BOSTON (AP) _ New England towns had begun putting their plows away after a winter of below-average snowfall, and hardware stores had set up their displays of patio furniture. Then, April Fool!

Boston started digging out Tuesday after its biggest snowfall ever in April, a Nor'easter that blew away the tip of one of the masts on the USS Constitution, the sturdy frigate known as Old Ironsides.

Snow piled up nearly 3 feet deep from New Jersey into Massachusetts, shutting down airports, closing schools and knocking out electricity to hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom won't see their power restored for days.

``It's a practical joke. It's April Fool's Day,'' Christie Humphrey told her astonished 2-year-old son, Sam, as he looked at the snow in North Andover.

Strangers to the area thought differently.

``This is what I think of in a Currier and Ives print. It's just beautiful,'' said Joe Moore, a visitor from Oklahoma City enjoying Boston's Lexington Square.

Forecasters said the snow probably will melt gradually without causing any serious flooding when temperatures climb into the 50s and 60s by the weekend. Most of the winter's snow had already melted, and there has been little spring rain to soak the ground.

The huge storm blew rain, sleet and snow from Maryland to Maine beginning Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, 33 inches of snow had fallen at Milford, Mass.; 32 inches in upstate New York; 30 inches at Hopkinton, Mass., and High Point, N.J.; and 27 inches at Jaffrey, N.H.

The Baltimore Orioles postponed their opening day baseball game against the Kansas City Royals because of wind gusting to 33 mph. Ground crews shoveled snow off the field.

Boston's trolley lines were closed for the first time in nearly two decades. Many colleges also were closed _ including Harvard Law School, shut for the first time in nearly 20 years. Harvard students used cafeteria trays to toboggan down the snow-covered stairs of Widener Library.

``I love it when the weather forces people out of their routine,'' said Andrew Latimer, a Somerville lawyer who played hooky from work to go cross-country skiing in Cambridge.

Boston's Logan Airport stopped letting planes in or out on Monday afternoon and was closed most of Tuesday while crews cleared away 2 feet of snow. Many travelers were stranded at the airport.

``For the last 24 hours, we've become very intimate. If you can't do that, then you've lost something somewhere,'' said Susan Tremblay, 32, who was trying to get home to her family in Atlanta.

Connecticut's Windsor Airport, near Hartford, was closed overnight.

``The airplane don't want me. The hotels are full. Nobody wants me,'' lamented Vincent Mule of Meriden, Conn.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge sent the National Guard to help dig out cars stalled in the middle of highways. About 1,000 Pennsylvania motorists spent Monday and Tuesday in their cars, and 4,000 others stayed in shelters.

The 24 inches at Logan Airport made it Boston's third biggest snowfall on record, and the largest ever in April, the National Weather Service said.

Until Monday, Boston had received just 26.5 inches of snow for the winter, well below the 43-inch average and last year's record 107.6 inches.

Across the region, wind gusted to nearly 70 mph during the night. In Boston Harbor, gusts to 50 mph sheared off the top of the USS Constitution's foremast, echoing damage caused by cannon fire during the War of 1812.

The biggest problem was downed trees and utility poles, which blacked out more than 200,000 customers in Massachusetts, more than 100,000 in New York, nearly 98,000 in Connecticut and smaller numbers in neighboring states.