Then & Now | Remembering Snow

Well, Cleveland had a truly white Christmas several weeks ago. It was not the usual holiday with rain, sleet, sunshine, or a wisp of snow. It was a good foot plus for much of the city and it did tend to tie up holiday traffic, such as it was during the Pandemic. But, how did that recent holiday snow stack up to some memorable winter weather events?

As heavy and widespread as the snow was, it was certainly not a blizzard, but rather one of the sometimes heavy snow events that hit the city and the eastern suburbs, particularly when the lake is not frozen over and “lake effect” snow results. Just ask the folks in Lake and Geauga county about heavy snows – it’s hard for them to remember a winter when there was not one. That said, the real “test” of a city is a blizzard which is defined by the National Weather Service as a storm with winds or gusts 35 mph or higher along with blowing snow or considerable falling snow that causes visibility to be less than a quarter of a mile.

Given those parameters Cleveland has had three major blizzards during its recorded weather history. They occurred in 1913, 1950, and 1978. The first in 1913 was the second weather disaster to hit the city (and the state) that year. It was preceded by the “Great Flood” of 1913 which began on March 21st and then over five days dropped more than 11 inches of rain of the state. It was the disaster that put what remained of the Ohio and Erie Canal out of commission forever. The blizzard of that year began eight months later on November 9 and lasted until the eleventh. Over 22 inches of snow fell with 60 mile an hour winds. Shipping on the Great Lakes was severely hit. Thirty-two ships were lost or damaged and 277 sailors perished.

The next blizzard is still within living memory. It occurred in 1950 and also in November. It began on the 24th and lasted for five days, and is remembered as the Thanksgiving Blizzard. Cleveland was at its peak population of over 900,000 at that time. Over 22 inches of snow fell and high winds created huge drifts. Roads were blocked with over 10,000 abandoned cars and the National Guard was called in to help dig the city out. In the end, 23 people died. Digging out of the storm cost the city over one million dollars. For students, it was fairly good news – Cleveland schools closed for the entire week after the blizzard.

The last major blizzard to hit the city took place in January 1978. It was the third major storm to hit the city that winter and it began on Thursday, January 26. The barometer fell to a record 28.26 as the temperature dropped 36 degrees in 6 hours. Wind gusts were clocked at 82 miles per hour while the sustained wind speed was 53 mph. One estimate indicates that the wind-chill reached -100 F! Snow fall was minimal – 8 inches, but again it drifted. Mayor Dennis Kucinich was in Washington when the storm began and could not return to the city. His finance director, Joseph Teagreene served as acting mayor. All major highways, excluding Interstate 77 were closed and over 110,000 people in the Greater Cleveland area suffered power outages. For a time, the entire Ohio Turnpike was closed and once again, the National Guard was called upon for assistance. This is the “blizzard” that many in the area still remember and it is also the winter that sticks in local memory given that, at the time, it was the second “snowiest” in the city’s history.

Many of us will likely recall our snowy holiday season this year – it may have caused inconvenience, but it certainly did seem to match the season. For a brief period at the end of a difficult year, northeastern Ohio looked pleasantly different as the snow created a new landscape, and along with holidays it helped take our minds off the other pressing issues of the times.