Blizzards in Genesee County
Susan L. Conklin, County Historian
An occupational hazard of being a historian is hearing the phrase "Oh, the good old days" which is usually coupled with "I wish I could go back and live when times were better." Society tends to romanticize the past and we soon forget the difficulties of daily living. Or we become veterans of a great calamity and are filled with pride for being survivors. If you travel to other parts of the country Western New Yorkers are admired for their bravery and fortitude to withstand horrific winters. I decided to highlight storms of the past and to get you thinking about "the good old days" in terms of weather. Today we are able to predict weather patterns, have improved snow remove equipment, insulated homes and a past record of how we have dealt with storms. This wealth of knowledge helped to shape the Highway Department, Emergency Management Services and improved communications systems within the County.
If you thought the "Blizzard of 1999" was impressive I ask you to remember that only 22 years ago Western New York was hit with a four-day blizzard that began on January 29 and stranded an estimated 3,000 of us. The County Highway Superintendent, Joseph J. Amadick who also served as the Director of Civil Defense and Natural Disasters warned motorists to keep off the roads, except for emergencies. Drivers were threatened with arrest if they disobeyed and a State of Emergency was declared. Within four days 17.5 inches of snow fell and drifts as high as 20 feet were created by the 40 miles an hour winds. Temperatures decreased rapidly with a windchill factor of 30 to 40 degrees below zero. The 1977 Blizzard surpassed the famous storm of 1966 because of the high snow-banks that prevailed before the storm hit. Visibility was the biggest problem which prevented the highway crews from not being able to clean the roads until the 8th of February. As a result of the unique storm many of the County offices were closed and the legislators determined that no employee in any department would lose pay for the five days during the emergency.
Six days before the Blizzard of 1966 hit there was already two feet of snow on the ground. On January 30th this storm paralyzed the region closing businesses, schools, forcing industries to a grounding halt and there was a major accident on the Thruway. More than 100 cars were stranded and nearly 1,000 snowbound refugees filled local hotel/motels and shelters. The Civil Defense Headquarters was operated from the Sheriff's Office and all roads in the County were officially closed. Gusts of up to 50 miles an hour whipped drifts 10 to 15 feet high onto roads. The Highway Department ordered all trucks to return to the Mill Street Garage as visibility prohibited plowing. During this two-day storm the snow fell at a rate of an inch an hour and temperatures were only 10 degrees.
If you are a native of Genesee County, you might remember these two storms and have memories of struggling with snow removal, keeping warm, and entertaining snowed-in children. But imagine the two big storms of the 19th Century and how different your life would have been in the "good old days".
On December 7, 1898 there was quite a heavy snow and "it was the unanimous verdict that the skies never emptied so much whiteness within such a brief space of time." It was considered the greatest storm ever recorded in this region. "The snow was drifted by the wind into a form of great waves which were pretty to look upon, but anything but pleasant to wade through." There where places were the snow was piled higher than a man's head and drifts were 8 to 12 feet deep. The winds did not reach the proportions of a gale and the only redeeming feature of this one-day storm was the fact that it was not accompanied by severe cold.
The storm was localized and although there was quite a heavy snow fall in Buffalo, the storm missed Rochester. "While the elements were working overtime inour County a message was received from Albion which announced that the sun was shining brightly and the weather was very pleasant". Please remember that in 1898 the mode of transportation was by horse and cutter and the bulk of the snow removal was by hand. For the first time in its history the Empire State Express locomotive was forced to a standstill and a total of five trains were stalled for one day.
The most devastating winter weather ever to affect Genesee County occurred during the summer of 1816! On April 5, 1815, a volcanic eruption in Sumbawa (what is now Indonesia) created a 7-mile-wide crater and killed 12,000 people. This blast was 13 times stronger than the Mount St. Helens eruption. The massive volcanic cloud worked its way around the world and was suspended over the Northern Hemisphere. During that summer the farmers had to wear overcoats and mittens and the snow was three inches deep in June. A half an inch of ice formed during July and August and there was not a green thing to be seen anywhere. The local opinion as to the cause of this disaster was a sudden and rapid cooling of the sun by some violent disturbance. Some thought that the end of all things was at hand. One elderly gentleman was so full of despair that he killed his cattle and then committed suicide. He wanted to escape the terrible and gradual death by freezing and starvation which he believed was to be the common doom. There wasn't enough grain grown that year for seed for the next planting and whatever wheat was left from the previous year was sold for $5 per bushel. Immense bonfires were built around the corn-fields and farmhands took turns patrolling the fields to keep the fires going continuously. (The following summer was one of the hottest and driest that the state has ever known.) How the pioneer families and neighboring Senecas survived that summer was an incredible test of willpower and courage.
So the next time we have a blizzard keep in mind the ones from our past and be thankful you were not here during the summer of 1816.