Flogging the Collective Memory: The Blizzard of 1978
Flogging the Collective Memory: The Blizzard of 1978
The week the state stood still.
Beginning on the morning of February 6, 1978, and continuing through the evening of the following day, snow fell on Rhode Island at a rate of one to two inches an hour. Hundreds of commuters were trapped in their cars on the interstates and had to be rescued. Others walked home through thigh-deep snow, spent uncomfortable nights in their offices, or crashed with friends. New England had seen blizzards before, and it has seen some since, but this one took the region by surprise.
In the aftermath of the storm, Rhode Island, for all intents and purposes, was closed for a week. President Carter declared Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts federal disaster areas. Driving was banned, so everyone walked, or skied, to the closest grocery or convenience store. Kids built the biggest and best snowforts of their lives, and went sledding on major roads that would normally be off-limits.
Depending on the source, anywhere from seventeen to twenty-six Rhode Islanders lost their lives because of the storm. Some had heart attacks while shoveling snow, and some froze to death. But still, most Rhode Islanders look back upon this natural disaster with fondness. Below are just a few of their stories.
If you were in Rhode Island during the Blizzard of '78, and you have a story you'd like to share, send it along to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first name and your current town/state. We also welcome any photographs taken during or after the blizzard.
Our thanks to all of the kind people who allowed us to reprint their stories here.
I was a fifth year student at RISD that year and was working on finishing up my degree. I was living in Fox Point on Ives Street at the time. I had been hearing on the radio about the storm, but didn't think anything of it. A snow storm in New England is not a big deal, but I do remember the weather forecaster mentioning that two storms were combining into one and he thought it would be a big one. It started to snow as I was walking back from classes. By the time I got back home, normally a twenty minute walk that took two hours because of the worsening conditions, it was snowing like crazy and it didn't stop for two days.
There was so much snow that all you could see of the cars parked on the street were their antennas, everything else was completely buried. A neighbor's dog got lost in the storm and ended up staying with us for a week, until he could get back to his owner. We built a snow house in the back yard that was two stories tall. I had a set of cross country skis and explored the city. Took lots of pictures of 195 and 95 with all the stuck traffic. The payloaders the National Guard were using to clear out the city were big enough to comfortably fit ten people in them—the [buckets] were ten feet high. On the Brown campus, people built the most amazing snow sculptures, including a huge sphinx with the head of George Washington (I have a picture someplace in my house). Since school was canceled and the city came to a standstill for two weeks, we stayed home and played lots of bridge, baked bread when our bread ran out, and generally had a good time with some friends.
We were lucky. We had just gotten an oil delivery the day before, had just gone to the grocery store, and did not lose our electricity. One friend lost his car during the blizzard and never found it again. My car was in a parking lot around the corner and I didn't see it again until March. Finally after two weeks, the National Guard got to our street. They would plow out the street until they found a stuck car, they would then tow the car away, and then plow some more. That is why it took over two weeks to clear the snow from the streets. There was so much snow dumped into the Providence River from the bridge, that it flooded. All in all a very memorable event. I still have a ProJo book they published a couple of months later about the storm with lots of pictures.
I remember getting dismissed from school (Guiteras [Elementary School, 35 Washington Street, Bristol]) early and we all went outside to wait for the bus. After an hour or so all other children were picked up by either parents or their buses, but not us. Still outside, but now getting cold, some of us turned to go back inside to get warm. When we attempted to we found that the teachers and the aids have locked the doors and left the school. Here we were, ten or so of us left outside in the cold with no bus. (We later found out that our bus broke down around the corner). We, the ten brave ones, led by the older kids, started trekking the 1.5 mile or so walk home. We all remember the snow barely covering our feet when we left. By the time we got to Adams Drug the snow was almost to our knees. It was a fun walk with everyone, but we were all a little scared and yes, very cold, but we continued. The older kids kept us all moving. After the 1.5 mile walk home most kids went into Adams Drug store to get warm. I decided to continue since my house was about 200 feet away. I remember turning the corner and looking towards my house, but I could not see it, but I just walked in the direction of where I thought my house was. As I started getting closer I remember the sound of snow blowers and shovels and then my neighbor appeared and asked where was I coming from. He helped me get to my house, where my parents were anxiously waiting for me to get home. I remember entering the house, and my father grabbed my chin and pulled a four-inch icicle from my face. I never thought that fire place would feel so good. I think I sat on the stove for four hours...
Fred, a former Providence postal carrier, posted these accounts on Facebook on February 6, 7, and 8, 2015. They are reprinted here with his permission.
37 years ago, today:
Carrying Route 28—Elmgrove Avenue—Sessions Street—Freeman Parkway
The snow is packing on the roads and I've only seen one plow truck all day. I finish the route, though, and start back to the office, but people are already abandoning their cars on Lloyd Avenue, the hill at Moses Brown. I put the tire chains on the '67 VW bus and make it to 201 Meeting Street. I figure I'll wait until the rush hour is over to start for home.
At 5pm we lock up the office and Dave Kenny says he will ride with me to the bus for Gaspee Point. We each take a key to the office. We get to Veteran's Square and things are now at a stand-still, so Dave walks to Exchange Place to catch his bus (he made the last bus to Warwick). I get as far as the railroad overpass and can see that things have completely stopped at the rotary in front of the State House. I leave the VW bus under the railroad bridge and, taking a blanket I had, head back to the shelter of the P.O. and Meeting street. Climbing college hill, the snow is now over my knees and by the time I get to Olive Street the drifts are chest deep. I let myself into the office and turn up the heat, then call my wife in Scituate to tell her I won't make it home tonight. I ask her to tell my brother that if he is out plowing with Butchy on the East Side to let me know and I'd try to connect with them. McDonald's is still open on Angell Street and I go get some "fast food."
I make myself a bed of clean Number 1 sacks and put out the lights. At midnight the phone rings and I hurry down to the workroom floor and answer it, maybe it is my brother. No, it is a woman from Everett Avenue complaining that she didn't get any mail and that it took her five hours to get home from Quonset. I stand there in my underwear and listen to her complain, apologize, and go back to my makeshift bed.
The storm rages outside and the Brown University students are hooting and hollering having a great time.
A few seconds of 8mm film from the Rhode Island Historical Society WJAR Collection:
I'm awake at 5am I wash and dress as the phone begins to ring with people calling to say they can't make it to work. I have a little fun with them by replying, "Well I'm from Scituate and I'm here," without revealing that I had spent the night. I find an orange, make coffee, and there are a few oatmeal cereal samples around, so I have breakfast of sorts. A Brown University security guard has been on patrol all night and is cold and wet; Brown has reduced steam output at its plant to conserve fuel, dropping the temp in their buildings to 55. I let him into the lobby and he dries his gear on the radiators, thanking me for the hospitality. The Main Office calls and orders me to NOT let anyone into the building, but I consider my guest a special case. I get our snow shovel and work my way around from the side door to the front and shovel out the collection box and the driveway. During the night the students created an eight-foot snow ball, rolling it down Meeting Street hill, and it is now sitting across of our office. Also someone has stolen our flag during the night.
By 11am, Ralph A., the station manager, walks from Wayland Square, where he spent the night at a friend's, and we start to think about lunch and how we are going to get home. The Brown security guard tells us we can get a meal at the cafeteria in Andrews Hall, across from the P.O. later in the afternoon. We think it will be a "free-bie" but find it is $5 for a small portion of mediocre chicken supper, but better than nothing. That night I return to my pile of Number 1 sacks and Ralph sleeps in a chair in his office. Thus ends day two.
We awaken to a bright, clear, cobalt blue sky and a day that promises to be full of sunshine as people emerge from forced hibernation. More oatmeal samples and coffee to start the day, and Ralph calls his brother at the Providence Police Station. Billy is a detective with the Juvenile Division and says if we can get to the station on Fountain Street he can get us a ride to their mother's house in the Manton section of the city. We start out shortly after 9am and walk in places or tracks of others to the bus tunnel off Thayer Street. We find the tunnel full of abandoned cars and a bus, but make our way to the bottom of College Hill, and I go check on my VW bus, which is OK except for a flat tire. I put a note under the windshield wiper hoping to avoid a towing that I'm sure would happen eventually, if I don't get back to move it.
At Police Headquarters things are as normal as they can be, and we wait for a car to take us up Atwells Avenue which is open one car wide of rutted snow. When we get to Valley Street I get out and start toward Olneyville Square. The square is a mess of abandoned cars and buses, with a track from National Guard vehicles meandering through it. A jeep passes me but doesn't bother to stop or ask me my business, nor does it offer the ride I had hoped for. The warmth of the sun has softened the track and it makes walking difficult as I travel west on Plainfield Street.
When I get to the foot of Neutaconkanut Hill, at Duxbury Street, I am surprised to see the road is plowed down to bare pavement and almost gutter to gutter wide! Easy walking now and the state truck passes me several times as he continues to push back the snow little by little. This guy should have gotten a medal for his efforts! At the Thornton cross road with Atwood Avenue I catch a short ride up the hill with my oilman and then back afoot to Route 116 and Waterman Drive in Scituate, all on bare pavement. My gang is glad to see me and I'm up for a sandwich and a nap, it is about 2:00 in the afternoon and I've traveled about fifteen miles. So ends day three.