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.”
‘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.
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.
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!
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.)
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 PlantBy John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17379403. This story last updated in 2022.