OSWEGO, NY – The folks from New York City down through the Mid-Atlantic States are still digging out from the recent blizzard. Ask anyone around here, however, and they’ll tell you things were much worse in Central New York 50 years ago.
On Thursday night (Jan. 27, 1966), the snow began to come down heavily. By Jan. 28 it was a full-fledged snowstorm.
Everyone in the “Snow Belt” coped. We had weathered snowstorms before.
In fact, on Saturday, Jan. 29, there was a break in the weather. The storm had let up. No big deal. The area and its residents had survived another bout with Mother Nature’s snow machine. They always had, and always would.
Then, all hell broke loose on Jan. 30!
It seemed as if someone had put the region into a blender, added plenty of snow, and turned it on high – it was a blizzard people still speak of in awe-filled voices 50 years later.
By some accounts, when it was all over, the city was bombarded with more than 101 inches of snow.
The exact figure is impossible to say since the winds were so fierce there was no way to get an accurate record of the falling snow.
The only thing that’s known for sure is that the area was paralyzed.
By Jan. 30, an estimated 51 inches of snow (more than 8.5 feet total) had fallen on Central New York.
Everything from birthday parties to church services and everything in between had been canceled.
On Wednesday, Feb. 2, 1966, Oswego Mayor Ralph Shapiro offered some encouragement to a snow-weary city.
“The city is beginning to see daylight,” he said of Oswego’s struggle to shake off the effects of a coastal storm that combined with a lake-effect storm that brought the area to a standstill for several days.
According to news accounts, the mayor was tired and hungry after coordinating all emergency efforts through the Port City’s police department for the better part of Feb. 1-2.
He conservatively estimated the economic loss to the community for the two-day period to be more than $1 million.
The figure, Shapiro said, included the loss of pay by employees and the loss of retail sales by the local merchants.
The mayor met with members of the Common Council and asked them not to revise the 1966 budget, but rather add a certain percentage to the anticipated tax rate to cover the additional cost of the cleanup activities.
New York Sate said it would make available nine plows, two snowthrowers on trailers, a maintenance crew and their personal cars to the city for emergency snow removal.
U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy’s office also called to offer its assistance.
“The storm that almost buried Oswego this weekend was much more serious than that which affected residents in 1958,” the mayor said.
Technically speaking, the storm of 1958 couldn’t be classified as a blizzard since it wasn’t accompanied by high winds. In fact, it didn’t have any wind at all.
During the blizzard of 1966, winds reportedly gusted to more than 60 mph and churned the falling snow into monstrous drifts dropping visibility to zero in the process.
That was the normal condition for the storm, from about 6 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 30 until midnight Monday, Jan. 31.
An estimated 50 inches of snow fell on Oswego on Monday to bring the storm’s total to 101.5 inches since 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, news accounts of the storm claim.
Drifts of 15 feet or higher in some areas were common all over the area. By contract, there were large areas where the fierce winds had blown the snow away to reveal bare ground.
“There was no wind during the storm of 1958,” according to Bill Gregway, local observer for the National Weather Service. “The snow fell gently and evenly. But, in ’66 the winds howled. It was a blizzard in every sense of the word.”
The snowfall measured about seven feet in 1958, as compared to 8.5 feet in 1966.
Virtually nothing moved in the city on Monday and Tuesday. Everything was closed down. Even funerals were delayed.
Most cars hadn’t been started since Sunday; the majority was buried under mounds of snow and their owners hadn’t gotten to them yet.
Schools were closed for the entire week all across the area and registration at the State University College at Oswego was postponed.
Those residents who weren’t outside shoveling were inside huddled around their radios and TV sets listening to reports of the storm.
The city’s Department of Public Works struggled to get the streets passable.
The youngsters didn’t mind the mountains of snow. They were making huge snow forts and sliding almost anywhere. Some youngsters were even reportedly sliding out of the second-story windows at their homes.
During the height of the snow emergency, some nurses and staff members at Oswego Hospital worked 16 to 18 hours without a break.
“Service beyond the call of duty,” was the way Paul Sobering, administrative director, praised the work of the staff.
Dr. Jerry Belden arrived at the hospital aboard a snowmobile, according to newspaper accounts.
“I think the people of this hospital who worked so hard have certainly earned the gratitude of everyone in the city,” he said.
On Thursday, Feb. 3, Paul Phillips, executive director of the Albany area Red Cross, said his organizations were using two Army helicopters to airlift food and medical supplies to stranded families.
In Pennellville, 80 families reportedly had to have food supplies parachuted to them as there was no other way to get past the gargantuan mountains of snow.
According to an Associated Press report that day, “New snow, ranging from flurries to two inches or so, fell almost unnoticed today in the drift-laden East.”
Meanwhile, in Fulton, a semblance of normalcy had returned to the city.
After three days of digging out from under six feet of snow, the city was coming back to life, local newspapers reported.
Four more inches of snow fell on Feb. 4.
Things were getting back to normal, but not quite.
More had to be done, Mayor Shaprio said, before the state of emergency would be lifted in Oswego.
All the main roads, with the exception of Interstate 81, were reportedly open.
However, safety was still a major concern as the sidewalks weren’t cleared and people had to walk in the roadway to get anywhere.
The extra equipment the state had promised finally made its way to Oswego.
It seems they had been sidetracked in Syracuse for a while.
The crews arrived in the Port City in the afternoon, but didn’t go to work until that evening.
On Saturday, Feb. 5 newspaper headlines proclaimed: “Emergency Over, Most Outside Equipment Leaves Today.”
“It looked like old times this morning on West First Street, with barely an inch of snow on the ground, cars and people heading for their various destinations and a feeling of general relief as the snow emergency heads into its final hours,” a story in the local paper reported.
Effective at 7 a.m. Monday, Feb. 7, the Local Department of Public Works assumed all snow removal activity, the mayor said. The state of emergency was officially lifted.
When the Port City woke up Feb. 7, it was life as usual again.
“City Regains Normal Life One Week After Big Storm,” the headlines proclaimed.
The late Elmer F. Loveridge, retired U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologist, was the weather observer at the time.
He said he measured .10-inch of precipitation in the snowfall, “unusual for this time of year,” he said.
There was about 44 inches of snow on the ground, he added.
That was down three inches from Saturday’s high of 47 inches.
The snow was hard to measure, he pointed out, because it was heavy and packed down on itself.
An accurate measurement of what fell during the height of the storm was impossible to say due to the extremely high winds, he explained.
(Photographs courtesy of Jim Farfaglia, author of “Voices in the Storm – Stories From The Blizzard Of ’66.”