Home Massachusetts The Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965

The Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965

No, it wasn't caused by a whack on a telephone pole

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At dusk on Nov. 9, 1965, 11-year-old Jay Hounsell was walking down the road in Conway, N.H. He was on his way home for supper, swinging a stick. As he passed a telephone pole he whacked his stick against it. Instantly, the light on the pole went out. Jay looked around and saw lights go out all over town. Terrified by the blackout, Jay Hounsell ran all the way home.

His mother remembered, “His eyes were sticking right out. I wasn’t sure he hadn’t done something, but I told him it didn’t seem possible that a whack on a telephone pole could put out the whole gizmo.”

Areas affected by the Northeast Blackout of 1965.

Areas affected by the 1965 Northeastern Blackout.

‘The whole gizmo’ included eight Northeast states – New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania – and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Power stayed on in Maine and part of New Hampshire.

More than 30 million people over 80,000 square miles had no electricity for as long as 13 hours. It was the largest blackout ever.

Rush hour traffic snarled, and 800,000 people got stuck on subways in New York City. Many were trapped inside office buildings. Railroads halted and airplanes circled darkened airports before finding emergency runways. Some landed at the naval base at Quonset, which had switched to an emergency generator.

Nearly all of the television stations in the six hardest- hit blackout states lost power, and nearly two-thirds lost power for the duration of the blackout. The dearth of information caused some people to panic, thinking Communists or a UFO were responsible for the power outage.

The 1965 Northeastern Blackout

Jay Hounsell did not cause the Great 1965 Northeastern Blackout. Maintenance workers did. They set a protective relay too low on a power line to Ontario, which then tripped the relay. It then sent power to other lines, overloading them.

Some towns escaped the blackout because they had their own electric utilities. Holyoke, Taunton, Peabody and Braintree did  in Massachusetts, and so did Hartford, Conn.

blackout-news

Fran Rensbarger had gone to the Boston Public Library after her college classes. She stood n Copley Square Station when the lights dimmed. Unlike New York, where the subways stopped, Boston’s T kept running underground. The T stalled at Kenmore Square, the last tunnel stop, and the passengers got out to walk the rest of the way.

Rensbarger, in an interview for the Blackout History Project, recalled their surprise at finding the lights out in Brookline and Boston.

Streetlights and traffic controls were dark, and people were directing traffic with flashlights. Even the Prudential Tower was dark.

Communist Plot?

West Springfield power plant, not much good on Nov. 9, 1965.

Fran Rensbarger lived in an apartment with a university professor and his family, helping out with the children. The neighbor downstairs learned on his car radio the blackout covered the entire Northeast and told them.

Willie, the mom, started throwing canned food, medical supplies and liquor (for sterilizing, she said) into boxes to escape to their summer home northeast of Boston. …Many people, including this family, feared the blackout was part of a communist plot. We were still in the height of the Cold War, and nothing seemed too absurd at the time. By the time we were ready to flee, the true source of the blackout was beginning to be suspected, then confirmed. We unpacked, and went to bed. The lights came on sometime after midnight.

Abbey Hamilton was 16 and working at W.T. Grant’s office in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston. She lived in the Dorchester section of town. Fifty years later she recalled,

WALKED home! (ahhh, to be 16…!) Fascinating, everything dark, scary but interesting, you know? My Mum waited with an enormous flashlight at the corner of our little street and Dorchester Ave shining the light into passers-by faces hunting for me, making sure I wouldn’t “miss” the turn! As if!

Baaad Repute

Hamilton, with very low vision, said there were fewer cars and people to bump into that night.

The T did send some busses to Mattapan Square supposedly to replace the trolleys to Ashmont but (the T was in baaaad repute just then…) I was afraid I’d wind up in Springfield or Woburn, or some place far, far away like that – grin – so the only default choice was walking.

It was a wondrous night for me – Mum was a very old-fashioned Yankee, obvious emotion was not generally allowed; but that night I received a big, warm hug. (for years I wondered if she had thought the Russians – or the Aliens – had “got” me! -grin – she was that scared.)

blackout-mbta-packards-corner

A Boston T in 1965.

A Spot of Trouble

Vermont’s Lt. Gov. John Daley was eating dinner by candlelight when the phone rang. Daley was in charge as Gov. Phil Hoff was in Europe.  At the other end of the line was President Johnson, telling Daley to let him know if he needed any help.

Throughout New England, people generally stayed calm, with some exceptions. A few incidents of looting were reported in Springfield, Mass., and the inmates in the maximum security section of the Walpole State Prison rioted for three hours. They rampaged throughout the building, smashing windows and tearing up everything they could get their hands on. State troopers quelled the riot with tear gas, and the next day the inmates had to mop up the mess.

Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe called out the National Guard, but the guardsmen did little patrolling. In Providence, Mayor Joseph Doorley considering sealing off the city to incoming traffic. He decided against it, but wondered, “How the hell could something like this happen in this day and age?”

That question preyed on many minds. Clearly, a single act of sabotage could wipe out power to 30 million people. Though power was restored by morning, electricity consumers – that is, nearly everybody – suddenly felt more vulnerable. They began keeping flashlights, candles and matches in their homes.

With thanks to The Night the Lights Went Out by the staff of the New York Times. 1965 Northeastern Blackout by 08OceanBeach SD. Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons West Springfield Power Plant By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17379403. This story last updated in 2023. 

51 comments

Bobo Leach November 9, 2014 - 6:20 pm

It was great fun sitting by the fire 🙂

Nadine Laferriere-reeves November 9, 2014 - 6:26 pm

I was very young when this happened all I remember was my mom thought we were being invaded by aliens

Debbie Dunlap Boyd November 9, 2014 - 6:36 pm

Remember well – freshman at Green Mt Jr. College in Vermont

Brenda McCallum November 9, 2014 - 6:43 pm

Morgan McCallum

Paula Mine November 9, 2014 - 6:48 pm

Before I was born.

Mary Ellen Casey November 9, 2014 - 6:51 pm

Yes I do. Dad went to our neighbor to get some firewood. Tried real hard to do my homework. I was in the 5th grade.

Rob Laughlin November 9, 2014 - 6:53 pm

My father told me my birth caused it. NYC 1965

Michel Caron Poyant November 9, 2014 - 7:11 pm

i remember coloring by candle light

Gail Fungaroli Glazier November 9, 2014 - 7:14 pm

I remember it well. It was the only time in my life that teachers didn’t expect homework completed .

Tim Lester November 9, 2014 - 7:20 pm

Vermont’s governor at the time was Philip Hoff, not John Hoff.

Marc Nedboy November 9, 2014 - 7:22 pm

I was dipping my spoon into Campbell’s vegetable soup.Never made it out of the bowl.I was 7.

Mary Ellen Fitzgerald O'Donnell November 9, 2014 - 7:26 pm

Was at home in candlelight .

Dennis McMahon November 9, 2014 - 7:26 pm

Remember it well; in high school in NYC

Jacqueline Bedard Kawate November 9, 2014 - 7:32 pm

I remember it well. Did homework with a flashlight.

AmyBeth Parravano January 20, 2016 - 7:32 pm

What I remember mostly having to have report due next day high school…my sophomore year thinking how would Abe Lincoln have done this? My parents had a kerosene lamp & few candles after supper I did my report….next day at school I Aced it! Teacher was impressed my classmates weren’t …made excuses using the Northeast Blackout as the main one!

Sam Simons November 9, 2014 - 8:00 pm

I was driving east on I 90 and wondered why all the rest stops were dark! Drove from Pa. To Ct. that night, cold and dark when I got home!

Sandra Leblanc-Casino November 9, 2014 - 8:12 pm

Sure do. It was very scary. We didn’t know what was happening.

Peter Ciarcia November 9, 2014 - 8:23 pm

I had the Mary Poppins soundtrack on the record player and it started to s l o w d o w n. Dad told us to turn everything off so we wouldn’t blow a fuse (remember those) when the power came back on. Mom cooked dinner on the gas range. We ate candle light. We read by candle light. Oh, yes, we went outside and saw a sky filled with stars. It was, all things considered, a pleasant evening.

Roberta Nelson Harris November 9, 2014 - 8:23 pm

I remember it well, I was in high school and worked in a big department store after school and that caught us by surprise, we had to make customers leave with only flashlights in hand.

Lynda Mellor Palmer November 9, 2014 - 8:26 pm

Freshman year URI.

Cathy Bloxsom November 9, 2014 - 8:30 pm

I was at a birthday celebration.

Andrea Kenyon November 9, 2014 - 8:40 pm

I remember it well. So dark, & quiet. It did give a very uneasy feeling.

Patricia Ryan Martin November 9, 2014 - 8:46 pm

I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be but both my parents were working late so I took the bus home just as the lights went out. I lit candles and thought it was very dramatic.

Carole Roepsch November 9, 2014 - 8:52 pm

I was making dinner, waiting for my husband to come home from work. As I was leaning over near the table too pick up something, the lights went out. I thought I was fainting. A very weird feeling.

Thelma Barnes November 9, 2014 - 8:55 pm

I remember it well.

Nancy Huntley November 9, 2014 - 9:16 pm

Driving home from work as the lights went our.

Rebecca Miller November 9, 2014 - 9:39 pm

I remember it well, too. Homework by candlelight, Mom going crazy thinking we should keep the drapes closed because she was certain the Russians were coming!!! Lol…

Sandra DiPinto November 9, 2014 - 9:57 pm

i remember

Susanna Morse Shirlock November 9, 2014 - 10:01 pm

I was working at my first job…just out of school and didn’t know what to think. It was pretty scary.

Kathy Driscoll November 9, 2014 - 10:03 pm

I was 10 and with fam at Logan Airport waiting for my brother who was in Navy to fly in from Norfolk W Va. unable to land till next day

Sha Ciani November 9, 2014 - 10:03 pm

I don’t remember it, I was just born (2 months too early) and in a hospital incubator. Luckily the hospital had it’s own power system.

Dottie Nardone November 9, 2014 - 10:27 pm

WALKED HOME FROM JORDAN MARSH TO CHARLESTOWN VERY BRIGHT FULL MOON OUT THAT NIGHT.

Joanne Nicini Gibbons November 9, 2014 - 11:49 pm

I remember hearing the word “sabotage” then, as that was what everyone was thinking.

Eileen Velez November 10, 2014 - 12:22 am

Yup I was in the 5th grade and did my homework by candlelight!

Sharon Johnson November 10, 2014 - 1:20 am

I was little and we did our homework by kerosene lamps. We had gas heat so we weren’t cold and could cook. 🙂

Pat Cohen November 10, 2014 - 8:18 am

I was a sophomore at Hamp High…the teachers were more scared then we were…we got out of class early..(we had 1200-1700) classes due to overcrowding…

Susan Angie Bean Libby November 10, 2014 - 8:32 am

I was at the neighbors and the mother called my mother because they had gas stove and asked if we needed anything. That was great because she had 9 kids and thought of Us too

Jim Hawthorn November 10, 2014 - 9:49 am

Remember it well. I was walking on Carpenter St in South Attleboro, MA when all of a sudden all the lights went out.

Jane Traynor November 10, 2014 - 11:04 pm

I was in 7th grade and my best friend had been hit by a car that morning. My world was out of control

Pat Chabot November 10, 2014 - 11:31 pm

I was taking a bath and was scared to death….

Cynthia Melendy November 10, 2014 - 11:50 pm

For sure!

Cynthia Melendy November 10, 2014 - 11:53 pm

Sophomore at the Walnut Hill School. Walked from study hall in the librAry across campus with no lights, just stars, and we all ate by candlelight. Wished I lived 100 years earlier.

Jeannine M. Roy November 11, 2014 - 12:20 am

I was in class and the professor just kept on teaching.

New England Genealogy November 11, 2014 - 1:32 pm

shared

Jeanne November 13, 2014 - 10:48 am

I certainly remember this,I was sixteen and had a part-time after school job in Hingham, Ma. I was listening to the radio on the counter when the lights flickered once and static came on the radio. I “whacked” the radio and all the power went out. My mother drove downtown, helped me to lock up and told me the story as she had heard it. Dinner by candlelight, Parcheesi by candlelight and all was working in the morning. It was quite an adventure.

Janet Hawes November 13, 2014 - 2:08 pm

I remember. Studying for midterms at WHS. Power lost. But my dad had a generator so we had lights. Exams postponed, I think.

Roger Mitchell November 13, 2014 - 10:04 pm

I was experimenting with a ham radio transmitter at the time. Thought I might have caused it until I learned how wide spread it was.

Josh Freeman May 1, 2015 - 5:32 am

We were ready to sit down to dinner and the lights went out. We lived next to the electrified commuter rail line in Mount Vernon, NY. After some hours in darkness we heard knocking at our door. Stranded commuters had left the train, climbed over the fence and asking to use the bath room. We gave a few shelter and food but most were stranded for hours more.

Abbey Hamilton July 13, 2017 - 7:20 pm

I was 16 and working at WT Grants office in Mattapan, living in Dorchester. WALKED home! (ahhh, to be 16…!) Fascinating, everything dark, scary but interesting, you know? My Mum waited with an enormous flashlight at the corner of our little street and Dorchester Ave shining the light into passers-by faces hunting for me, making sure I wouldn’t “miss” the turn! As if!

I have very low vision, legally blind, and spatial disorientation is/was a strange state for me. This experience was more difficult yes, but easier a bit too, FAR less cars and people to bump into for one thing.

The T did send some busses to Mattapan Square supposedly to replace the trolleys to Ashmont but (the T was in baaaad repute just then…) I was afraid I’d wind up in Springfield or Woburn, or some place far, far away like that -grin-, so the only default choice was walking.

It was a wondrous night for me – Mum was avery old-fashioned Yankee, obvious emotion was not generally allowed; but that night I received a big, warm hug. (for years I wondered if she had thought the Russians – or the Aliens – had “got” me! -grin- she was that scared.)

Ria Willemsen April 6, 2018 - 1:19 am

I remember .. being at the New York airport on my way home to Amsrerdam/Holland when suddenly .. total darkness. After hours a busload of passengers were taken into NY city and got a free night at a hotel .. 4 people per room. Sleeping with strangers was very strange. The next day all was well again and we went on our way back to the airport. I was 20 years old. It was a very strange dark night. No TV .. nothing. I read that people went to bed earlier than usual. Nine months later many babies were born …

Michael J Denis November 24, 2018 - 9:51 pm

I was in college at what is now the University of Southern Maine. But the article doesn’t mention Maine…

Comments are closed.

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