Snow and cold records of ‘76-77 and ‘77-78 survive 2009-10 onslaught of frigid weather
Contributed by Jim Blount
One source notes that Cincinnati weather records for recent decades show averages of 4.2 inches of snow in March and half an inch in April. One-day snow marks for those months are 9.3 inches March 22, 1968, and 4.2inches April 8, 1916. Monthly lowest temperatures are 3degrees March 8, 1943, and 18 April 6, 1982.
A day beyond the memory of any living resident is May 21, 1883, recognized as Ohio’s latest heavy snow with some areas reporting 10 to 15 inches. Hamilton had three inches that damaged trees and crops. The Butler County Democrat said "in the memory of the oldest inhabitants a snow storm has never taken place in this vicinity as late as May 21st."
According to the National Weather Service, the average date for the last spring freeze (32 degrees or lower) is April 12 in Cincinnati; April 19 in Columbus; and April 20 in Dayton.
The previous February snow record (21.4 inches in 1914) was surpassed by the middle of the month this winter. February 2010 totals included a record 26.1 in the Cincinnati area, and 23 inches in Dayton. Through the end of February, Cincinnati had 38.4 inches for 2009-10. The average for that month is 5.5 inches.
In the last 60 years only the winters of 1977-7
8 (53.9 inches), 1976-77 (47.3), 1950-51 (46.3) and 1995-96 (33.6) had more snow than 2009-10. Butler County’s annual average is 24 inches. The area’s snowiest month was 31.5 inches in January 1978.
Was the 1976-77 winter worse than 1977-78, or vice versa? Official sources agree that the snowiest winter remains 1977-78 when totals in Cincinnati and Dayton were 53.9 and 62.7 inches, respectively.
The two seasons are unrivaled as the harshest back-to-back winters in local and Ohio history. Also common to both winters were reports that the Ohio River froze solid between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, the first time since 1948.
Here are summaries of the most rugged seasons since 1950:
1977-78 ranks No. 1
The Blizzard of ‘78 whipped into the area overnight Jan. 25-26, 1978, piling at least seven inches of snow on 14 inches on the ground. The wind averaged 28 miles an hour. Some gusts hit 75 mph. The wintry mix produced drifts in the 12 to 15-foot range in several places, isolating people in rural areas and limiting city mobility for several days. A 40-degree temperature drop precededthe storm and helped worsen conditions. The melting snow and slush turned to ice as the thermometer hit 5 degrees with a wind chill of minus 39.
Cincinnati’s 53.9 inches of 1977-78 snow was 6.6 inches more than 1976-77 (47.3), second place in that category. Another 1977-78 chiller was 63 consecutive days with one inch or more of snow on the ground, Jan. 8- March 11, 1978.
1976-77 ranks No. 2
The 1976-77 winter was long. The Reds opened the 1977 season April 6, beating San Diego, 5-3 after four inches of snow was cleared from the field at Riverfront Stadium. With temperatures creeping up from 23 to 41, it seemed more appropriate for a late-season Bengals game.
The 2 degrees below zero Dec. 31, 1976, is the Cincinnati record low for that date. The low of 25 below zero Jan. 18, 1977, officially rates as the area's coldest day. The 20 mph wind made it feel like minus 65.
January 1977 was the coldest and snowiest month in the area's history. The season’s average Cincinnati temperature was 15.2 degrees and snow totaled 47.3 inches, second highest in a season. Of that total, 30.5 inches were in January.
The Hamilton area endured 84 straight days below freezing with record lows on seven dates. Dayton set low marks on six dates. One or more inches of snow was on the ground for 39 consecutive days, Jan. 4-Feb. 11.
1950-51 winter ranks No. 3
The 1950-51 winter had two severe phases -- a Thanksgiving weekend blizzard and a February ice storm -- both crippling much of the nation, not just Butler County. The November blast was called "the Great Appalachian Storm" while the February assault was labeled "the greatest ice storm of record in the U. S." Snow that winter totaled 46.3 inches, the area’s third highest total.
The two-day "Great Appalachian Storm" hit 22 Eastern and Midwest states, dumping 30 inches of snow on Pittsburgh and two feet on Cleveland. East of the mountains, it became heavy rain with winds topping 100 mph in coastal states. Storm-related death reports varied from 160 to about 300 people. In Butler County, no deaths were blamed on the storm that disrupted theholiday weekend.
Hamilton’s temperature dropped to 5 degrees Friday morning, Nov. 24, 1950. Frozen fuel lines and stubborn batteries frustrated motorists with a low of 2 degrees Saturday morning. The afternoon high reached 15 as snow and wind increased, but the worst was still to come.
Saturday night a blizzard halted transportation and shutdown most activities as snow measured six to seven inches in Hamilton and 10 inches in the Dayton area. High wind caused drifting and complicated snow removal.
Sunday morning’s low of 14 degrees crippled travel and limited church attendance. Local governments hired private contractors to help plow streets and roads. The job was complicated by about 1,000 abandoned cars in Hamilton. City bus schedules were scrambled. Intercity bus and railroad services were delayed, including a passenger train that arrived in Hamilton 12 hours late.
Monday, Nov. 27, only a third of Miami University students attended classes while the remainder struggled with stalled transportation in trying to return from Thanksgiving break. Western College for Women in Oxford extended its recess until Wednesday. Hamilton postal officials said some mail wasn't delivered because many streets and roads remained impassable. Two days later, county and township crews were still clearing roads. Some rural roads had only one lane open. One road was blocked by a nine-foot drift.
What was called "one of the most severe blizzards in history" was relatively mild in Butler County. By mid week, official snow totals in the area were much less than the 50 inches reported in part of West Virginia. Cincinnati reported 6.9 inches Nov. 24-28 and Dayton 11.9 inches in the same period.
As early as Jan. 24, 1951, Ohio was described as "an ice-sheathed world" causing death and hampering business and industry, but most of the problems were north of this area.
Saturday-Sunday, Jan. 27-28, rain turned to ice on Butler County surfaces, making all forms of travel dangerous. Even salt trucks slipped off roads. Only a fifth of an inch of rain fell, but temperature ranged between 23 and 28. The worst was still to come.
Thursday night, Feb. 1, two hours of freezing rain preceded 7.5 inches of snow overnight in Hamilton, bringing the winter total to 32 inches. A low of 11 degrees caused a coating of ice. Six deaths were reported in the state as Ohio declared a state of emergency. The storm created a four-inch glaze of ice from Texas to Pennsylvania, killing 25 people and interrupting utilities andcommunications in some regions for a week to 10 days.
Friday, Feb. 2, the official Hamilton low was a relatively warm 6 below zero, mild in comparison with an unofficial minus 24 in Shandon and an official 16 below in Dayton, a record for that date. Hamilton officials announced a shortage of natural gas, and ordered 10 major industries to stop using gas. Within two days, the natural gas shortage had spread across the state. At the same time, Hamilton industries were crippled by a seven-day wildcat strike by railroad switchmen against 33 railroads.
Hamilton had another low of 6 below Saturday, Feb. 3, as ice continued to make roads dangerous. The hard freeze and the natural gas shortage continued through Feb. 9. An inch of snow overnight brought Hamilton's winter total to 33.5 inches.
The week starting Monday, Feb. 12, the ice and snow cover began to melt and the worst of the winter of 1950-51 -- that began Thanksgiving weekend -- had ended.
1995-96 winter ranks No. 4
The 1995-96 winter -- No. 4 in snow total at 44.6 inches -- was disruptive, causing road closings, canceling church services and other activities, and forcing many businesses to shut down. Most school districts had exhausted their allotted five snow days by Jan. 12, 1996.
Sunday morning, Jan. 7, 1996, there was nearly two feet of snow in some places. Officially, 14.4 inches fell in Cincinnati Jan. 6-7. The 12.8 inches the night of Jan. 6-7 set a Cincinnati record for snowfall in a 24-hour period. Adding to the misery were two Ohio River floods within four months -- up to 57.3 feet Jan. 24 and 53.7 feet May 17, 1996.
That winter, Hamilton officials noted that snow removal was more difficult. In severe winters in the 1970s, snow could be loaded onto trucks and dumped into the Great Miami River. By the 1990s, clean water regulations had eliminated that option.
Some other memorable winters since 1950
The 2003-04 winter was significant for heavy rain. Jan. 1-4 Hamilton was pelted by 3.72 inches with most it -- 3.02 inches -- Monday, Jan. 4, 2004. The Great Miami River crested at 19.5 feet, its third highest level, topped only by 44.1 feet March 26, 1913, and 21.8 feet Jan. 21, 1959. Areas north and south of Hamilton flooded. The river washed out about a 40-foot section of River Road in Fairfield, near the Bolton water treatment plant of the Cincinnati Water Works.
The 1997-98 winter included an unusual day when the most snow was to the south. Accumulations varied widely when a storm hit southwestern Ohio Feb. 4-5, 1998. Cincinnati had 18.8 inches. Most of southern Butler County reported a foot of snow and northern sections had only six to eight inches
The 1993-94 winter was notable for a Halloween storm, Oct. 30, 1993. Snow varied from four to six inches over the area. Hamilton experienced a seven-inch snowfall Jan. 18, 1994, and in Cincinnati a low of 24 below Jan. 19, 1994, set the record for that date.
The 1989-90 winter began early. Rain turned to snow the night of Oct. 18-19, 1989, leaving three to six inches of snow by dawn. The county engineer's office said it was the earliest date its snow and ice control crews were needed. Local records indicate it was the earliest measurable snow in 64 years (1.5 inches Oct. 30, 1925).
Most trees still bore leaves, collecting the wet snow. Added weight broke branches and snapped power lines. The sheriff's office reported at least 50 fires in the county, mostly transformer boxes. Inoperative traffic signals and slick roads foiled traffic. Schools and some businesses closed. Cincinnati Gas & Electric said 100,000 customers were without power.
The worst part of the 1986-87 winter didn’t come until March 30-31. Snow measured 8.8 inches in Cincinnati, after only 4.8 inches previously that winter. March 30 Dayton and Cleveland had 7.9 and 16 inches, respectively. The Journal-News said "it still doesn't seem possible that Butler County went from picnic weather and near 80 degrees Sunday to freezing and 10 inches of snow less than 48 hours later."
Record low temperatures highlighted the 1984-85 winter. Ohio’s coldest daytime temperatures were Sunday, Jan. 20, 1985. At noon, it was 15 below in Cincinnati and Columbus, minus 19 in Dayton, and 25 below in Oxford. The morning low in Hamilton was minus 20. Cincinnati dipped to minus 21, still the all-time low for that date. Winds of 20 to 30 mph produced wind chills up tominus 80 in parts of Ohio.
The next morning, Jan. 21, the low was 15 below in Hamilton. Frostbite was a threat with wind chills of 40 to 70 below here. A Middletown woman died of exposure. In Fairfield, about 400 CG&E customers lost power.. Some Hamilton residents had low gas pressure. Power outages and frozen water lines were common. Stalled and abandoned vehicles created traffic nightmares.
Highlighting the 1981-82 winter was the January "Freezer Bowl" involving the Cincinnati Bengals. Earlier, December 1981 had its share of snow and cold. Snow totaled 14.7 inches between Dec. 14 and Dec. 22. Lows of minus 6 Dec. 19 and 9 below the next day previewed the following month. After three highs in the 50s, extreme cold returned Jan. 8, 1982, with a low of 8 degrees, and Jan. 9 with an inch of snow and a low of minus 4.
The AFC football championship game at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati Sunday, Jan. 10, 1982, was aptly nicknamed the "Freezer Bowl." Some Bengals played with bare arms in beating the San Diego Chargers, 27-7. It was 9 below at kickoff with the wind chill 59 below. The day’s high was minus one in downtown Cincinnati, and an official high of minus 4 at the airport in Kentucky. The official low there was 14 below zero. The "Freezer Bowl" remains the second coldest game in National Football League history.
April 6, 1982, brought a reminder of winter with a low of 18 degrees, an April record for the last half decade.
The 1967-68 winter set some cold records and extended into late March. Hamilton had 12 inches of snow the afternoon and evening of Friday, March 22, as the temperature dipped from 41 to 20.
That created travel problems for Garfield High School fans trying to drive to Columbus for the Ohio high school basketball semifinals. The Griffins beat Lima that night to advance to the finals, but many of their supporters missed the game. Some were slipping and crawling along icy I-71. Others turned back to Hamilton before reaching Lebanon. Less than an inch of additional snow fell Saturday, March 23, but roads remained slippery as Garfield lost to Columbus East in the championship game that night.
Cold dominated the 1962-63 winter when record lows were set on nine dates in Cincinnati and six in Dayton. The extremes in both cities were 19 below Jan. 24, 1963, while Hamilton shivered at 16 below the same morning.
Hamilton’s harshest morning was four days later. A minus 21 Monday, Jan. 28, broke a 45-year-old local record set during World War I. It was one degree colder than the 20 below overnight Jan. 19-20, 1918. The 1963 mark stood until 25 below Jan. 18, 1977.
January 1963 snow was a modest 7.5 inches. Icy streets and sidewalks posed the greatest risk as Hamilton faced eight lows below zero, including three in negative double digits.
The worst of the 1958-59 winter didn't start until Jan. 15. A 54-degree plunge began that afternoon, dropping to a low of zero the next morning, accompanied by an inch of snow. Thermometers jumped to 33 that afternoon, then down to 3 below zero Sunday, Jan. 17. A byproduct of the yo-yo weather was icy streets and sidewalks and a rash of stranded vehicles with frozen doors and locks.
Ice floes in the Great Miami signaled impending trouble. About two inches of snow early the next week turned to rain the morning of Jan. 20. The next 24 hours brought three inches of rain in Hamilton and 4.1 inches in Oxford. The river in Hamilton rose from a meek 2.6 feet at 8 a.m. Jan. 20 to a threatening 11.46 feet 24 hours later as rain continued.
The frozen ground couldn't absorb the rain and melting snow, causing flooded basements and streets in low-lying areas. A state of emergency was declared in Fairfield where Pleasant Avenue (U. S. 127) was under water north of Symmes Road.
It rained up river, too -- including 4.81 inches Jan. 20-21 in Dayton. The river in Hamilton peaked at 11 p.m. Jan. 21 at 21.8 feet, its highest level since the March 1913 flood. This time Hamilton was spared by the flood-protection works of the Miami Conservancy District -- dams, reservoirs, levees and channelization. Previous post-1913 highs had been 17.4 feet twice, Jan. 22, 1937, and March 20, 1943.
Hundreds of families were forced out of flooded areas in New Miami and Ross Township, including some who had to be rescued. A five-year-old Ross girl drowned during a rescue attempt.
1856-57 candidate for worst local winter
The 1856-57 winter -- five years before the Civil War -- would be a candidate for Hamilton’s worst winter, according to a report in the Journal-News Feb. 20, 1936: It doesn’t qualify because official weather records weren’t kept in the 1850s.
"The winter of 1856-57 was the longest and most severe winter on record in Hamilton, according to information uncovered by staff members of the Works Progress Administration Writers' Project in Butler County," the 1936 article said.. "The records show that Hamilton had zero weather for a period of two months and that the Miami River was frozen over on Nov. 4 and remained so until the night of Feb. 22. The information shows that residents at the time did not recall a more severe winter."
The data was found in a Climaticalogical History of Ohio by writers working on the WPA histories of Butler, Montgomery, Preble and Warren counties. The Writers’ Project was a Depression-relief program that provided jobs for previously unemployed writers, editors and historians.
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