Monday, October 21, 2013

Utah's Worst-ever Winter: 1948-1949?

 The aftermath of a January 2013 heavy snowfall in Layton, just a  sampling of what happened all too often in the severe Utah winter of 1948-1949.

By Lynn Arave

RECALLING the infamous Utah winter of 1948-49
Think last month's cold spell, snow and inversions equal a hard winter?
Looking back to the frigid and snowy winter of 1948-49 makes December of 2013 look pretty tame.
Some old-timers, as well as historical records, indicate that the winter of 1948-49 -- some 65 years ago was simply awful -- likely the worst recorded winter period in northern Utah since the 1800s.
Take Ogden City for example: On January 26, 1949, Ogden shivered with its coldest ever recorded temperature -- 16 degrees below zero.
But low temperatures are only part of this chilling story. The winter of 1948-1949 had a frightful combination of  bone-chilling temperatures, heavy snowfall, howling winds and even inversions..
The National Weather Service ranks that winter as the No. 4 weather event for Utah during the 20th century.
Its description: "Utah's most severe winter since 1899 ... It was the coldest winter on record, with record amounts of seasonal snowfall ... Nearly a 25 percent loss in some livestock herds reported. Many fruit trees were killed. Wildlife struggled for existence. Tourist trade reached an all-time low, and 10 people died from exposure."
The Utah State Division of History refers to it as “1948’s Unforgettable Winter” and included reports from areas of the Wasatch Front where the snow piles and drifts were as high as the telephone wires and driving down the road was like traveling through a tunnel.
The more recent Utah winters of the mid-1980s and 1993 were infamous too, for heavy snowfalls, but they lacked subzero temperatures and howling winds.
For example, on Jan. 23 and Jan. 24, 1949, there were 23 inches of snow at the Salt Lake Airport, the third greatest amount on record. Then, on Jan. 25, the temperature dipped to 7 degrees below zero and never topped 8 degrees above zero for a high.
Anyone born before the start of World War II may be able to recall how terrible the winter was in 1948-49.
Checking the journal of Venice Flygare, of Ogden, my late Mother-in-Law, provides her description of that significant winter:
"It was a very hard winter, lots of snow," she wrote. "There was very seldom a snowplow that went along our street and no garbage pick up or mail delivery. There were many nights when we could park our car on 30th Street and walk the half block to our house (at 1328 Walcott Street)."
Another relative, Milas Erastus Wakefield, also wrote about that winter with a one-line entry: "1949 was a very hard winter, lots of snow and cold weather."
Brent K. Thurgood of Hooper, also recalled that awful winter:
"I remember it well, as I was 5 years old and living in Ogden at the time, in Bonneville Park, a government subdivision. The road to the North of our house was a narrow one way road but the snow plowed and blown off of it created a snow bank on both sides about 12-15 feet high."
He continued: "We had to dig a tunnel through to get to our house. I remember climbing to the top and sliding down with and without a sleigh. I also remember the black smog over Ogden, My house was on Quincy Ave. and you could see the black smoke and steam from the trains coming into and leaving the train depot. The black soot would fall on the snow each night. My mother hung our laundry out to dry and the clothes were covered with soot also."
Margaret Brough of Kaysville also recalled that icy winter with a lot of detail:
"I lived in West Jordan during that time and I was a Sophmore at Jordan High School," Brough recalled. "The Bingham Highway from Redwood Road up to the copper
mine was snowed in. We had a lot of snow and then the winds would blow snow drifts into the roads. The Bingham High way was closed for (it seems like) about 6 weeks. All the area between West Jordan and
bingham was mostly dry farms. The people did not have a way to get to the store for supplies or for feed for their animals. I remember someone took the body of a small airplane and built things that looked
like pontoons on the bottom and he would fly from house to house to get orders for food, and feed for the animals and deliver it. Airport #2 was in operation at the time and I am sure this guy operated out of there."
She continued: "We lived down a lane and one night as my father was coming home, the truck got stuck half way down the lane. My father walked home and by
morning the truck was completely covered. For weeks we would walk down the lane to catch the school bus and it seemed liked that truck was completely covered and you did not know where the truck was until spring. Suddenly the top of the truck became visible and it was still quite a few days before my father was able to get the truck home."
"When the bingham highway was opened it was done by a rotary plow. The plow would pile snow up on the snow that was already taller than the snow plow. We had a neigh bor who would take the bus to 7800 south and
redwood road and then he would walk a mile up the Bingham Highway to his house. The first night that the Bigham Highway was unplowed, he was walking on the top of the snow piled up by the side of the road.
(quite high) He was about 6' 2" and he bumped into the cross bar on the top of the light pole and knocked himself out. It was a few days after this happened that trucks began to haul some of the snow away.
(We needed to decrease the heights by the side of the road."
Now Brough said this startling fact:
"Jordan High School was closed down for three or four days right around the 20th of January until we could get the roads open for the buses to
operate. It was cold and the wind did blow a lot. I have pictures around our yard where the piles of snow was twice as tall as a 5' 2" girl would be standing. It was quite a fete. That was the coldest winter I have ever lived through."

--I also asked three 80-something-year-old seniors I recently saw at random about the winter of 1948-49. All three recalled it well. One said he hated the chest high school drifts and another said he went to Sacramento, Calif. for the holidays that winter and had extreme problems driving back into northern Utah. The third said he lived on the East Coast at the time, but recalls the news coverage of all the aerial food drops for livestock in the Rocky Mountains.
The Wasatch Front was stuck in a temperature inversion for long periods during that winter. In an era when burning coal was still the most common source of heating, air pollution levels must have been off the scale.
December of 1948 produced 39 inches of snow falling at the S.L. Airport. There were only seven days that month lacking snowfall. Plus, there were just eight snowless days in January 1949 and nine in February. To make it even worse, it snowed on 11 of the 31 days in March 1949.
December in Salt Lake City boasted two subzero temperature days; January had 13 and February four total. (Historically, the city averages only three days of zero degrees or below a year.) Ogden and points north of Salt Lake likely were as cold or colder than Salt Lake was.
Winds were also a curse that winter. With the extra cold temperatures, the snow was light and it didn't take much wind to create dangerous drifts.
On Feb. 7, 1949, 10 inches of snow were recorded at the Salt Lake Airport, followed by near hurricane-force winds. The blowing snow closed schools in the Davis and Weber school districts.
Milk and egg production dropped substantially. "Operation Haylift" used aircraft to drop food to struggling livestock in rural areas.
A photo collection at the University of Utah has this caption attached to a winter snowpile in central Utah —"The winter of 1948-49 was unforgettable. Snow was on the ground for 5 months. The snow which had been plowed to the sides of the road became so high that it had to be hauled off in trucks."
Coal supplies also ran low in Utah that winter, too. During portions of February that year, all roads north of Brigham City were closed.
Trains were even snowed in. A snowslide buried a train in Cache County and killed three railroad workers. In parts of Wyoming, drastic methods were used: Flame throwers cleared the Union Pacific tracks in February of 1949.
Idaho too had a severe winter that season.
Feb. 4-Feb. 11, 1949 was likely Idaho's worst ever winter blast. Three snowplows and their drivers were stranded overnight between Pocatello and American Falls.
Many road repairs were required in the spring.
So, maybe all those trite-sounding tales from seniors about trudging through deep snow to school in their youth were not all exaggerated after all.

Sources: Journals, "Utah's Weather and Climate" book, by Dan Pope and Clayton Brough; and the National Weather Service Web site.

(From an article by Lynn Arave in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, on Jan. 3, 2014.)

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  

No comments:

Post a Comment