Most of us in the United States this week are preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday, and last week many of us experienced extreme weather in the form of unseasonable cold and snow. As I’ve written about on this blog before, November in the U.S. has historically been a very mercurial month, sometimes serving up truly epic weather events. One Thanksgiving weekend was especially noteworthy in that regard. The Great Appalachian Storm, as it came to be known, began forming on the day after Thanksgiving 64 years ago, on November 24, 1950, and went on over the next six days to set and break extreme weather records all over the eastern U.S. While many have heard of “nor’easters,” this particular storm was what one might call a “southeaster,” and it was definitely one for the history books.

The storm was what meteorologists call an “extratropical cyclone”–for all intents and purposes, a hurricane that formed outside the tropics. Snow began falling in many parts of the eastern U.S. on Thanksgiving evening, November 23, just as many families were washing dishes and napping off the tryptophan from holiday turkey. The not-unusual snow event, however, merged with a low pressure area forming over North Carolina the next day, November 24. Over the succeeding 24 hours, the storm became a “bomb”–another meteorological term meaning a cyclone that experiences sudden and extreme deepening of atmospheric pressure. The snow kept coming down, everywhere from West Virginia to Ontario, plus most of New England. Residents were stunned at the incredible snowfall.

Most children were home from school that Friday due to the Thanksgiving holiday, but adults still had to go to work. When they came home Friday evening–if they could make it home–the snow had brought city after city to a total standstill. There were 18 inches on the ground in parts of the Monongahela Valley. In Steubenville, Ohio, a staggering 44 inches of snow was recorded by the end of the long weekend. Records for cold temperatures were set in many parts of the South, including -4° in Atlanta, Georgia. Because this was a type of hurricane, there was also high wind. The roof of a dormitory was torn off at University of Connecticut. At one point the wind in New York City gusted to 94 miles per hour, the speed of a baseball pitcher’s fast-ball.

blizard of 1950

Residents of Jamestown, Ohio trudge through 30 inches of snow on their main street on November 26, 1950.

As with any extreme weather event, it affected many people differently, but there were acts of heroism amidst the disaster. A funeral director in Donora, Pennsylvania used his funeral home’s hearse to drive expectant mothers to the hospital in the snow, then checked himself into the same hospital after suffering stress and exhaustion from these trips. In Ohio, the National Guard used Army jeeps to deliver food to rural areas where residents were snowbound. A radio station in Pennsylvania remained on the air 24 hours a day–a rarity in the early 1950s–to broadcast updates on the weather and relief efforts. After the storm, the Army used tanks to clear the snow from streets.

Amazingly, some people tried to go about their business as best they could. The storied rivalry between college football giants Michigan and Ohio State would not be stopped by something as trifling as Mother Nature’s wrath. On Saturday, November 25, the game between them went ahead as scheduled at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, with an astonishing 79,000 people turning up for the big game despite blowing snow and savage winds. The storm made the game unusual, to be sure. There were a total of 45 punts during the game. The game’s one touchdown was the work of Vic Janowicz, who went on to play for the Washington, D.C. NFL team [whose racist name I refuse on a matter of principle to have appear on my blog]. Michigan won 9-3, and the game was immortalized as the “Snow Bowl.”

Here is actual film footage of the “Snow Bowl” on November 25, 1950.

Huge blizzards are really two disasters in one. The original snowfall is bad enough, but the melt-off often produces floods, which is exactly what happened in 1950. A week after the storm, in early December 1950, warming temperatures caused huge torrents of snowmelt to pour into local rivers. Rising waters flooded parts of the city of Pittsburgh. Insurance companies were left holding a $66 million bag, quite a chunk of change in 1950. Between the snow, wind, cold temperatures and flooding, 353 people were dead.

The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950 still lives long in the memory of area residents. Although weather experts like to throw around the term “Storm of the Century” whenever there’s the slightest excuse to use it–probably because it sounds dramatic–the events of November 1950 were one of the few episodes of the 20th century, alongside perhaps the blizzards of 1978 and 1993, that really deserved it. For kids who grew up in that era, it certainly left an indelible mark. I’ve found from my own historical research that extreme weather events during one’s childhood tend to be remembered almost more strongly than any other kinds of events. Certainly this one was worth remembering.

The copyright status of some of these photos is uncertain. I believe the photo at the top of the page appeared originally in the Duquesne Times in November 1950, and was reproduced at the Duquesne Hunky blog article on the blizzard here (great article, BTW). The last picture on the page was taken by James E. Sutton of Ohio. Due to their age I believe these photos are public domain in the United States; if not, fair use is claimed.
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