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Witness Account

In 1967, Chicago's biggest snow storm covered cars in huge snowdrifts, and people walked down the car-less streets with sleds to carry their groceries. (Photo: © Bettmann/Corbis)

"The snowstorm I'll never forget"
David George Gordon was a junior in high school in January 1967 — the month that the big blizzard hit his hometown of Chicago, Illinois.

Before the big snowstorm hit, the weather had been unusually warm. Eight days before the storm, the temperature had dipped to a bone-chilling eight degrees (F). Five days after that, the temperature had climbed to a spring-like 65 degrees (F) — a record high for that date.

Around five o'clock in the morning, on Thursday, January 26, the first snowflakes started to fall. They continued to fall all day and, by Friday morning, nearly two feet of snow covered the ground. That set a record for the most snow to fall in Chicago, beating the old record, set in 1930, by almost four inches.

WINTER WONDERLAND
After the snow stopped falling on Friday, my mom sent my older brother and me outside to shovel all that snow from the sidewalk in front of our house. It was hard work but we didn't mind. When we finished, we invited a few friends to have a huge snowball fight in our backyard.

The entire city was a Winter Wonderland. The cold wind from Lake Michigan had piled the snow into huge drifts, six feet deep in some places. We walked a few blocks to the neighborhood park and spent the rest of the afternoon sledding and building snowmen.

When we got too cold, we came inside for a change of clothes and cups of hot cocoa. We were having too much fun to even think about the snow's more serious effects.

THE CITY SHUTS DOWN
It continued to snow, off and on, throughout the weekend. The temperature was below freezing, even during the daytime, so the snow didn't melt. With all that snow on the ground, it was impossible for cars and buses to get around. People had to walk everywhere. The streets looked like a scene from an old Russian folk tale.

On Sunday night, we listened to the radio. The announcer told us that classes would be cancelled at nearly all Chicago schools the next day. Most offices would be closed, too. People were stranded at O'Hare International Airport, because the planes couldn't take off or land.

Schools and businesses stayed closed for several days. Even more snow fell. Later, the Department of Streets and Sanitation, whose job includes plowing the streets, reported that 75 million tons of snow had covered Chicago in a thick, white blanket.

STORM BRINGS SADNESS & JOY
The snowstorm caused big problems in other parts of the city. A total of sixty people died, most from heart attacks while shoveling snow. Several froze to death, after falling asleep outdoors.

Unfortunately, some people took advantage of the situation, breaking shop windows and stealing the things inside. The police arrested 273 of the storm thieves, and tragedy hit when a young girl was accidentally killed at one crime scene.

There were bright spots. I read in one newspaper that train cars packed with snow were sent south to Florida, where they delivered a present to children in the "Sunshine State" who had never seen snow before.

I SAVE OUR PORCH
Lucky for my family, our snow woes were not too bad. We had one close call, though. When the snow stopped falling, my mother called me into the kitchen. She tried to keep calm as she explained that our home's second-story porch might collapse under the weight of all the snow.

My mother had a good reason to be frightened. One cubic foot of dry snow weighs about three pounds. When it starts to melt, the wet snow is much heavier, about 21 pounds per cubic foot. The five feet of wet snow that covered our ten-foot by ten-foot porch weighed a total of 1,050 pounds!

How could we safely remove the snow? It was piled so high that we couldn't push open the porch door. Not to be stopped, my mom had a plan. She opened a window and had me crawl through it, onto the porch. Then she passed me a shovel and I went to work, clearing off the snow.

That was a real chore, lifting all that weight with my shovel. My clothes were all sweaty and my shoulders and arms ached by the time I went back inside the house.

NO MORE SNOW
My adventure ended a few days later, after the streets were free of snow and my high school opened its doors again. When the weather warmed and all that snow started to melt, we Chicagoans faced a new kind of problem. Every 10 inches of snow that melts produces about an inch of water. Soon, many Chicago streets were filled with giant pools of water. Crossing them was like wading across a lake!

After all these years, though, one picture from the Great Snow of 1967 is still stuck in my head. It's the memory of radio antennas sticking up from the snow, attached to cars buried deep below. It's a sight I bet I'll never see again.