible. Back home, our flashing clocks indicated an outage of about nine hours when we returned.

From Wikipedia:

IMAGE(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/eb/Map_of_North_America%2C_blackout_2003.svg/800px-Map_of_North_America%2C_blackout_2003.svg.png)

Full article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_o...

You have a tiny little ... world view.

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My friend and I were riding our bikes when the moon came up. We were looking toward the coast and had never before seen a giant orange moon (we were little kids). It looked huge, and appeared from our vantage point to be landing on Duxbury Beach.

We convinced ourselves it was a genuine flying saucer and frantically pedaled home to tell our families we were being invaded.

Neither family believed us despite our vivid descriptions, so my friend and I were talking to each other on the phone about how stupid everyone else was (they were all standing there) when suddenly the lights flickered once, then went out. There was a long silence, followed by my Dad saying "what did that thing look like again?"

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I remember those lockers in the T stations. I think they cost a quarter. Probably less in 1965. I used to ditch my schoolbooks in them for the day and do other, more educational things.

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The power system underlying the subways was still 25Hz at the time, so was not connected to the grid which was 60Hz. Instead, the T had to run its own generator, so the subways kept running during the blackout. Afterwards, the legislature recognized the civil defense benefit of the T having its own backup power and mandated it. Even though the T is now connected to the grid, it maintains a backup generation facility in South Boston which is able to power the system should there be another such blackout. The generator is also used when ISO New England needs to reduce the load such as during heat waves in the summer.

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Its only parts of the T, and mostly the green line. I want to say the red line is also. (at least the harvard to JFK Umass section)

I only remember because any regional power issues we've had with the local power grid, the orange line fails. I can't remember if the blue line still runs or not. It might stub at Maverick.

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Removing pay phones is short-sighted. In the 2003 NYC blackout people lined up to use them, since the cell networks weren't working. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/08/photos-15-years-since-the-2003...

Of course if the person you're calling doesn't have a landline and lives in the area with the blackout, the payphone isn't much help. But at least you could call 911, or someone outside the affected area, or any of the businesses or government offices that still use landlines.

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At that time, my family was living in a basement apartment in Roslindale. I remember how spooky it was when the lights went out and we learned how widespread the failure was.

It happened as my mother was cooking supper. My Dad drove the car up to the kitchen window and shined the headlights so she could finish and we could eat by candlelight.

I remember there were always rumors of a baby boom sure to come. Not sure if that transpired or not.

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At that time, my family was living in a basement apartment in Roslindale. I remember how spooky it was when the lights went out and we learned how widespread the failure was.

It happened as my mother was cooking supper. My Dad drove the car up to the kitchen window and shined the headlights so she could finish and we could eat by candlelight.

I remember there were always rumors of a baby boom sure to come. Not sure if that transpired or not.

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