1950’s ‘Big Snow’ remains etched in memory |

1950’s ‘Big Snow’ remains etched in memory

| Sunday, November 24, 2013 11:06 p.m
Courtesy of the Heinz History Center
When a Thanksgiving 1950 storm dumped 27.4 inches of snow on Pittsburgh, crippling the city, people pulled together, say those who lived through it.
Courtesy of the Heinz History Center
Photos from the Heinz History Center shows Forbes Avenue in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh during the Great Appalachian Snowstorm of 1950, which dumped 27.4 inches on the city.
Courtesy of the Heinz History Center
Photos from the Heinz History Center shows the Oakland section of Pittsburgh during the Great Appalachian Snowstorm of 1950 that dumped 27.4 inches on the city.
Courtesy of the Heinz History Center
Photos from the Heinz History Center shows the Oakland section of Pittsburgh buried under 27.4 inches of snow from a story that started on Thanksgiving 1950.
Ethel Lloyd Papers
Photos from the Heinz History Center shows Pittsburgh under 27.4 inches of snow from a Thanksgiving 1950 storm.
Ethel Lloyd Papers
Submitted photos from the Heinz History Center shows Pittsburgh during the Great Appalachian Snowstorm of 1950, which dumped 27.4 inches on the city.
Charles E. Lindberg
Mt. Washington, buried from a snowstorm that began on Thanksgiving 1950 and dumped 27.4 inches on Pittsburgh. Photo from the Heinz History Center.

After Thanksgiving dinner 63 years ago, Doris Harris kissed her husband and sent him into the night’s stillness.

Charles Harris, a firefighter in Oakland, said he’d see her the next day when his shift ended.

Then it started snowing.

“And it didn’t stop,” recalled Doris Harris, 88. “He didn’t come home for a week. With all the snow, none of the other forces could get in, so the ones that were there had to stay.

“Here I was from North Carolina, and I’d never seen so much snow,” she said. “I was looking out the window and thinking, ‘Why am I in this godforsaken place?’ ”

As Western Pennsylvania and the East Coast prepare for a Thanksgiving-week storm that has killed at least 13 people as it moves across the country, the Great Appalachian Snowstorm of 1950 — “The Big Snow,” as people called it — remains the stuff of legend.

Starting on a Friday, the three days of nonstop snowfall paralyzed the region. The National Weather Service recorded 27.4 inches in Pittsburgh, a record that stands. Many areas reported 30 to 40 inches.

That easily eclipses the last big storm, on Feb. 5-6, 2010, when 21.9 inches fell in Pittsburgh, records show.

Forecasters say this week’s storm will bring less than half of that total to the area as people prepare to travel for the holiday.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch through Wednesday afternoon. Snowfall could reach 9 inches in Allegheny County and more than a foot in the Laurel Highlands. Accumulation is expected to be 7 to 10 inches along portions of Interstate 80, said John Darnley, a meteorologist for the weather service in Moon.

“This is very preliminary, but I want people to be aware of traveling implications,” Darnley said.

The storm system is particularly hard to predict because a couple of degrees here or there with the temperature will determine whether regions get rain, sleet or snow, said weather service meteorologist Tom Bradshaw.

“It’s slow moving, and it’s sort of bringing its energy out in pieces, so it’s kind of hard to time these as they come across with a great deal of accuracy,” he said.

Snowstorms typically bring 16 or more inches to Western Pennsylvania once every 15 years, according to the weather service. Snowfalls of 13 to 15 inches occur every five years.

The 1950 storm was “like an inland hurricane,” said Stephen Cropper, WPXI-TV’s chief meteorologist.

People who lived through the storm recall it as beautiful but inconvenient. Roads became impassable for days. The snow crippled public transportation, and mail delivery stopped. Industry virtually shut down.

Yet nobody went without, said Joanne Downs, 83, who talked about the storm with friends recently at a South Hills retirement home. In those days, she said, nearly every corner had a mom-and-pop grocery store with owners living above. People walked to stores when they ran out of bread, milk or eggs.

“It was a different time,” Downs said.

Despite problems it caused, the storm did not change government’s response to storms, said Lou Martin, a history professor at Chatham University who teaches a course on American Environmental History. City planners in 1950 were addressing smoke abatement from mills, stream pollution and flood control, he said.

“There were bigger fish to fry,” Martin said. “The once-in-a-century nature of the storm did not lead to any lasting policy change.”

Still, it left its mark: More than 50 people died, and damages were estimated at more than $1 million, including lost wages for people who could not get to work.

Ed Lyons got to work, though it wasn’t easy.

Lyons, 88, lived in East Liberty and worked for a North Side roofing company. When the trolley lines shut down, he set off on foot.

“That was a long walk,” he said. ”But I had a family to feed.”

For three days, he shoveled snow from rooftops during daylight, then slept in the company’s old factory on Cedar Avenue on a pile of blankets.

“Worse than the Army,” he said. “But it was three days of wages, let’s put it that way.”

The storm affected states throughout the East, bringing record low temperatures to many southern states and destructive winds to New York.

In Steubenville, Ohio, 44 inches fell. Sam Lamatrice, 76, of Steubenville recalled shoveling snow into trucks to be dumped into the Ohio River for 50 cents a load. He watched kids ride sleds nearly a mile down a hill from the hospital to train tracks near the river.

“If that happened today, the city would be paralyzed,” Lamatrice said. “You get a couple inches now, and everything stops.”

Nothing was going to stop Army chaplain Frank Ramsey.

Stationed at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, Ramsey had to get to Greensburg to marry his sweetheart, Betty Jean Goodlin. But days after The Big Snow stopped, roads remained impassable.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol told Ramsey about a single plowed lane of highway crossing the state, his wife said. He jumped in his old green Ford and set off.

“He missed the rehearsal but made it in time for the wedding,” said Betty Jean Ramsey.

Capt. Frank Ramsey died in 2008. “But I’ll never forget our wedding,” his wife said.

Staff writer Bobby Kerlik and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or

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