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

Albany and the Blizzard of 1888

On March 12th in 1888 a great snowstorm was raging into its second day. When over, nearly 3 days later, it had dumped almost 4 feet of snow on Albany. For days people in Albany, NYC and the area to the east to Boston were isolated from the outside world.

It started late in the afternoon of Sunday March 11. At 11pm that night a trip through the City that would have normally taken 15 minutes took 3 hours. By Monday afternoon, the snow was knee high. “Trolley” cars that were usually pulled by 1 horse (electric trolleys didn’t debut until a couple of years later) were hitched to 4 horses in an act of desperation- then an 8 horse hitch was tried. That failed and the car was abandoned in the middle of State St. By 7pm everything ground to a halt.

Albanians are hardy souls. Snow? Pftt!!. They had just survived a snowstorm of over 2 ft. 3 months before in the week before Christmas. (Another of the largest snowstorms Albany has endured.) But this would be something else. The bulk of the snow fell on that Monday – slightly over 2 ½ ft., the largest single day snow fall in Albany recorded history.

Railroad travelers were marooned. Hotels in downtown were crammed with the stranded travelers and people who lived on the outer fringes of the City who couldn’t make it home. Young men with snow shoes were about the only people who could move about. They ran errands dragging sledges as they mushed through eerily empty streets.

5By March 13, the ‘Albany Evening Union” wrote, “No business. No tracking. No car (horse) travel. No Legislature. No matinees. No coal (which meant no heat)… No railroad trains…. No milk. … Last night was bad enough, but today is worse”. Even the saloons were closed!! It was so bad the Legislature adjourned for 2 days – people joked “No Laws”. Front doors were blocked with snow, and some people exited through second story windows on to huge snow piles. N. Pearl, S. Pearl and State Streets were covered with drifts in the 10’ to 15’ range. The biggest drift, somewhat over 20 ft. high, blocked Hawk St., at Jay, (an area now buried under the Empire State Plaza) just west of the Capitol.

Mayor Thacher ceded city functions, issuing a proclamation urging private citizens to hire groups of men to remove snow from the streets and roads in front of their houses and businesses. People who lived in row houses didn’t bother clearing the snow; they constructed tunnels through the drifts on sidewalks.

Virtually all telegraph and telephone lines were down; it wasn’t until after the storm was over that reports started trickling in from the fringes of the City – from the Ten Eyck Farm on Whitehall Rd and from hill towns about valiant efforts to fight the storm, and keep farm animals alive as they tried to traverse short distances between houses and barns in howling winds of 70 + mph and huge drifts.

Finally on March 14th a train that had started out in Buffalo on March 11 made it into the Albany depot at midnight, after struggling for 3 days to make it from Schenectady to Albany. It was hauled in to Albany by 7 engines. Passengers on other stranded trains had found shelter in farmhouses along the way.

Schools were closed for the entire week, but by Friday conditions ameliorated and children were out on the streets pelting one another with snow balls. Gangs of all available able-bodied men and boys cleared major streets and roads and stretches of railway track; telegraph and telephone lines were being restored. What was called the “Great White Hurricane” had come and gone.





Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor