Flying Dreams logo


The Blizzard of 78

The Great Blizzard of 1978 was a severe nor'easter that brought blizzard conditions to the New England region of the United States, and the New York metropolitan area. [It] formed on February 5, 1978, and broke up on February 8, 1978. Snowfall occurred primarily between the morning of the 6th and the evening of the 7th...The Blizzard of 1978 formed after three air masses merged into one. One air mass formed over western Pennsylvania, another over northern Georgia, and the third over the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina. They all then converged over New England. As the storm intensified, a strong high pressure area was stationary over eastern Canada, effectively trapping the developing low off the Southern New England coast, causing the heaviest snow bands to loop continuously across the Southern New England area. This blizzard [was] one of the worst in Rhode Island's history, catching many residents as well as the State's government off guard. Providence County, Rhode Island was the hardest hit by the blizzard; in particular, the towns of Lincoln, Smithfield, Woonsocket and North Smithfield all reported at least 40" of total snowfall from the system.

... Wikipedia Entry

Certainly as memorable to me today as it was on that crazy Tuesday 30 years ago. Here are my memories, edited from my essay "Like Snow Business I Know."

Dad had not yet retired from Trifari, where he worked as a jewelry polisher, and I had been working there just five months. Since we went in at different times, we had both cars the day the snow began to fall harder than almost anyone expected.

For we denizens in the shipping room, the usual habit was to either get a coffee and sit in the cafeteria during break and lunches or go out and stand on the loading dock for some fresh air while listening to a male co-worker tell blue stories while the smokers puffed anxiously at their cigarettes. This day it was so cold on the loading dock at noon that I was the only one there, watching the efforts of a big brown UPS truck backing up to the concrete platform. There was a slight slope up to the platform, but not more than fifteen degrees. The glaze of snow on the asphalt was already so slippery that the truck couldn't make it.

My first though was for my mother, who walked to work less than a mile from our house to a small factory at the foot of a steep hill. Accordingly I dashed for the pay phone and told her to get home and watch out for that hill.

At intervals for the next 90 minutes I checked the snow. It seemed to be getting deeper. We weren't allowed radios in the shipping room and couldn't check the actual condition of the storm. What I wanted desperately to do was find my dad and suggest we go home.

I did not do so. I wore a green security badge; the factory people upstairs had yellow badges. Green badge people forbidden to enter yellow badge areas. Dad had 11:30 lunches, I had the 12:30 lunch. There was no chance we would run into each other.

Other times if I needed to speak to him, I would go to the big double doors to the factory, always open for air circulation, and speak to the supervisor of the department near the doors. His name was Johnny and he'd fetch my dad for me. But today when I'd gone up there at lunchtime I discovered Johnny's entire department "on stagger" (working week on, week off). A big empty concrete expanse lined with empty machines faced me.

Of course it was an emergency and the worst that could happen was my being scolded, but I was too painfully shy even to risk that.

Outside the weather was growing worse. Unbeknownst to me, Mom had gotten a ride home from work--and indeed the car she rode in slipped several times on that treacherous 45-degree slope hill. Now she was sitting at home waiting for us, fuming and fussing at the same time. (I would not have been surprised had she finally pulled out her rosary.) Mom would have had no problem marching into the factory. But this was me and not Mom.

At two p.m., with the blizzard reaching its peak, Governor Garrahy ordered everything shut down, private business as well as government offices. Out of factories and offices and facilities poured thousands of people. Some went for the bus, most went for their cars.

Dad met me in the parking lot, told me to stay close behind him even if I had to bump him, and we struggled in already-deep snow to the cars and joined the long queue waiting to exit the parking lot. I was so overwhelmed I forgot to tell him I wanted to lead. I was terrified that if I, in my little Chevette, got stuck or separated, he would miss me in the rear-view mirror, stop, and come back for me. He was ten months from retirement and his age worried me.

Dad, in his copper-colored Pontiac Ventura, "broke trail" and "Misty" and I trailed in his wake. I discovered early on that the car must keep moving, but the brake had to be used sparingly, with gentle taps like those of a parent trying to wake a small child. Any stronger pressure and the rear of the car would fishtail, a movement that made me queasy. I had the Annie cassette in the car and sang along loudly to it, interspersed with urging the car not to stop. Orphans and Miss Hannigan competed with the roar of a defroster barely keeping pace with the cold. The side and rear windows were solidly opaque white before we had gone two miles. I was encased in white snow and red upholstery with only Andrea McArdle and company to keep up my nerve, following the icy rear lights of "Copper's" rear end, which I did bump more than once.

We advanced and stopped, crawled ahead and braked, all the way up the parkway and down I-195 and how we ever managed to cut across four lanes of traffic from where 195 dumped us in the left lane of I-95 South is a mystery that will never be solved. Vehicles, small and large alike, were already stuck. Cars were perched precariously on snowbanks left from the overworked snowplows that had been running tirelessly since late morning or surrendered in what was left of the breakdown lane, people peering out from a half-open window or standing disconsolately near their vehicle. When the inching slowed until it looked as if we were barely moving, Dad somehow threaded his way through halted cars to the Elmwood Avenue exit and we creaked and crept home through more than a foot of new snow untouched by any car in the neighborhoods around Park and Reservoir Avenues.

The distance from the Trifari building on Riverside Drive to our house was 10.5 miles. It took us two hours and thirty minutes to make the trip and Mom was thoroughly frazzled when we got in. "You told me to come home!" she told me indignantly.

Of the people that left work when Frank Garrahy shut down the state at two p.m., we were some of the few that finally made it home. Traffic on the freeway finally halted for good as cars were literally buried. People stayed with them as long as they could, then walked or were helped to the first shelter they found: bus stations, Union Station, Rhode Island Hospital, factory and office buildings, department stores, even strangers' homes. Some of them camped for days, fed, warmed and bedded by businesses, individuals and the Red Cross; others closer to home simply walked there, taking hours to reach places usually fifteen minutes walk away.

Daddy and I were barely home before he routed the snowblower into service. He wasn't outdoors ten minutes before I was summoned; the snow was already so deep that it was taller than the big maw of the machine. For him to be able to clear the stuff I had to knock the snow down so the blower could gulp it, chew it, and spurt it out in another direction. Compounding our problem was our effort not to knock the snow on my godmother's sidewalk, directly beside our driveway.

Exhausted, we staggered in after dark to eat supper, but Dad was forced outside again before bedtime and again early in the morning. The snow stopped late on the afternoon on the second day, February 7. Wonder of wonder, despite losses in other parts of the state and our preparation of the ice chest, "just in case," we never lost power.

The world outside once the wind died was silence broken only by voices. Only emergency vehicles were allowed out, and you couldn't go anywhere anyway: the plows had abandoned any pretense of clearing side streets. Gansett Avenue was open but empty save for the occasional official vehicle. The fallen snow was three feet high, but the piles made by the snowblower were nearly twice as high: the one in the back yard was nearly as tall as Dad.

Restless, I was allowed to go to the store on Thursday; we had word that the Cumberland Farms store on Cranston Street was open and my mainstay milk was running low. (I loathed Cumberland Farms milk, but, as the clichè goes, "any port in a storm.") From the edge of the driveway I had to climb up to the snow-choked street, which was so hard-packed I sank only to my knees as I made my way the few feet to Gansett Avenue, then had to climb yet again to get over the snowplowed edges and then slide down the cliffs of snow to the roughly plowed surface. By the end of that segment I looked like an awkward snowman.

I joined a straggling line of mostly teens, some men and women, several pulling small children on sleds. We swapped snow stories as we struggled over the uneven mixture of snow, salt, and sand pocked with the ice-edged tire tracks of the plows, and slipped and slid on icy ridges as we trudged the overpass spanning the train tracks. The air hummed with silence and cold bit the skin.

The store was indeed open and a line formed outside. The Cumberland Farms manager, fearing a stampede, had posted an employee at the door allowing only five people in the store at the time. There was a limit on all items. All I wanted was the milk and a roll of film. Alas, while Governor Garrahy threatened retribution to any merchant caught price-gouging on food supplies, the same did not go for non-essentials. Cumberland Farms wanted $10 for a roll of 110 Instamatic film!--I didn't want snow photos that badly.

(We managed to find a less mercenary store by Sunday and did get some pictures. By then a little of the snow had even melted; even then I was hip-deep in the stuff.)

The National Guard and the Army marched in by the end of the week. They arrived with snowplows, backhoes, disposal trucks, and other snow removal equipment and slowly and carefully dug out the hundreds of cars enrobed in snow on I-95 and I-195. Buses started to be able to get some folks home by Sunday, although the state and businesses weren't totally back to work until the following Tuesday, when the snowplows had finally reached all the side streets. (Our street was plowed Saturday only by a stroke of horribly ill luck: a neighbor had a heart attack, and while the paramedics dashed over the packed snow with a portable defibrillator and their medical bags, a man with a backhoe cleaned a path for the ambulance. Our neighbor, thank heaven, survived.)

We managed the week without much trouble, save for the scarcity of milk. Mom's sale-priced stock in the cellar saw us through while we watched television reports of families surviving on hot dogs and peanut butter. It remains an adventurous memory that, to Mom's exasperation, quelled my snow-affection not one whit.

Anyway, here are those photos; I am always surprised at how few there are. I must have bought a cartridge [this was Kodak's 404 Instamatic, with the rectangular film cartridges] with at least twelve photos on it. All I can figure is that the other six didn't come out.

Please remember that these photos were taken either Sunday or Monday, February 11 and 12, 1978, four or five days after the blizzard ended; some of the snow has actually melted by this time, so you can imagine how much there was of it!

Dad in the back yard, in the path he had plowed from the shed to the square of sidewalk behind the house and thence to the driveway. It was still bitterly cold, and bright that day as you can tell from the sunglasses!

Dad in back yard with snow mountains

Here I am, hip deep in snow behind the porch. Those handles against the porch are the lawn mower; no idea why it's outside—Dad probably had to move it to get the snowblower out. Behind me is the Santamaria house, and in the left corner, my beloved alma mater, Hugh B. Bain.

Linda hip deep in snow

The driveway, plowed finally, with Dad's Pontiac Ventura in the driveway. That's my godmother's house at left and what was then Victoria's house in the rear.

All that snow in the street plowed up by the city snowplows had to go somewhere and here I am sitting on top of them. In fine old New England style our front door was still blocked up for the winter; you can see the Christmas decorations are still on it. I used to love that styrofoam Rudolph! If you look carefully you can see Mom peeking out the front window.

Linda on top of snowplow pile

Here's Appleton Street, freshly plowed. We actually had a narrower track plowed on Saturday when Louie Macaruso down the street had a heart attack; they had to have a backhoe dig out a path for the ambulance to get through. The big pile of snow on the left is where Eddie Costa's driveway sat; I'm not sure when he got his cars dug out.

Appleton Street

Opposite angle, looking toward what is now Cooney Field with baseball diamonds and a walking track. It was just "the field" back then. Before the street was plowed that was one solid bank of snow which we had to climb if we wanted to get to Gansett Avenue.

Looking toward Cooney Field

And the reason there was no film in the camera? Well, a week before we had had an ice storm, which almost no one remembers. Narragansett Electric had to restore power to thousands of homes afterward and I'm sure the power crews were looking forward to a rest when the blizzard struck. A few photos:

This is what remained of the old chain-link fence around the Cranston Speedway from 1929, which separated us from the plats on Fiat Avenue. It was slowly collapsing and Dad later had to replace it, but at this point you can see on the left where I had it wired up from where the boys coming home from Bain would jump over it. Mom's rose bush is thoroughly iced over!

Fence encased in ice

My godparents' side yard where they had a big vegetable garden in the summer. Look at that poor evergreen encased in ice!

Montella backyard

Here's a shot of the trees that were on the edge of the upper level of the field.

trees in field

This is taken right behind those trees, looking up Gansett Avenue going toward Cranston Street. You can see a few kids already starting coasting at the top edge of the lower field.

Gansett Avenue from upper field

I referred to this as my "artsy-fartsy" shot. :-) Taken from under the trees above so that the branches would frame our house and my godparents' house next door. This has the added advantage of showing you how thick the ice on the branches were.

Houses framed in icy branches


* Damage done on the Massachusetts coast

* Wikipedia entry

* Mass Moments article

* A 25th Anniversary retrospective

* The house made famous in Henry Beston's Cape Cod classic The Outermost House was destroyed in the storm surge

* Providence Journal blizzard retrospective with photos of the snow-clogged freeways, etc.

* Former RI Governor Joe Garrahy's memories, 20 years later

*'s blizzard retrospective (a great Rhode Island website)

* Dozens of more blizzard links found here

  Send us an e-mail

rainbow divider

     Flying Dreams Home