PLYMOUTH - As bone chilling temperatures make their way across the area again this week, many will recall a similar chill 35 years ago.
While there have been others since, the “Blizzard of ‘78” - that lasted from the evening of Jan. 25 until Jan. 27 - still lives as the worst snow storm on record for the state of Indiana.
“I remember the first morning we were able to get the trucks out pretty much everywhere,” said Jim Kunze who was a member of the “Four Wheel Drive Club” that helped run people and supplies around the county during the storm. “We had to run down Highway 17 to Culver for some medical supplies and I remember the snow was half way up the telephone poles. Some of the drifts were at least 10 feet deep. The snow was powdery enough we could push through it. I remember pushing a lot of snow over the hood going through drifts.”
“By the second day we had to get the snowmobiles out. It had gotten heavy enough we couldn’t get the trucks through it anymore.”
That winter had already been one of the coldest on record. The average winter temperature that year in South Bend was 19.7 degrees and there had already been a total of 30 inches of snowfall during the snowiest “autumn” in history. The area recorded 136 inches of snow for the winter with 86 inches falling in January alone with a snow depth that reached 41 inches in some places.
“A few of the things I remember is that snow completely buried my Pontiac station wagon that sat in my driveway,” said Rick Derf, a local businessman and WTCA Sports broadcaster at the time of the storm. “Snow drifts south of town were piled to the roof of the neighbor’s garage.”
“I put the paper together because (Pilot News Editor) Bob Hutchins couldn’t get to work,” said Jan Garrison, now Assistant Director of Publications at the Culver Academies who was a Pilot News reporter at the time. “I lived on Garro Street. I walked down the middle of the street to get to the Pilot. It was dark, very quiet and cold. The streets weren’t plowed, so it was pretty deep. I don’t remember hearing anything except my breathing and the snow crunching under my footsteps.”
“As the paper of record, we felt it was important to print every day so we could report on the blizzard and its daily impact. Because everyone and everything was snowbound, it got to be comical because we would check with the various police departments, highway departments, and the hospital and there would be hardly anything to write about. I think some of the nurses stayed at the hospital and nursing homes for two or three days in a row. Some emergency personnel used snowmobiles to reach people or deliver prescriptions.”
The massive storm started as two small but distinct storms one that swept in from Canada, the other took shape over eastern Texas. When the air masses met in the midwest all time low barometric pressures were recorded along the path of the storm. During the height of the storm snow fell at the rate of one to two inches per hour with sustained winds of 35 to 45 miles per hour.
On day two, just a half hour after the arctic front blasted through, the Indianapolis International Airport was closed due to whiteout conditions. At 3 a.m., the blizzard produced peak winds of 55 mph. Temperatures dropped to zero that morning. Wind chills remained a bone chilling 40 to 50 below zero nearly all day.
For others it was business as usual.
“Somehow, Don Towle, who was the production manager, went around town and picked up some of the backshop people,” said Garrison of life at the Pilot News. “Others walked in. It was a real bare bones crew. I learned how to pull the papers off the press and stack them because we didn’t have enough people in circulation to do that. We couldn’t get the rural deliveries out, so we stored them in the back so everyone could see what happened each day.”
When the blizzard ended early in the morning of the 27th, snow records around the state were set and have yet to be broken. Maximum snow amounts from the storm reached 20 inches over parts of Central and Southern Indiana and up to 40 inches over parts of Northern Indiana. The governor declared a snow emergency for the entire state the morning of the 26th. Snow drifts of 10 to 20 feet made travel virtually impossible. During the afternoon of the 26th, the Indiana State Police considered all Indiana roads closed.
The one thing that the storm left behind for every Hoosier of the time is an abundance of memories.
“Another memory that my two daughters, Kim and Erica, still talk about today is the fun we had playing games at home for several days because everything was shut down and classes cancelled,” said Derf. “We played Yahtzee, Boggle, and card games for hours over several days and developed some lifelong memories we all still cherish.”