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History's Headlines: The winters of our discontent

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 07 2014 08:10:58 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 10 2014 05:57:23 PM CST

This winter may seem especially snowy, but just remember, we've had it much worse!

Ok, so it’s been cold- real cold- so far this winter. But it’s not the first time, of course.

In Jan. of 1961, probably no one in the Lehigh Valley had ever heard of a polar vortex. Forecasts were provided by the U.S. Weather Bureau, not 24 hour TV weather stations. Although the Tiros 1 weather satellite had been launched on Apr. 1, 1960, it had lasted only 78 days. It was not until Tiros 9 in 1965 that daily and complete coverage of the earth’s weather came into being.

The earliest television weather broadcasts featured a weatherman or more commonly a “weather lady” who drew “the graphics”- chalk arrows across blackboard maps, sometimes supplemented by a smiley-faced sun or cartoon-like cloud blowing wind.

'61 Storm But what they did have in Jan. 1961 was cold winter weather, and snow- lots of it.

The last two weeks of that month, the storm just happened to coincide with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. In the words of the Associated Press, the storm, “knocked the neat, normal patterns of life into a scramble of jigsaw puzzle pieces.”

Even before the storm, the winter of 1960-61 was harsh. In December, temperatures were averaging 6.9 degrees below normal. And a normal January snowfall total was 7.1 inches. But it had reached 18.3 inches by Jan. 20. Allentown received ten inches of snow on Thursday, Jan. 19, and 6 inches more on Friday, Jan. 20, before it stopped.

Then came the winds, which created drifts that were 19 feet high in some locations.

On Jan. 21, the low was 2 below zero early that morning, and it only made it to the low 20s. It was the coldest temperature recorded in the Lehigh Valley since Jan. 18, 1954, when the temperature dropped to 9 below zero. The lowest local temperature recorded at A-B-E Airport was 12 below on Jan. 9, 1934.

Harrisburg was buried under 20 inches of snow and the state capital was closed. A foot of snow buried New York and Philadelphia. All bus service between the Lehigh Valley and both cities had ceased. Trains were anywhere from one to three hours late, when they got there at all.

Shoveling in the '61 storm Between the snow and the cold, driving was a nightmare. Plow crews worked long hours and at least one person in Allentown died of a heart attack while plowing. Two people around the region were reported to have been stricken while shoveling their driveways and sidewalks.

The Lehigh Valley Motor Club established a special hotline to help motorists find open garages that would service them. Allentown Councilman Lloyd E. Grammes, who headed the Department of Streets under the city’s old form of government, noted its seven plows were in full operation.

Other Lehigh Valley regions were reporting main roads cleared, but a snowy mess on back country roads. Perhaps to show the bright side of the storm, two young women-Joanne Toth and Suzanne Person-were shown in a newspaper photo trotting around the Allentown Fairgrounds in a one horse open sleigh.

Snow cripples east Washington D.C. was the center of attention for the news media over concerns how the 8 inches of snow might make a mess of some inaugural plans. But crews worked all night to get the streets clear. It was even reported later that U.S. Army units equipped with flamethrowers were busy burning the snow and ice off the streets on the parade route.

At least some local people who had planned to be on hand to hear Kennedy’s inaugural address were disappointed. They waited too long and were snowed in.

But one busload of activist Democrats from Lehigh County made it through. Their trip began at 8 p.m. on Thursday night and arrived at 6 a.m. Friday morning. Their driver was Clifford (Caruso) Treese, who ordinarily took local ski parties from the Lehigh Valley to Vermont.

Despite a jack-knifed truck that held them up for two hours, Treese kept everybody’s spirits up by entertaining the travelers by singing popular tunes. Soon they had a sing-a-long going. When they arrived in D.C and were greeted by Allentown mayor John “Jack” Gross, who had gotten in ahead of the storm, everybody was tired but happy.

'96 Storm It was 35 years later on Jan. 8 and 9 of 1996 that the most recent severe storm hit the Lehigh Valley. Long before it hit, computer models were showing what forecasters were calling a storm of “historic proportions.” It dumped over 20 inches on the Valley.

West Virginia recorded the largest amount, 43 inches. Wind-whipped drifts were also hitting New York and Philadelphia, which got over 30 inches. “It’s a thigh high snow we got here,” said one frustrated New Yorker.

At least 43 people died from the storm nationally, six of them in the Lehigh Valley.

Most of the deaths came when those shoveling snow had heart attacks. One Allentown woman stepped out of her home in only a housecoat and attempted to use a broom to remove the snow. But a gust of wind blew the door shut behind her and she got buried in a drift. Her body was not found until the next day with her broom beside her.

Snow plow “We’re up to our eyeballs in snow,” said Allentown’s Downtown Improvement director Robin Turner. The city workers were plowing as fast as possible, but, up against gale force winds, they were overwhelmed.

Unlike a 25 inch storm in 1983, there was no warm air behind it in 1996. Snow shovels were in operation as drivers attempted to uncover their cars. It took one of them three days. Snow was piled on either side of sidewalks so high it look like World War I-era trenches. And many discovered water leaking into their homes from the roofs.

So in case you feel like complaining about this winter, just remember 1961 and 1996 and be thankful.