Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Remembering the Blizzard 1967

Forty-four (44) years ago tomorrow, on January 26-27, 1967, Chicago was clobbered by one of the worst snowstorms to ever slam into the Windy City.



I remember it very well.

The Blizzard of ’67 was one for the history books.  By the time the snow stopped falling, mid-morning on Friday the 27th, the Blizzard of ’67 had buried the city in 23 inches of heavy wet snow. The storm was made worse by powerful winds gusting at over 50 miles-per-hour that created impassable drifts throughout the city, some of which towered over 10 feet and defeated even the most powerful plows.
The storm shattered an all time record set in 1930 (March 25th and 26th) and although there have been some whoppin’ bad storms since, the Blizzard of ’67 remains the Mother of All Blizzards in a city that routinely shrugs off  some serious winter weather. Put it this way: it was Chicago’s version of the “The Perfect Storm.”

It had been unseasonably warm for several days prior to the storm; on Tuesday the 24th  the city experienced spring-like weather with a high of 65-degrees and a low of only 44, records that still stand today. Powerful thunderstorms slammed into the city on the night of the 24th and there was much wind damage all over the area.  In fact, funnel clouds were reported on the southwest side. The wind gusted to 48 mph at Midway Airport and the wall of a building under construction at 87th and Stony Island toppled, killing one man and injuring four others.  I remember carrying my jacket home from school on that spring-like day in January and ever since it seems that many of us who lived through the Blizzard of ’67 will say “Oh boy, I don’t know if I like this…” when the weather starts to feel a bit too warm too early. Invariably some Chicagoan with a good memory will ask somewhat rhetorically, “Yeah, isn’t this just how it was a day or two before the Big Blizzard?” and we all know exactly which of our many blizzards they mean. There has only been one that we all understand as being most definitely “The Big Blizzard.”

Being a historian, I naturally want to examine why the Blizzard of ’67 so completely paralyzed Chicago. Certainly, it wasn’t the first deadly blizzard and it won’t be the last. I’ve lived through some deadly storms since. So, what made it so memorable?

My tentative idea is this: bad timing, congestion, and less sophisticated weather tracking and reporting.
The worst of the storm arrived after hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans had already left home for school and work. If it had arrived several hours earlier or the night before, people would have been trapped in the safety of their own homes and not many miles away. Because of the timing, many thousands of Chicagoans were dispersed over hundreds of miles of Chicagoland. 

By noon it was becoming apparent the storm was anything but ordinary after 8 inches of snow was measured on the ground and O’Hare Airport cancelled all flights in and out. At around the same time businesses and schools were choosing to close early but by then it was already too late; thousands of Chicagoans found there was little to no public transportation still operating and driving their own vehicles was virtually impossible.

Thousands of Chicagoans were forced to seek refuge from the storm in anything they could find that was still open, whether gas stations, stores, schools, hospitals or even police stations. Some schools, realizing the danger of sending the children into the storm, kept their students all night. Hospital workers and essential city service workers stayed put for several days. O’Hare and Midway Airports housed many thousands of stranded travelers. Those Chicagoans who could get home thanked God for small miracles; commutes that might normally take thirty minutes stretched into four and five terrifying, brutal hours.

It is helpful to pause here to compare the Chicago of 1967 to that of 1930, the year of its previously most famous winter storm. For one thing, the city limits in 1930 were smaller and also the population was about half the 1967 numbers. In 1930 a much greater percentage of Chicagoans worked closer to home, right in their own neighborhoods, so getting home in a blizzard was much easier. Another factor was that in March 1930 Chicago was definitely feeling the effects of the beginning of the Great Depression; no doubt employment was down which even if it meant more people were home it may also have meant there were more homeless people at great physical risk in such a deadly storm (although the really bad years were ’32 and ’33). However, even factoring in the vulnerability of an increased number of homeless in ’30, those numbers still don’t come anywhere near the number of Chicagoans found stranded far from their homes in 1967.

Also, we need to remember how abandoned cars made the Blizzard of 1967 so utterly frustrating. There were hundreds of thousands more cars registered in Chicago in 1967 than in 1930 and there were many more thousands of people living in and around the city who drove to work each day. It’s been estimated that as many as 30,000 cars and over 1,000 city buses were abandoned throughout the city during the Blizzard of ’67. Even if city plows could have kept up with the storm (not likely), those abandoned vehicles made the situation far worse; they impeded snow removal for days after the storm.

Weather reporting was far inferior to what it is today.  Doppler radar didn’t exist, computers were in their relative infancy, and there were no weather satellites. Weathermen had predicted 4” and were not positioned to make quick adjustments to those numbers when the storm began to change shape, direction and velocity.  As I already mentioned, timing was critical: hundreds of thousands were already at work or school when it became obvious that the storm was turning into a deadly monster.

The heaviest snow fell in the morning and early afternoon of the 26th; it fell at a maximum rate of accumulation of 2 inches per hour during the late morning. It was not a steady or typical storm; in some ways it was strangely peculiar. At one point on the afternoon of the 26th Meigs Field reported it was experiencing “thundersnow” as thunder accompanied the whirling falling snow! The snow appeared to taper off by evening, only to roar back to life with a vengeance overnight.

Everyone old enough to remember has their own memories of the storm. I had just turned sixteen and remember that my friends and I walked home from high school because there were no more buses traveling our route. Fortunately for us we lived within several miles of our school. Nonetheless it took us at least three hours to a walk a route that we could probably travel in under an hour easily. There were neighborhood short-cuts we could take but we wisely chose to walk on main streets, perhaps still hoping to catch a city bus. Staying on the main streets also meant we could dart in and out of the occasional store or gas station we found still open and stomp our feet and try to warm-up.

It’s easy to forget how isolated we were without cells phones!

We lived on the far northside of Chicago and my father worked in Chicago’s Loop. I don’t think he arrived home until very late that evening. He would have just turned forty-six and seemed still strong and very healthy although he was a heavy smoker. We found out several years later that he had a very bad heart so I guess it’s a miracle he didn’t die in a snow drift. I think he was able to catch an “L” train out of the Loop but when the tracks froze up the train sat for about four hours – without lights or heat. From the “L” station he would have been looking at about an eight city block walk home. He seemed to take it all in stride, even teasing that the rest of us were wimps. Dad measured every winter against either his childhood experiences growing up in South Dakota or the Battle of the Bulge; two experiences that clearly trumped the rest of the family when it came to whopper story telling.

Typical of Murphy’s Law, our furnace died right in the middle of the Blizzard and our house got horribly cold very fast. Of course, there wasn’t a chance in hell that we could get it fixed immediately. So it was finally decided early Friday morning that my parents, my younger brother and I, as well as our intrepid good sport of a Cocker spaniel, needed to stay with my grandparents until the furnace repairmen could arrive. My grandparents lived about eight miles away and my father, the old Sergeant in the U.S. Infantry that he’d once been, took immediate charge of the operations.  I was certainly up to it and my younger brother who was nine was certainly up to it but my mother was terrified. Looking back on it I can’t blame her: our entire neighborhood looked like Siberia. We had drifts next to our house that swept up and over our roof and our back porch was buried under what looked like an avalanche.  The Windy City was being slammed with gale force winds and the temperatures were falling. Even a cold house seemed far better than dying in the snow.

My father pulled out sleds and we piled them high with whatever few clothes he deemed the four of us needed; we also took dog food, several thermoses of hot coffee and cocoa, water, and snacks he called our “fuel.” That was probably the true moment of panic for my city-bred mother; the idea that we might need life-sustaining fuel to make it to our destination was surely frightening. 

Many of the marvelous winter clothes we now take for granted weren’t available then; at least my family didn’t own any. Eddie Bauer and Land’s End weren’t household names in 1967 – if they were, we didn’t know about it. We had things that were called “woolies” and “long johns” and plenty of flannel, stocking caps, leggings, mittens, and scarves and my father doled it out with great seriousness; he supervised how we dressed with the keen eye of a man preparing his people for combat. We were “taking the beach” and none of his people were going down or being left behind.

The secret to our survival, he assured us, was keeping our “dogs dry and warm.” He was Infantry and he walked over a lot of cold ground and taking care of your feet was as important as taking care of your gun. We didn’t have guns but on this trip our feet were our weapons. Our lives might depend on them.

We set off confidently under our Sergeant’s watchful eye and I do believe my mother eventually got into it and had some fun. We walked down the very middle of Clark Street, a major city street, at about noon on Friday the 27th.  We all commented on the total silence, the total abandonment of the area; it was spooky and I’ll never forget it. We seemed to be the only Chicagoans living in the city. I remember thinking it was like the end of the world, the day after a nuclear bomb. I was very much the child of the Atomic Age and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had read Nevil Shute’s book “On the Beach” and seen Stanley Kramer’s movie with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. My parents had the book and I probably saw the movie on late night television. The book and movie scared the hell out of me and I wrote a paper about it for school. I walked over a tall drift of snow and slid down on my butt; it wasn’t a drift but a buried car and my butt cleaned the snow off its windshield.

We arrived at our destination feeling quite triumphant.  We were met with tears from my grandmother and a lot of chuckles from grandfather. The rest of the weekend was wonderful as we played cards and told stories and let my grandmother pamper us to her heart’s content.

As I wrote before in my post titled “Bughouse Square,” my grandmother never quite trusted my father or any man with the care of children but I think that after Sgt. McDermott delivered us all to her door in the Blizzard of ’67 she never doubted him again.

Postscript:

By Saturday the 28th, Chicago was beginning to dig itself out. Commuter trains were running and CTA buses were operating most lines. The city sent a workforce of 2,500 people with 500 pieces of equipment out to clear the streets.  Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan sent heavy equipment to help with the snow removal. But the thousands of abandoned vehicles hampered the clean up. Snow was hauled by dump truck to the Chicago River. O’Hare finally opened around midnight Monday, allowing people who had been stranded for days to finally get home. Most schools didn't reopen until Tuesday. By then most transportation was back to normal.  

By the time it was over, 60 people were dead and there was an estimated $150 million in business losses (well over $900 million in today’s dollars).  The 1967 snowstorm probably caused the biggest disruption to the commerce and transportation of Chicago of any event since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
It was one helluva’ storm.

What about you?  Any memories of this or other major storms?

5 comments:

  1. I have a bad memory but I do remember some things about that day. I think we were released from school a bit early. We walked the block from school to the bus stop on Howard. Of course we were not wearing any boots. It was already about 6 inches deep. We waited for quite a while til we realized that the busses were not going to come. We headed down to the "EL" in the snow that was getting deeper fast. The trains were still running for the time being. After I got off the "EL" I walked home a couple of blocks in the 12" of snow that fell by that time. My feet and legs were freezing. The next day I walked over to Sheridan and Loyola. The quiet was unreal. I was giddy. Not a car in site all the way down the usually busy Sheridan Rd. I laid down in the middle of the street just to say that I did it and never would be able to do it again.
    A neighbor was out of oil for their furnace and the whole block got out with shovels to clean the street from their house to the corner so the truck could get thru. It was fun to see everyone work together. I will never forget the feeling.

    ReplyDelete
  2. when there's a blizzard, people help each other.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Gosh, I remember that, I was a student at UofC and we walked up Lake Shore Drive trying to see if anyone was stuck in their cars. (Did the same for the Blizzard of 1979). Now also in Maine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was an amazing time! So, how long have you been in ME?

      Delete
  4. I woke up that morning no school nothing could move outside great storm love snow shovel alot

    ReplyDelete