The day 30 million people lost power

It was a power outage that left 30 million Canadians and Americans in the dark -- and one that struck during rush hour.

Massive Nov. 9, 1965 outage left millions in the dark on both sides of the border

Newsmagazine reports on the Nov. 9, 1965 blackout that left millions in Ontario and the U.S. without power. 0:49
Norman DePoe was sitting in front of the Newsmagazine camera explaining why the lights had gone out for millions of people, on both sides of the border, just a few hours before.
The lights went out during rush hour on Nov. 9, 1965, when a blackout affected an estimated 30 million people in Ontario and the United States. In the image above, Torontonians are seen making their way home in the darkness. (CBC News)

"Good evening, and a black Tuesday evening it has been in Toronto and many other cities in the eastern United States and Ontario," DePoe told viewers on Nov. 9, 1965, at the start of the broadcast.

"Power breakdowns at the height of rush hour stalled traffic and marooned thousands in elevators and subway cars, knocked out street lights, stopped streetcars and trolley buses."

Footage CBC News gathered from the streets of Toronto that night showed those same events occurring, just as DePoe had described.​

Torontonians could be seen walking along dark streets, where the only lights shining were automobile headlights. Others, who included both students and businessmen, took to the street to direct traffic that had no streetlights to follow.

Similar challenges had been occurring in other parts of Ontario, as well, where the power had also gone out "in most of the major cities," DePoe said.

But the problem that began in Ontario spread well beyond the province's borders, helped along by the interconnected utilities in Canada and the United States. It would affect an estimated 30 million people by the time it was over.

Scenes from a blackout

Torontonians tell a CBC reporter about their experience during the Nov. 9, 1965 blackout. 0:25

One man who spoke to a CBC reporter in Toronto said there were people in his apartment building who spent more than a half-hour trapped in an elevator, as a result of the outage.

Some people took to directing traffic in Toronto during the blackout of Nov. 9, 1965. (CBC News)

Other Torontonians still hadn't left the office when the power went out.

"I was stuck at work, in a dark office, and some kind soul came along with a flashlight and escorted us down five flights of stairs," said a woman with a bouffant hairdo, who spoke to a CBC reporter.

The blackout "made us more aware of how much we depend on electricity," said another woman, summing up the experience.

The Globe and Mail would report that the city's downtown area lost power on three occasions that night.

"Toronto residents seem to be taking it well," said the CBC's Tim Ralfe, when describing the situation on the streets that night to radio listeners.

"There have been no reports of looting and traffic has been moving fairly well, despite the lack of traffic lights."

The largest power blackout to that point in history leaves 30 million people in darkness. 10:28

South of the border

CBC also reported on how the blackout was affecting the United States, where the power outage stretched into the states of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and beyond. 

A darkened Manhattan skyline, as viewed from New Jersey, on the night of Nov. 9, 1965 blackout. (Phil Lane/Associated Press)

The CBC's Knowlton Nash told viewers that the U.S. Defence Department had assured the public that its military bases had not lost communication and the Pentagon said those facilities had auxiliary power to rely on.

And he said U.S. President Lyndon Johnson had told officials "to speed whatever aid is necessary to the affected areas."

In New York, the blackout shut down stores, bars and John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The airport closure forced flights to be diverted "to places as far away as Bermuda," DePoe said.

Then there was that city's massive subway system, where the New York Times would report that some 800,000 passengers were on board trains when the power cut out during the commute home.

'Little disruption' in Canada?

The CBC's Norman DePoe and Knowlton Nash report on how the outage affected the U.S. and Ontario. 1:30

Before the blackout, the Nov. 9, 1965 Newsmagazine program was supposed to focus on the results of Canada's federal election from the day before — the one that returned Lester Pearson and the Liberals to power with a second consecutive minority government.

Canada had a federal election the day before the blackout, which saw Lester Pearson -- shown above in a photo taken that same year -- and the Liberals win a second minority government. (Duncan Cameron/ Library and Archives Canada / PA-057937)

Instead, the first two minutes of the broadcast were devoted to the blackout.

"Power returned in most areas several hours ago. The situation in the eastern United States is gradually returning to normal," DePoe said when wrapping up the summary of the blackout, just after the start of the Newsmagazine broadcast.

"In Ontario, there seemed to be little disruption aside from traffic jams and the wails of housewives who were trying to cook dinner on electric stoves."

He then said it was time to turn to post-election coverage "now that the lights are on again."

Newsmagazine then spent the rest of the broadcast talking with four MPs about what the next Parliament would look like.