The Perfect Storm of 1969

People talk about the Blizzard of March 1888 as the worst winter storm that ever hit Albany. But they tend to ignore the storms of Christmas week 1969.

The first storm started on 12/23 and dropped between 15” to 2 feet of snow in Albany and surrounding area; it came down in a white out. But by Christmas Eve day, the 24th, the skies were clear. And then late in the day on Christmas it started snowing again. It snowed and snowed, and then when you thought it had stopped, it snowed some more over the next 3 days.

It was the coldest Christmas to date; minus 22 degrees. (So much for the old adage, “it’s too cold to snow”). The wind whipped at a steady 20 mph with gusts around 40 mph.

When the snow finally stopped on 12/28 there was between 4 to 4 1/2 ft.on the ground. Albany and the surrounding area ground to a halt. Buses stopped running, most stores were closed for days, and many of the grocery stores that did open ran out of food. (Why you see Albanians rushing to markets when a snow storm is predicted – it’s “collective memory”.)

Even cars with studded snow tires (now prohibited) and chains on tires couldn’t make it through. People whose front door was close to ground were trapped; they couldn’t get out of their houses. There were cars abandoned in the middle of streets where they had become stuck.

he city was paralyzed; snowmobiles and skis were about the only way to move around. The silence was eerie until the snow stopped. And then the snow filled streets came alive with blocks of neighbors coming together to shovel out sidewalks AND streets. If you owned one of the new “snow blowers” you were a god. Strong young boys made fortunes moving from house to house shoveling.

Housewives with kids compared inventories, and shared what they had for a couple of days. (“I have extra peanut butter, do you have bread or crackers?”) Powdered milk was worth its weight in gold.

Everyone who lived through the storm has a story. But the most poignant is that of a 19 year old boy who was visiting his parents in Albany on leave from bootcamp. He couldn’t make it back to his base in time, and rather than being deployed to Germany as was the plan, he was shipped to Vietnam. He was killed in action on April 13, 1970, less than 4 months later.

The problem was that Albany didn’t have snow removal and towing equipment. It relied mostly on private contractors. And that didn’t work. On New Year’s Eve major streets were still one lane. More than a week later after the storm began, on January 2, 1970, only half of the United Traction Co. buses were running because the streets were not passable, and it took double and triple time to complete a route. 15 foot snowbanks were the norm, and people put little colored styrofoam balls on their extended car aerials, to avert accidents, so others could see the car around a corner snowbank.

And it got worse. It snowed some more. By January 10 there was over 5 feet of snow on the ground. Finally the city hired enough equipment. This was a major concession by Mayor Erastus Corning whose approach to snow removal is variously quoted as “We have the best snow removal equipment in the world-the sun.” Or “God put it there, God will take it away.”

But there was no place to put the snow. The city was filled with mini parades of equipment residents had never seen – huge machines that sliced through snowbanks, followed by trucks that would take the snow and dump it into the Hudson River. By the third week in January most city streets were passable, although some off the beaten path were never cleared, except by residents.

When all was said and done the City had to borrow over $2 million for clean up.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

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