The Competition for Our Snowiest Winter

When I was writing my book about the Blizzard of ’66, I interviewed over two hundred people who either fondly or regrettably remembered the storm. Many of them agreed with me that for Central New York I was writing about the storm of the century. But there were a few people who told me flat out I was wrong; the 1958 snowstorm was the big one. I made a note to find out more about that storm and I’ve finally gotten around to it.

The December 1958 “big snow” in the Fulton/Oswego area was certainly not a blizzard, which the National Weather Service (NWS) defines as “a major weather event that features cold temperatures, sustained winds of 35 miles per hour or greater, and falling or blowing snow.” A severe blizzard raises the fear factor, with its winds “over 45 mph, snowfall producing near-zero visibility and temperatures plunging to 10°F or lower.”

 

Without a doubt, the ’66 blizzard was severe. There were reports of 60+ mph winds, frigid temperatures and, of course, upwards to 100 inches of snow. To find out why some people would consider 1958 worse, I logged onto the NWS’s handy historical log of weather. I checked the 1958 reports for both Fulton and Oswego and found out that during a few days in early December both cities did get a bundle of snow. Here are a few statistics:

 

The snow began falling on Saturday, December 6, with Fulton reporting four inches of snow and Oswego 3.6. Small stuff. But over the next five days things got worse and the numbers added up. Not ’66 snowstorm totals, but significant amounts: The NWS observer for Oswego reported 40 inches on December 8 and had a five-day total of 66 inches. Fulton’s National Weather Service observer recorded a total of 39 inches spread over five days.

 

Though those numbers were significant, in my mind they weren’t enough to make 1958 a memorable winter. But I’ve learned that when writing about our region’s snowy history, recorded numbers don’t always tell the full story. For example, with the 1958 statistics, both cities’ observers put a note next to their daily numbers, with Oswego simply stating, “It snowed,” and Fulton admitting to filing a “Late report.” Those phrases are “meteorology slang” for weather conditions so bad that observers had trouble getting into the station to properly measure snow.

 

December 1958 temperatures certainly felt blizzard-like, with numbers never rising above freezing through the entire storm; most days the thermometer was stuck between 10 and 20 degrees. But it was the third characteristic of a blizzard, significant wind, that proved 1958 didn’t qualify as one. Neither the weather observers nor Oswego’s Palladium-Times mentioned any problems associated with wind. No, 1958 wasn’t a blizzard, but reports in The Pal-Times helped me see why some people might have considered it one.

 

Newspaper stories show the brunt of this storm centering in the Oswego, Fulton and Mexico area. In fact, a few of our county’s other towns, such as Pulaski, reported sunshine on the snowiest days of the storm. That’s another good indication that the ’58 storm was not a blizzard but a more common lake-effect storm, which can bury one area and barely snow a few miles down the road.

 

There’s another way to gauge how bad a storm is and that’s by hearing from people who lived through it. Local newspapers did their job by reporting what people endured: The mayor of Oswego was only able to get out and survey his city in a sled pulled by Alaskan huskies. Children in Fulton and Oswego had no school for the entire week, which rivals the ’66 blizzard for kids’ unplanned vacation days. Even the Oswego State Teachers College, which we now know as SUNY Oswego, closed for a few days.

 

A woman who grew up outside Mexico told me the ’58 snowfall was so big that her younger brother didn’t enjoy the winter weather. “And he never got tired of playing in snow,” she explained. “At one point the snow was up to my knees. The next thing I knew, it was over my head. Long after the storm passed, my dog loved to climb from the tallest snowbank up to the roof of our barn to watch the school bus come by.”

 

One of the big stories in The Palladium-Times was how heavy snow collapsed a barn roof in the Mexico area. Fifty head of cattle were trapped and the farm owner was understandably worried. Thankfully, he didn’t lose one cow buried in that avalanche of snow and rooftop debris, but it did take the sheriff and volunteers to rescue them.

 

Retail stores were concerned how the storm would affect holiday shoppers. With Christmas Day a little over two weeks away, store managers were concerned. They figured they’d lost between 30 and 80 percent of their usual holiday business during the storm and its aftermath. People would have to do a quick dig out to get those gifts bought and wrapped by holiday time.

 

Lou Woods was sixteen in 1958 and working at a bowling alley in Oswego when the snow started getting heavy. “I had a lot of trouble walking home. There was so much snow people started getting worried that their roofs would crash in. I ended up making more money than I would have at the bowling alley by shoveling roofs, including the one at the high school.”

In 1958, Oswego’s NWS observer was Elmer Loveridge and he had been keeping weather records for 34 years when the December storm hit. Through his work in meteorology, Elmer had travelled around the world, witnessing hurricanes and tropical storms, and he’d racked up 14 years of tracking Oswego weather. After the 1958 storm was properly logged in his record book, he stated that he’d never seen anything like it. My guess is that eight years later, when the Blizzard of ’66 came barreling through, Mr. Loveridge would change his mind.

 

 

  Photo: A 1958  Life  magazine photo taken in the city of Oswego after Central New York was hit with an early December snowstorm.

Photo: A 1958 Life magazine photo taken in the city of Oswego after Central New York was hit with an early December snowstorm.