Winter is Fun—But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing
Note: This article is from the Utah Division of State History. For more information, visit <https://heritage.utah.gov/history/1948s-unforgettable-winter>
In 1948–1949, the most severe winter on record beat up the West. Even Las Vegas got 17 inches of snow. Though other winters saw more snow, wind, and extreme cold, little thawing made the snow pile up. And up. And up. Think about this next time you want to complain about winter!
Three Days of Ferocious Snow Early in January 1949, a vicious three-day blizzard broke windows, damaged roofs, and blew snowdrifts six to ten feet high on roads and streets. After that the temperature fell to below zero. The drifts crusted so hard that snowplow crews struggled to remove them. Sardine Canyon, between Brigham City and Cache Valley, stayed closed for a month. People got stranded, even in Salt Lake City; 18 families in Salt Lake’s Canyon Rim area had to be dug out.
Livestock starved and froze. The state launched “Operation Haylift,” dropping bales of hay from military cargo planes. The Sons of Utah Pioneers, perhaps thinking of the next year’s hunt, lobbied for the state to also feed deer, pheasants, ducks, and quail. Meanwhile, skaters took advantage of strong ice at the Liberty Park pond, and children played on the huge snowdrifts.
Another Blizzard On January 15, another blizzard struck, bringing more minus temperatures. Some people had a novel–and irrational–idea: The city should truck in salt water from the Great Salt Lake or water from hot springs to melt the snow on the streets. And Another! Then on January 22 the mother of all blizzards roared in. Wind-whipped snow and slides closed roads all over the state. In Millard County, where the snow drifted as high as the telephone wires, a couple of men spent 36 hours stranded in a truck waiting for a snowplow to dig them out. Avalanches trapped skiers at Alta and Brighton—though a few decided to simply ski down Little Cottonwood Canyon to the valley.
A Truly Big Chill After the storm quit, the cold air hit: -25 degrees in Salt Lake City. Woodruff reached -45. Schools all over the Wasatch Front closed because gas supplies could not meet the demand. Coal companies could not deliver coal, and Utah Power and Light cut the power to its generators. The big freeze continued for several days, and then again on February 5, headlines read: “New Blizzard Throttles Utah.”
And so it went, snowing all the way into April. The one thaw came in late February, and it brought its own miseries: Flooding. An ice jam dammed a canal, flooding houses around 800 West and between 1300 and 1700 South (Salt Lake).
Yes, it was a hard winter, but people rose to the occasion. Many were heroic in their efforts to help others get through a bitter cold time.
From Mark Eubank We asked meteorologist Mark Eubank if 1948–1949 was the snowiest winter on record. It was not. Here is what he said:
First, let’s talk about when we get the snow. Winter is a specific period comprising three months or about 90 days. Meteorologically, winter includes the months of December, January, and February. Since it can also snow in the fall and in the spring, we have a snowfall year, which typically runs from September through May. So when we say a certain season was extra snowy, we need to define the time period.
Most people tend to think of the “winter” season (December thru February) when they remember stormy years. I think that is true because much of the spring snow melts quickly.
Winners of the “Most Snow” Award Here is a list showing the top five “winters” and the top five “snowfall years.”
The top two snowfall years had heavy winter snows plus a lot of snow in fall and spring. The winter of 1992-1993 was exceptional. In fact, it ranks at number one, plus there was a lot of snow in the fall. Cold Plus Snow is What We Remember The reason the winter of 1948-1949 is so noteworthy is because the snowfall was accompanied by exceptional cold! In fact, 1948-1949 is the combined coldest-snowiest winter ever measured in Utah. That combination kept the snow around for most of the winter and, in addition, the wind blew the snow into huge drifts. Winters in Utah can be cold and dry, or cold and wet. Or they can be warm and dry or warm and wet. The warm and wet winters are quickly forgotten, but the cold and wet winters are the ones that leave lasting impressions. While the winter of 1992-1993 was the snowiest, it didn’t even rank in the top 15 for cold. Winners of the “coldest” weather award: Coldest Utah Winters
Dec-Feb Snowfall Avg Temp 1963-64 39.1″ 24.0
1931-32 41.9″ 24.0
1930-31 15.0″ 23.4
1948-49 74.7″ 19.8
1932-33 66.2″ 19.5
Note: This article was posted to the Utah Division of State History by Kristen Rogers-Iversen, former Associate Director, State History.