Worst winter of them all
So you’re sick of winter and think the cold and snow can’t get much worse? Let me tell you about the "Great Winter" of 1948-49 that old timers still talk about.
All of the federal and state roads mentioned were two lane asphalt paved highways built to standards of the 1920s and 1930s. Cell phones had not yet been developed.
Official records at the National Weather Service office in Pocatello show that virtually every week between Nov. 21, 1948 and Feb. 19, 1949 brought a massive new storm to Eastern Idaho. This is 13 consecutive weeks of snow, accompanied by high winds and sub-freezing or below zero weather.
That winter’s icy curtain rose on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving, with 3.5 inches of snow in Pocatello, blown by winds up to 25 miles an hour. Hoult’s men, on snowplows and sanders, had little trouble clearing the roads after this storm.
But snow fell almost continually on Dec. 1, 2, 3 and 4, leaving six inches on the ground, followed by more snow and wind on the 5th. The crews were hard pressed to keep the highways open but were winning the battle when another blizzard struck on Dec. 7.
What Art Hoult’s journal calls a blizzard probably may not meet the strict definition of "blizzard." But he wrote in terse, unemotional language. It is certain that he meant it when he wrote in Dec. 7, "Blizzard in Pocatello and other places. Trouble on Rockland Road (Idaho 37) and Aberdeen Road (Idaho 39). Mink Creek closed. U.S. Highway 30 closed between Pebble and Bancroft."
Hoult had ordered maintenance foreman Johnny Goddard to take a rotary plow and open Mink Creek (south of Pocatello) while the American Falls crew worked in its area. But after hearing about the Highway 30 closure, Hoult wrote, "Goddard and I to trouble to open, leaving at 5:30 p.m. Worked all night. Very bad. To Lava (Hot Springs) for short rest, 3 a.m. Left Lava 7 a.m. to widen road to Soda (Springs). Left Soda at noon for Mink Creek to open road. Home 4:30 p.m. Tired."
For the following week, men and machines worked to clear the blocked highways and to widen the one-way trenches the plows had dug to restore a semblance of traffic.
A relatively minor storm came on Monday, Dec., 20, 1948, and most of the heavily traveled roads were opened by that evening.
"Dec. 31 Fri. Blizzard. Rotary working. Good west but bad east. Call from Laird. Bad ice conditions near Blue Dome."
This entry, noting the phone call from Bill Laird, maintenance man at Dubois, was Hoult’s final 1948 page. But it foretold one of the major highway problems of the entire winter – the ice buildup on Birch Creek forced it to flow on Idaho Highway 28 between Terreton and Salmon.
The year 1949 bounced into eastern Idaho on a massive snow storm, high winds and zero temperatures. On New Years Day, a Saturday, Hoult left for the trouble at Birch Creek at 9 a.m. He found the ice about four inches thick in the highway trench with the full flow of the creek running over the ice and blocking the road for about a half mile. Hoult noted that blasting would be required.
Records at the National Weather Service show clear skies and below freezing to sub-zero weather between New Years Day and noon, Jan. 7th in Pocatello.
New snow, blown by winds upwards of 35 miles per hour, started on the evening of the 7th and continued well into the next day, bringing the total on the ground to six inches and more blocked highways.
On Jan. 14, almost four inches of new snow fell, driven by 33 mph winds.
The next six days, the mercury hovered between 11 degrees below zero and 14 above. More snow fell on Jan. 20 and 21, raising the depth to 14 inches at the Pocatello airport. Then the wind rose again and more snow fell.
The following paragraph, in Hoult’s words, describes the battle to keep the roads open. The words in parentheses are added to clarify Hoult’s terse writing.
"Jan. 21, Fri. Report 30 closed west of American Falls. Rockland also closed. High winds and drifting snow. Visibility zero. Three trucks required to hold (open) 30 west of American Falls. (American Falls maintenance man) Rowlands called at midnight advising two (abandoned) coal trucks in center of road and can’t be moved by our big Oshkosh (heavy duty rotary plow) and (our) crews abandoned road until morning. All need rest.
Goddard called at 1 a.m. advising 30 almost closed at Tallmadge (east of Bancroft).
Rotary left Pocatello at 2 a.m. to open."
The coal trucks were removed from the roadway the next day, then the Oshkosh became disabled with fuel pump trouble and was towed back to American Falls. This left the towns of Rockland and Roy again cut off from the world.
On Jan 23rd the school superintendent phoned from Rockland asking Hoult about opening the Roy road for the children. "Told him it would be the next move for the rotary after cleaning up west of American Falls."
The record low temperature for Pocatello to that date was set between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 1949. It was 31.4 degrees below zero.
It only got down to minus 23 the following night. Another two and a half inches of snow fell in the next few days, raising the depth on the ground to 18 inches. Twenty foot drifts were reported in some places.
January 31st dawned with 21 inches of snow on the ground at the Pocatello airport.
Hoult described the situation as the "worst in highway history."
Caravans of travelers were stranded at Coldwater Camp, between American Falls and Raft River, with food and supplies dropped to them from planes. The week between Feb. 4 and 11 saw many eastern Idaho towns in virtual isolation with surface traffic at a standstill.
Coal supplies ran low; deliveries were made only to "folks who had run out," says a Pocatellan who remembers that winter.
Cattlemen reported animals by the hundreds frozen or starved to death; trains were stalled on several occasions, and some food stores were hard hit when orders failed to arrive.
One snowplow operator experienced a breakdown on deserted U.S. 26 near Taber in Bingham County and was forced to walk 15 miles back to Moreland in the teeth of the storm.
Hoult’s eventual solution to get Birch Creek’s main channel off State Highway 28 was to borrow bulldozers from local contractors and use them to break through the drifts.
Crawler tractors and concrete rippers proved to be the only machines that could penetrate the thick ice.
Rotary plows were still working to widen the highway trenches through deep snow as late as March 14.
Next came the repairs to the roads which had been severely damaged by frost, water, and crawler tractors.
Never since has such a severe winter hit southern Idaho. The Idaho Transportation Department is now better prepared, with more manpower and more powerful snow removal equipment.
The Interstate highways, built since Hoult’s time, were designed to avoid deep cuts which are a natural attraction for drifting snow.
So if you hear someone beefing about the current winter, tell them about the Great Winter of 1948-49. Believe me, it was!