Monday, January 28, 2013

Memories of the Blizzard of '77

It's raining.  A change from the last week when we got over two feet of snow in just four days.  My kids were excited by it since they had a day off from school. India was frustrated by it since she was stranded on the wrong side of the state from college.  Matthew had to keep snow-blowing the driveway so the build-up wouldn't get too deep for the push-behind snow-blower. I was watching the weather with much more interest.  The strong winds, the white-out conditions along with the snow falling so quickly reminded me of the biggest blizzard I have ever seen.  A blizzard that became notorious.  When the winter snow turns to blizzard conditions I always wonder, is another one coming...

January 28th, 1977 was just another winter day.  We had several feet of snow built up from the snow that had fallen since October - when the first snowfall fell that winter, after an extremely rainy summer.  Like so many people in Northern New York State, I had just gone about my day.  

I was 13 then and in 8th grade.  It had been a long day at school and I was eager to get home but as the clock on the wall slowly ticked away, everyone was unaware of what was about to strike.  If we knew, perhaps things would have ended up differently for so many people. 

Like this winter, our temperatures so far the winter of 1976-1977 had been bitterly cold and Lake Erie had frozen over early.  Further up north, in the Lake Ontario Region, we never saw a frozen lake.  Ontario was much too deep for that. The cold was so widespread that even Miami reported snow that winter. In Lowville Academy everyone was used to the snow by now. It had snowed almost every day since Christmas. 

Down in Western New York (where I now live) Lake Erie was covered in a deep layer of powdery snow.  With the lake frozen there was little moisture in the snow and this would make driving conditions nearly impossible. Earlier that day a wall of snow, similar to the one in this photo, had made it's way across Lake Erie and was traveling across Western NY, Ontario Canada and as far south as Erie, Pennsylvania. 

School was going to be letting out in just a little while when the sky went dark.  Everyone turned toward the windows as we watched the darkness be taken over by unrelenting snow, like we had never seen before.  People crammed against the windows to watch and the announcement came over the PA system that the buses would not be running.  Only children living in town were allowed to go home and they needed to do so right away.  other children in our K-12 school of around 2000 students would be sleeping in the "Big Gym" and the school would be feeding them.  I lived the next block over from the school.  A quick 3-minute walk any other day of the year.  My walk home took me around 20 minutes that day and when I arrived home, my Mom told me that my sister's mother-in-law had called and wanted us to bring her 12th grade son to our house.  So Mom sent me back to school.  
West Port Colborne North St. Catharines,
Ontario, Canada
By then the sidewalk was gone and the mailbox marking the corner of the intersection was in the process of being buried.  After crossing the street, I had four houses and a stretch of parallel parking to get past before reaching the first door in the elementary wing of the school. I couldn't see!  The snow was coming so fast and coating my eyelashes, making my eyes too heavy to open.  My nostrils were frozen and the 49 mile an hour wind gusts were taking my breath away, making breathing almost impossible.  40 minutes later, I arrived at the breezeway door. I was frozen and had to take a few minutes to re-group so that I could walk down the hallway to the big gym. When I got there, most of the kids were gone. Other people had come and taken all but a handful to their homes.  Ken was nowhere to be found.  I finally found out that he had gone home with the high school music teacher, who lived with his wife behind the school. 

I was dreading the walk back home but I didn't have to worry. When I walked out of the gym I saw flashing lights and one of the teachers told me to go out the door where the police car was parked.  Uncle Clarence had come to get me and take me home. My Mom was worried that I hadn't come home and had called Tante Clara.  Tante Clara was my Mom's sister and she also lived in our hometown where my Dad had recently retired as Chief Deputy Sheriff. But Uncle Clarence was still the Sheriff , until his own retirement the next year.   
And you thought you had a hard time finding your car in a parking lot?
I made it home and stayed there for the next week.  Schools were closed and people were stuck in their homes, unless you were lucky enough to live in town, or had a snowmobile. 

The school buses left out were all buried. 

Western NY got relatively little snow, but the blowing snow off the lake made conditions terrible.  Northern NY was dumped on with continuous snow until January 31st, when the blizzard finally let up.  The Lake Effect Storm covered our Tug Hill Plateau with almost 100 inches of snow. 
Volunteer firemen clearing off the roof of a house in Depew, NY. 

Thankfully, we never had our electricity go out and we had the fireplace going in the den, so we could shut ourselves in there to get away from the draftiness of our old house. The windchill was well below zero.

Many people made tunnels to get into their homes.
My cousin cleared out a tunnel from the road,
up an angle and onto our front porch.
(this is not my photo)

Uncle Clarence kept us up-to-date on what was going on around the county. So we heard when Camp Drum (now Fort Drum) brought out 14 Amtrak vehicles to help.

C-130 bringing in badly needed supplies.

There were so many people stranded, and buried, in Montague and throughout the rest of "The Tug" and New York State. 
Because of the sudden onslaught of the snow, people were stranded on the roads.  We heard about a police car that was parked next to a stranded car when an Army vehicle came through and ran them both over. 
A front-end loader is trying to clear Furhmann Boulevard.
You can barely see the buried car.

29 people died during the course of the storm, including nine who were found frozen to death in their cars. Most of the deaths were in Western NY. Five lives were lost in Northern NY.
Roof collapsed by weight of snow.

Red Cross volunteers searching for  trapped people

QEW between Niagara Falls and Fort Erie

Snowmobiles became the only means of travel for those without a military track vehicle available to them. While the highway department tried to keep even a single lane open for traffic.

Miser Hill Road, Town of Rutland, Jefferson County

Of course, you had to find your car first. 

There was a full-size van under there.

When the Blizzard finally ended on January 31st, a State of Emergency was declared and traffic was banned except for essential vehicles. While the clean-up continued. 

Buffalo wasn't the only place hit by the storm - this was in Watertown, NY. Jefferson County had snowdrifts that were 'only' 18 feet high.

Rt.177 in Barnes Corners

Snow plow coming up road ...

After things calmed down, people ventured out to explore the damage. Cars were towed out of the roads in the hopes that their owners would find them. 1,900 stranded travelers in Northern NY were allowed to leave on February 1st because supplies were running out.  The dairy industry lost $8 million as a result of the storm. Northern NY is a dairy region and the farmers had to dump their milk. They also had problems getting to their barns to feed their livestock, while several barns collapsed under the heavy Lake Effect snow. 


Rt. 11 looking south at the Rt.177 intersection maybe 200 feet away

The utility poles were almost buried. 

I thought it was so cool how we could actually walk up to the stop lights. 

I used to have the game, but lost it in a divorce.  The game was more based on Buffalo but it was still fun to reminisce while playing. 

The blizzard was such a hard thing to endure - even living in town. But what I will remember the most about this terrible time in so many lives will be the people.  Everyone cared so much about others.  Not just the many, many highway crews and military from throughout the United States who came to help us.  We were blessed to have this happen in a time when people cared for each other.  If you needed to have someone checked on, you simply called the local radio station and told them the address you needed someone to go to and a complete stranger would go there and let you know if your friend or relative was alright and give them any assistance they might need.  Neighbours would check to see if you needed anything before they would brave the storm to go downtown and pick up supplies. People in even the smallest homes filled them with stranded strangers. With the inside scoop from my Uncle we heard so many stories of people helping people. The show of compassion was often overwhelming but this is my strongest memory of the Blizzard of '77. 


  1. I remember this blizzard-- I was a bit younger like 5, but holy cow-- they released school early, and I couldn't get UP the driveway, I kept sliding back down. My Grandfather was at our house that day, and came out to get me. It was icy at first, then we had a ton of snow. I remember tunneling to my next door neighbor's house-- that was a lot of fun.

    Thanks for bringing back some great memories.

  2. I still have the blizzard of 77 game in my closet. I was 6 years old and remember the blizzard because it fell on my birthday 1/31/77.


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