March 13th, 2015

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

The month of March is upon us with wildly unpredictable weather.  March is the month of wind, sun, snow, rain, sleet, and it usually has a complete temperature rollercoaster.  I have a real love/hate affair with March.  The days get longer; the sun comes out more and then just as I begin looking for crocuses, daffodils, primroses and violets in the garden we get socked with a blizzard or ice storm!

I haven’t lived in Geneva long enough to have a favorite blizzard story for here though I do have snow storm stories about my other two long term residences, Rochester and Hemlock, New York.  The Blizzard of 1966 comes to mind along with the winter of 1977-1978 which had ferocious storms.  So in the midst of these winter doldrums I decided to see what I could find for major winter storms in March that may have affected Geneva and I came up with two whoppers!

The Blizzard of 1888 is supposed to be the storm against which all others are compared.  The storm began March 11, 1888 and ended March 14, 1888.  This storm began with mild snow starting about 3 pm on March 11 and by the time it finished at 3 am on  March 14 almost 50 inches of snow had fallen, drifts were even higher than 50 inches and the City of Albany was completely shut down.  400 people in the state lost their lives and trains were trapped in drifts 20 feet deep!

New York City after the Blizzard of 1888

New York City after the Blizzard of 1888

I realize that compared to the 7 feet of snow that was dumped on Buffalo earlier this year 50 inches doesn’t sound that bad, but we need to keep in mind that this happened in 1888. What was snow removal like in those days? There were no motorized trucks, big V plows, salting rigs and snow blowers.  There were sleighs (I haven’t seen many sleighs that were 50 inches off the ground though), but unless the snow was light 50 inches is over 4 feet and would come up to most horses underbelly.  How did the snow get removed? In the early 1800s it was by shovel.  Residents and merchants were required to clear their own streets, not just sidewalks.  Often groups of men would shovel the snow from the street into a horse drawn cart for removal to an open spot of ground.  Walking was the best means of travel in those early winters after a major storm.  By 1862 reports of horse drawn plows came from Milwaukee where a plow would be attached to a cart and pulled by horses through the street.  Of course that also had its problems.  Side streets and sidewalks became clogged with the snow removed from the main roads. Still it was an improvement over do-it-yourself shoveling.

Another snow removal innovation was putting snow plows on trains to clear the rails.  This helped train travelers, though I am not sure how easy it was to get to your destination once you arrived at the station.  Horse and sleigh were pretty handy most of the time.  As early as 1913 motorized dump trucks and plows appeared making snow removal easier.  In 1920 Chicago tried a piece of equipment called the Barber-Green snow loader, which scooped the snow off the street onto a conveyor belt which in turn loaded the snow into a chute at the top which dumped it into a truck parked below the loader. (Why don’t we have these now?)  While dump trucks and tractor plows were expensive, revenue lost due to impassible roadways cost even more, so cities purchased snow removal equipment.

Seneca Street facing west, early 1900s

Seneca Street facing west, early 1900s

Another memorable winter storm was commonly known as the “Superstorm” beginning on March 13 and ending on March 14, 1993.  I remember this storm vividly.  I was living in the hills above Honeoye, Hemlock and Canadice Lakes at the time.  By the time the storm was finished we had four foot drifts of snow all the way down an 850 foot stretch of driveway.  The mailman and newspaper deliverer couldn’t get down the road, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t get to the end of the driveway anyway.  By the time I got to the end of the driveway it was Tuesday morning and I found that the road was finally plowed and all that could be seen of the mailboxes were the openings protruding from the snow banks that lined the road.  Our driveway was finally cleared with a bucket loader/backhoe at about 3 am Thursday morning.  It was a memorable experience.

I guess we could have it worse.  This winter seems to have lasted forever!  Yet, my mail still gets through, my papers still get delivered, my recycling is taken away, my garbage is picked up and I know that by the end of this month I may possibly spot a crocus, or a violet or a song bird.  I can still get to the grocery store and my favorite ice cream stands are either open or hiring helpers.  Now that is the true harbinger of spring, forget the robins!

So I close this blog post optimistically awaiting spring, remember…IT COULD BE WORSE!  At least Geneva has the equipment to remove the snow.

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