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70 Years Ago: ‘The Big Snow’

Picture 33-ton Sherman tanks churning through deep snow on the brick streets of East Liverpool.

Tomorrow, Nov. 24, is the 70thanniversary of the day when the snowflakes started falling, in the early morning hours of the day after Thanksgiving, in what became the worst winter storm in American history, and East Liverpool was right in the thick of it.

The Big Snow of 1950 is what my parents’ generation called it. I was born in 1950 and was only seven months old at Thanksgiving, so I of course don’t remember it. I did hear about it growing up. The Big Snow was the snowstorm that every other snowstorm was measured against. Until I googled it, however, I didn’t realize just how big it was.

The Big Snow also is known as The Thanksgiving Snow, The Snowstorm of the Century, and among weather wonks as The Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950. We here in the Ohio Valley, on the western flank of the Appalachian mountains, got the worst of the snow, though not the wind.

A massive cyclonic weather event, it was a Category 5 storm, a ranking we are used to hearing applied to the most destructive hurricanes. This was a combination blizzard, deep freeze and hurricane that paralyzed the entire eastern U.S.

MY BRAIN PROBABLY would not have made the connection to this anniversary if Honey and her sisters hadn’t picked this week to sort through boxes of old pictures belonging to her late mother, June Ryan. Among them was a small packet of black and white snapshots showing snow-clogged city streets along with a note – possibly written by her grandmother – dated Sunday, Nov. 26, 1950.

“Sun(day) snow 26 inches deep,” the note said. “Started snowing Friday a.m. at 4:30, snowing steady since. June and Ruth sleeping at hotel tonight. 7 above zero this a.m.”

My wife believes the city pictured is Uniontown because her mother and Aunt Ruth both were unmarried in 1950 and working as telephone operators there at the time. That would also explain them being housed at a downtown hotel, the Beesore. In East Liverpool, Ohio Bell did the same thing, putting up switchboard operators at the Mary Patterson residence hall and the Travelers Hotel.

East Liverpool got 30 inches of snow, Pittsburgh 27, Steubenville 33, Erie 28. Deeper snows were recorded south into West Virginia, with the town of Coburn Creek getting the most, 62 inches. Fierce winds up to 40 mph piled snow into huge drifts and temperatures plummeted. The Ohio highway department estimated 20,000 vehicles stranded on state roads; probably it was many times that.

In New England states, deep cold and intense winds of 100 mph or more were accompanied by coastal flooding and power outages. More than 1 million customers lost electricity. In the Southeast, temps fell to 22 degrees above zero in Pensacola, Fla., 5 above in Alabama and 3 above in Atlanta.

The storm impacted 22 states, causing 353 deaths, and doing $66 million in damages (1950 dollars.) Insurance payouts were the highest for any storm or hurricane to that date.

East Liverpool residents who remember the The Big Snow usually mention Army tanks roaming city streets on emergency missions.

After World War II, National Guard units were formed across the nation, and Army tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and other surplus military hardware were distributed to local armories. The unit in East Liverpool, formed in 1949 of local veterans under command of Capt. Ralph C. Franke, was C Company of the 137thTank Battalion, part of the 37thInfantry Division of the Ohio National Guard.

In a January 1999, a Review newspaper story about the 50thanniversary of C Company, staff writer Matt Stewart recorded that the East Liverpool National Guard Armory was located on Poplar Lane, one block from Milligan’s Hardware. The unit had four Sherman tanks, two “deuce and a halfs” (2 ¢ ton) trucks, two jeeps and a half-track.

Franke told Stewart that “C Company personnel broke out the tanks and the half-track and put them into emergency service by taking people to the hospital, picking up emergency food supplies, rescuing stranded people and pulling regular snow-clearing equipment out of the drifts.”

THE EAST LIVERPOOL REVIEW could not get out a Saturday edition, and there was no Sunday edition in those days. Delivered with Monday’s paper, the “Saturday” edition page one headline screamed, “IT’S 24 INCHES DEEP AND THAT AIN’T ALL.” The editorial page, society news, classifieds and a “radio page” (apparently a guide to radio programs) were omitted to make more room for storm news.

In Midland, Crucible Steel and other industries suspended production and had workers shoveling snow.

In Wellsville, a C Company tank arrived Sunday and “worked all night” to clear streets.

An East Liverpool-bound American Lines bus with 50 passengers was stranded on Route 30 in a drift near Cannons Mills at 3 a.m. Saturday and “was still there at 10:30.” The bus driver ran the engine to keep passengers warm.

In Chester, the C Company half-track carried food to seven isolated Middle Run families. A bulldozer cleared side street connections to Carolina Avenue. Goddard Bakers Inc., “did a big business from its doorstep” in addition to delivering 10,000 loaves of bread by trucks “operating under impossible conditions.”

In Newell, there was a different type of delivery when the C Company half-track picked up Dr. J.E Hall at his Newell Heights home Sunday and took him to rural Joetown to attend Mrs. William Stewart, delivering a baby girl. The half-track took the same doctor to a Broadway address in East Liverpool at 1:15 a.m.; the mom, Mrs. Donald Wells, the result, a boy.

City Hospital reported nine babies delivered over the weekend, including sons on Sunday to the wives of brothers Donald Hancock of Hammondsville and George Hancock of Peake Street.

In Lisbon, 15 Boy Scouts stranded at Camp McKinley over the weekend said keeping warm with a small stove was their main concern. They walked out through waist-high snow on Monday.

In Steubenville, Sam Lamatrice, who was 76 when he recorded this memory in 2013, recalled shoveling snow for 50 cents a load into trucks to be dumped into the Ohio River. He watched kids ride sleds nearly a mile down a hill from the hospital to train tracks near the river.

City Safety-Service Director Lawrence S. Bloor suggested that residents burn household garbage in their own coal furnaces since incinerator trucks would not be able to make pickups.

East Liverpool’s chief of police, L.J. Wise, said the only police vehicle able to move was a jeep with snow chains on all four wheels. Cops drove it through drifts as high as its hood. “Every time I pass that little car I want to take my cap off to it,” said the chief.

HARRY HORNBECKER, “the regular early morning announcer on (radio station) WOHI, left his home in New Waterford at 3:30 a.m. but got hung up in Rogers.” Skeleton crews at WOHI and WLIO “reported being swamped with phone calls wanting to know everything from ‘Is the liquor store open?’ to ‘Please find my husband.'”

In Columbus on Saturday, in 10 degree temperatures, with winds gusting to 28 mph and snow falling at two inches per hour, Ohio State hosted Michigan for the conference title. The result: the legendary Snow Bowl. Michigan won despite never getting a first down or completing a pass and rushing for only 27 yards. The teams punted a total of 45 times, sometimes on first down. Michigan punted 24 times for 685 yards. Ohio State punted 21 times for 685 yards and had four punts blocked, one of which gave Michigan the winning touchdown. A 38-yard field goal by OSU would later be called one of the “greatest feats in American sports” by a panel of sports writers.

Postscript: I had the privilege of meeting Ralph C. Franke, referenced above as commander of C Company, a few years ago when he was a hospice patient at Fox Nursing Home. He was a lovely gentleman with a great sense of humor and good memory. I have a copy of the story he wrote describing his experiences as a Piper Cub spotter plane pilot at Okinawa which I ought to give The Review for publication someday. In his professional life, he was for many years the ceramic engineer who formulated Fiesta ware glaze colors for Homer Laughlin China.

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