A sleigh full of beet pulp crossing Lewiston's Main Street during a typical northern Cache Valley winter in the 1890s
Lewiston’s Theon Nielsen could recall a February in the early 1920s when a surprise wind roared out of the east one night, picked up hay barns like umbrellas, and deposited them, in a lot worse shape, a mile or so to the west. It seems that, after putting up the hay, farmers had trustingly left open their east-facing doors – strong winds, after all, almost always came from the west. Teacher Virginia Hanson of Cornish recorded in her 1934 diary that walking to school in a blizzard one morning landed her in bed with a pair of frostbitten legs that took weeks to heal. And almost everyone past forty-five could remember walking over fences by way of the crusted tops of snow drifts. But, friends, believe me, not one of the many memorable North Cache Valley winters’ tales could match those written about the West’s Winter of 1949.
Actually beginning in December of 1948, that particular winter sent blizzard after blizzard sweeping down from the north, propelled by viciously high winds and lashing snow. Ann Buttars, Director of USU’s Special Collections, heard about it all her life. “Ah, yes,” she told me one day last week. “That was the year I was born.” Her dad had to haul out the horse and sleigh, she said, in order to get her mother, Maurine Buttars, from Cornish to the hospital for baby Ann’s imminent – one might guess, urgent – arrival. It was a story Ann’s mother never tired of retelling.
Well, a trip by sleigh was understandable for a 1940s winter that severe, right? Except– strictly speaking–Ann wasn’t born in the winter, but in the spring, on April 15. Indeed, the Herald Journal of 1949 was reporting falling snow as late as April 2.
Weather around the valley was given front-page coverage almost every day that winter, including the newest lists of snow depths. In early February, the Franklin County Sugar Company plant at Whitney reported 36.3 inches for January alone following a record 29 inches in December, about twice the normal snow fall in both cases. Young Claudia Van Orden, right, stands in front of her her granddad's Lewiston Drug Store in between the lizzards of 1949.
Moreover, the powdery stuff was whipped into enormous drifts that proved almost impossible to clear from the roads. The old Sardine Canyon route to Box Elder County was reported shut down again and again with falling snow, drifts, and snow slides. Logan Canyon, clogged for a month, was finally cleared in late February, only to be shut down a few days later by three different snow slides.
Clarkston was not only snowed in from February 4 to February 15, many of the town’s 650 citizens had been snowed out. A two-man crew worked devotedly through the night of the 14th on a state road commission’s rotary plow to break through the five miles of drifts between Newton and Clarkston. And following close behind was a caravan of Clarkston exiles making its way home to worried family members. Meanwhile everyone prayed for the bitter, drift-building wind to stop blowing.
Of course Clarkston wasn’t alone in its isolation from the rest of the valley during this particularly vicious February – the valley itself was isolated from the rest of Utah. In fact, the wind-driven snow on the 14th had closed all roads north of Brigham City and all of the roads in Idaho. “We’re trying to hold Lewiston open by patrol and truck,” said a weary traffic Superintendent Myron Ravsten, “but just the main roads.” Trenton, Cornish, Wellsville, Mendon, and College Ward roads, however, were impassable. “We may get some of them free by evening,” the superintendent said. “If the wind stops.”
Road closures were matched by snow-clogged railways, cleared in the valley when possible by snow plows like the one at left, standing at Logan's "Wye" in the 1940s. As early as January 5, 17 trains were reportedly stalled in Utah and Idaho and track-clearing snow plows were idled by drifts higher than the engines behind them. All over the West that winter, trains had been literally buried in snow, many from snow slides, including a tragic one in Cache Valley which claimed the lives of three crew members.
Starving livestock and wildlife had reached a crisis stage early in December, spurring airlifts of hay in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada in an effort to save the lives of millions of head of sheep and cattle, deer and elk. Up to 25% losses were reported in some cattle herds, according to Mark Eubank, and the lamb crop that spring was significantly reduced.
Subzero temperatures added to the misery, documenting that year as the coldest Utah winter on record. On January 28, typical of temperature readings reported by the Herald Journal that winter showed Benson and College Ward at minus 38 degrees, Newton at minus 36, Trenton at minus 34, and Lewiston at minus 32. And this with anywhere from three to six feet of snow on the ground.
By late February, the icy air was heavy with theories as to the cause of it all, ranging from the atomic bomb tests at Bikini and Eniwetok, to “someone” shifting the moderating Japanese current westward. But Ivan R. Tannehill, then Chief of the Division of Reports and Forecasts in the U.S., said it would take a lot more facts than scientists had on hand at that time to explain the winter of 1948-49.
In 1997, however, we have a lot more facts, and given a winter of that magnitude occurring today, the popular vote would almost certainly drop on the warm shoulders of El Niño. Except for the fact that 1948-49 wasn’t an El Niño year.
El Niño, as we have been hearing for some time, is a phenomenon recognized for centuries by fisherman and sailors on our equatorial seas, occurring near Christmas time on a two- to seven-year cycle. It was named, according to legend, for the Christ Child – “The Boy”. In scientific circles, the term now refers to an increase in both sea surface temperatures in the central and, at times, eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean (the El Niño), and in sea level atmospheric pressure in the western Pacific (the Southern Oscillation). This complex, more accurately called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation or ENSO, has been found to either cause – or to correlate with – extremes in both precipitation and drought in North and South America and in Indonesia and Australia.
Some events, such as droughts in Indonesia, flooding along the western coast of South America, and the eastward drift of the jet stream bringing drenching rainstorms to California and the Gulf states, have been classed as directly caused by an increase in the temperature, extent, and duration of an El Niño event. But droughts in Australia, South America, Africa, and the American mid-West have not been classed yet as directly caused by these events, but rather as correlations, or implications of possible cause and effect.
In addition, rather than an anomaly, El Niño appears to be a naturally occurring event – 27 of them have been recorded in this century so far. Often these events cause no more than a ripple of difference in the weather of the northern hemisphere’s Pacific Ocean. But once in a while, a monster-sized pool of warm water comes along, coupled with a marked change in atmospheric pressure in the Indonesia-Australia areas and a dramatic drop in the easterly trade winds – so called “strong events” or “strong El Niños.” There were two of these events this century – one during 1924-25, which didn’t appear to cause any outstanding weather events in Utah, and another in 1982-83.
In fact, the El Niño of 1982-83 was the strongest this century; it sent the tail ends of several tropical storms northward and added significant moisture to an already heavy snowpack in Utah’s mountains. But the ensuing floods, climatologists insist, were caused as much by the sudden rise in 1983's spring temperatures as the large size of the State’s snowpack. Furthermore, Utah has experienced heavy snows and floods in previous years, and none of them seemed to have coincided with a recorded El Niño year.
Mark Anderson of the Climate Center on the USU campus says that Cache Valley’s weather deviates no more than 10% one way or another during an El Niño year. “We’re several thousand miles from the Pacific Coast,” Mark pointed out, “and surrounded by high mountains.”
Meanwhile, Cache Valley’s famously arctic winters go on as usual, though thankfully not as arctic lately as the one in 1948-49. During the forties and part of the fifties, Renèe Karren tells me, many people in the rural parts of northern Cache Valley simply accepted the Siberian winters, put their cars and trucks in the barn or garage after the first heavy snow, and hauled out the horse and sleigh for getting around. Others just plowed through the stuff as well – and for as long – as they could.
Long-time Cache Valley resident, Thora Littledike, for instance, drove from house to house in all kinds of weather during the 40s, giving youngsters piano lessons. She never felt herself in any special danger, she says, except for one early evening when snow falling over black ice had slowed her down considerably. As night began to fall, Thora was creeping cautiously around the slope out of Newton in her 1948 Hudson coupe. “And, you know,” she recalls, “I saw this apparition coming toward me....” The apparition turned out to be her husband, Clyde, coming to her rescue through the swirling snow on the only other vehicle they owned in their early married life – his bicycle. With great relief at finding his beloved Thora in one piece, Clyde put his bike into the Hudson’s trunk and he and his wife finished the trip home together .
Which just proves that both rescue and devotion come in many different forms–sometimes on a rotary snow plow , sometimes on a bicycle.
Photos of the beet
pulp sleigh and young Claudia Van Orden from the Van Orden Collection
Photo of the "Wye" snow plow courtesy USU Special Collections
Photo of Lewiston Main Street before February 14 blizzard from the Van Orden Collection