West Michigan had its first major snowstorm of the season at this week. The more northern parts of Michigan had their first major snowfalls weeks ago. We also had some of those famous November Gales that whipped up huge waves on the big lakes. Michigan has certainly had its share of historic winter storms. This article takes a look at five of the worst. Before first, here are a few general facts about Michigan winters:
1. Michigan is ranked as the sixth snowiest state in the nation based on statewide averages.
2. A list of snowiest cities in the United States with a population of plus 100,000 is compiled every year. Michigan almost always has has a few in the top 25 with Grand Rapids ranking highest. Ann Arbor, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo also make it into the top 25 most years.
3. Calumet, a small town in the Upper Peninsula, is the snowiest place in Michigan with a yearly average of 187.4 inches. They had a record snowfall of 390.4 inches set during the winter of 1978-79. The Keweenaw Road Commission tracks Calumet’s snowfall each season using the Snow Thermometer. The large billboard can be seen all year along US 41, north of Mohawk. It’s located near a roadside park, so you can stop and take pictures.
4. Michigan has an unincorporated community named Hell about 30 minutes north of Ann Arbor. In the winter, Hell, Michigan gets a lot of national press coverage, because T.V. meteorologists around the country love to show pictures of, “Hell froze over.” However, Paradise, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula on the shores of Lake Superior, is probably much colder and snowier than Hell.
Historic Michigan Winter Storms
The White Hurricane of 1913
The White Hurricane of 1913 was actually an early season blizzard that wreaked havoc across the Great Lakes for four days, November 7th through the 10th. Technically, Michigan doesn’t have hurricanes, but anyone who lived through the 1913 storm might beg to differ.
Two powerful low fronts, one from Alberta and one from Colorado, converged over the Great Lakes, picking up energy from the still warm lake water. This created one of the worst snowstorms to ever hit the region in recorded history.
The blizzard packed powerful hurricane force winds that blew across Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas and into Ohio, New York and Ontario, Canada. Typically these storms are called November Gales, but in 1913 wind gusts reached hurricane speeds of up 90 mph, producing 35 foot waves on the big lakes. Sustained winds across the entire state of Michigan are believed to have reached 60 to 70 mph.
The storm left a path of devastation in its wake, toppling ships on the Great Lakes. Nineteen ships were totally destroyed and another 19 were left stranded. Lake Huron took the worst hit, losing several ships that were in the area on-route to and from the St. Mary’s River and Lake Erie. About 235 sailors lost their lives on Lake Huron during the horrific storm.
In lakeshore towns, waves ripped apart breakwaters, and the wind smashed telephone poles and power lines. Snowfalls of almost two feet crippled cities and towns across Michigan and other Great Lakes states. In Alpena, snow drifts from the strong winds reached more than four feet.
In total,the fierce storm took more than 250 lives.
The Blizzard of 1967
The days prior to January 26 and 27, 1967, were unseasonably warm with temperatures in the 50s and 60s. Record highs were even set in some parts of Michigan. Then suddenly winter temperatures returned and with them came several feet of snow in a short period of time.
Eyewitnesses say the storm brought the entire state to a standstill for two days. Kalamazoo took the brunt of the storm with 30 inches of snow falling. Other places had between one and two feet of snow on the ground.
An 8 mile long traffic backup occurred between Grand Rapids and Jackson with drivers abandoning their cars and walking to a nearby farmhouse to spend the night. Dairy farmers had to dump milk that couldn’t be delivered. State troopers relied on the National Guard for transportation through the deep snow to emergency calls.
The storm took 22 lives in Michigan. Most deaths were from heart attacks that occurred while people were clearing the heavy snow.
The 1886 Detroit Blizzard
Michiganders know not all winter storms happen in the winter. Sometimes they happen in the spring, like Detroit’s worst winter storm in history.
In early April 1886, warm spring temperatures had Detroit area farmers and gardeners already preparing for planting. Then on April 3rd, a strong, steady wind started blowing. By April 5th, the spring-like temperatures were replaced by cold air in the 30s.
Snow started falling after midnight on the 6th. The snow came down at rates of more than an inch an hour. By 9pm that night, Detroit and other parts of southeast Michigan were buried under 24.5 inches of snow. The blizzard’s winds of over 32 mph left 12 foot high drifts in places.
In Rochester, life ground to a halt with snow so deep the sidewalks and streets were unusable. Deliveries of daily essentials like milk and coal were stopped. Because the ground was warm before the storm, a thick layer of ice lay beneath all the snow. People used anything they could to remove the crippling snow and ice, including crowbars.
The railroad tracks between Pontiac and Rochester were also impassable. The storm even derailed some train cars. Extra workers were brought in from Romeo to help clear the tracks, but wind blew the fine snow around so much they had a difficult time seeing to do their work.
Even the local snow plows were defenseless against so much snow. Snow removal was so difficult, many people simply waited for warmer temperatures and the sun to return and melt the snow.
Photo of a winter scene in Detroit courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The North American Blizzard of 1999
The ’99 blizzard was yet another storm that hit after a stretch of mild winter temperatures. Just after the New Year, on January 2nd and 3rd, the Great Lakes Region was stuck with blizzard conditions. West Michigan was hit hardest with up to 28 inches of snow falling along the Lake Michigan shoreline in South Haven.
Schools and businesses in the snowiest areas were closed for days. However, thanks to modern snow removal equipment and techniques, the state was able to get most major highways reopened within 24 hours of the storm.
It helped that the storm blew in over the weekend, so not as many people needed to travel for work and school. Folks also had time to remove snow from their cars and driveways before Monday morning.
Airports didn’t fare as well. Northwest airlines left thousands of passengers stranded in planes on the tarmac at Detroit Metro for up to 10 hours as they waited to be cleared for takeoff in the storm. Toilets quit working and many of the planes were without food and water. When planes were finally flying again, it took days before airports were running on time at full capacity.
Northwest airlines ended up paying out more than 7 million dollars in settlements to the stranded passengers. Ultimately, the debacle at Detroit Metro led to all airlines changing how they deal with bad weather, flight delays and cancellations.
The 1938 Upper Peninsula Blizzard and Marquette Fire
On January 26th, 1938, a severe winter storm that lasted for a day and a half struck Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Even today, it’s called, “the worst of them all.”
In the the western and central U.P., where the highest elevations are, between 30 and 40 inches of snow fell. Eighteen inches of snow fell on Marquette County. Blizzard conditions came as far south as Escanaba where they received about 10 inches of snow.
While the snow totals were high, the 50 mph winds that accompanied the storm were the real troublemakers. They caused extreme drifting all along the storm’s path. In Ironwood where drifts reached 18 feet, students were stranded at school, spending four days sleeping on gym mats. Drifts as high as 17 feet stacked up in the cities of Marquette and Negaunee. Photos show utility poles almost completely buried, and cars all but disappeared beneath the white blanket. The drifts were so high snow plows could do nothing. Trains stopped and roads were impassable for days.
As if the blizzard wasn’t enough, Marquette’s opera house and masonic temple caught on fire in the middle of the storm. Residents were afraid the whole city would burn, if they couldn’t get the fire under control.
Firefighters dug their feet into the snow banks for support as they sprayed the fire with water. The storm’s strong winds blew the water back in their faces, leaving them covered in ice and the fire still burning.
The water from the hoses mixed with the inches of snow on the ground and created thick, hip high slush. One of the firetrucks became frozen in the slush and had to be dug out.
It took many hours, but eventually the fire was brought under control and the city of Marquette saved. The cost of the damage from the fire would total in the millions today.