Thursday, January 26, 2017

50th anniversary of the Great Chicago Blizzard of 1967

For twenty-nine straight hours starting on January 26, 1967, snow fell and fell on Chicago, for a record grand total of 23 inches, easily surpassing the previous record of 19 inches in 1930. Winds gusted to 53 miles per hour, creating snow drifts up to six feet high.  Was it payback for the balmy record of 65 degrees we relished two days earlier, accompanied by thunderstorms and even funnel clouds?

I was in my senior year at Chicago State College on the far south side and worked at the school as switchboard operator to earn some money.  When I began my shift, I was instructed to answer the constant phone queries as to the status of school with “Yes, we are open.”  The president’s office was near the switchboard, and around noon, he came to me and said to begin answering with “School is closed.”  Students were sent home and evening classes canceled.  Around 2 pm he passed by me in his coat and hat and asked if I could stay for another hour or so to continue to get the message out.  There were no answering machines then, so in essence I served that purpose as the snow depth kept increasing at two inches per hour.

I finally left at 3 pm, locking the school as I exited, and slogged through deepening snow on the several block walk to the Englewood line elevated station.  My train was nearly empty since I was near the end of the line and heading towards the Loop downtown to proceed to where I lived on the North Side, whereas most people were heading out of the Loop.  As we neared downtown, the train commute became a real nightmare as trains quickly filled up.  My train then emptied as we reached a major transfer point downtown, only to immediately refill with those transferring to my train to head north with me. 

Then I got off to transfer to the Ravenswood line and became one of the horde on the platform unable to enter the approaching overflowing trains.  I finally managed to wiggle back into a  train car on the same line I had started on, and devised Plan B, taking it to Addison Street, better known as the Wrigley Field station, from which I had a ten block walk west to my home (instead of a two block walk from the Ravenswood line station.)

Since sidewalks were already several feet deep in snow as seen in the above photo, I walked in Addison Street where some plows had temporarily made a bit of headway, though snow was then accumulating too quickly for plows to keep up.  Buses, cars, and even a few trucks were already stranded and abandoned in the road, and I actually was enjoying the walk in the beautiful snowfall and was secretly awed at the sights I witnessed (and I admit now, chuckling a bit at the plight of the motor vehicles I encountered.)

    Chuckling until I reached my block, that is.  I came upon our family’s 1966 Dodge Dart stuck in a snowdrift in the alley about a hundred feet from our garage  -- as far as my mom was able to get it after driving home from work. 

My spirits fell as I knew who would be responsible for shoveling those hundred feet to get it into the garage.  As the blizzard continued, I began working with the snow shovel as seen below. A close look will reveal the six foot tall chain link fence to my left (just before our garage) and the snow piles reaching its top. 

Fortunately, I didn’t have to shovel the entire alley, just up to the intersecting alley behind me.  The owner of the brick 9 flat next to us shoveled the bulk of the alley alongside his building because he had a vital delivery of coal due the next day.  So after the storm, I got our car dug out, backed it out of the alley, and drove our car to the business district a few blocks away at Lincoln and Belmont where I parked on the street which by then had been plowed, and walked home.  Then hours later that evening, after neighboring St. Andrews Catholic Church had used its tractor to plow its sidewalks, I walked back to the car, drove it to the church, then drove on their cleared sidewalk to the alley cleared by our neighbor, and then down to our garage, where the car stayed for several days!

Shelves of all the local mom-and-pop grocery stores were emptied.  All transportation except the elevated trains ceased operating, and many reached home very late if at all. Hotels quickly achieved full occupancy and cots and couches were put into use.  An estimated 20,000 cars and 1100 buses became stranded, creating additional havoc for plowing crews. Helicopters had to be used to deliver medical supplies to hospitals, and food and blankets were taken to stranded motorists. Expectant mothers arrived at hospitals by sled, bulldozer, and plow trucks.  Snowmobiles would have been helpful had they existed then. Sixty people lost their lives and business losses were estimated at $150 million (in 2006 dollars it would be $904 million.)

Here are two more photos of the storm’s aftermath.  Below is O’Hare Airport, then the busiest in the world, as it dug out.  I often wondered how many truckloads of snow they had to remove from their runways and tarmac.  The airport didn’t reopen until midnight Monday, finally allowing stranded travelers to escape home.

Below is an aerial photo of the intersection of  two of Chicago’s major expressways, the Edens and the Kennedy, with absolutely no cars in sight.

This blizzard set numerous records, including: Greatest snowfall in a calendar day with 16.4 inches; Greatest snowfall in a 24 hour period at 19.8 inches; Greatest snowfall from a storm at 23.0 inches; Greatest snow depth with following snowfalls at 27 inches by February 6; a record total of 36.5 inches of snow fell on the city during the 11 day period from January 26 through February 5, which was close to normal snowfall for an entire season (snow covered the ground until March 10);  and Greatest snowfall for a season with a total of 68.4 inches (a record since eclipsed in the winters of 1969, 1977, and 1978.)

Finally, by Saturday the 28th, commuter trains were running again, CTA bus lines were mostly reopened, 2500 people and 500 pieces of equipment were out clearing streets, with much of the equipment and personnel being reinforcements sent from surrounding states.  There was too much snow to simply push it around, so trucks dumped it into park fields and the Chicago River. Most schools eventually reopened on Tuesday.

Truly a story to tell the grandchildren, and one I hope to never relive!

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