Cold, snow, wind made 1948-49 horrid

Published: Saturday, Dec. 27 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

Huge amounts of drifting snow stranded many cars in the howling wind in the winter of 1948-49.

Utah Center For Climate And Weather

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When you envision a "bad winter," you probably think of either deep snow or extra frigid temperatures but likely not both. However, 60 years ago, the winter of 1948-49 had a frightful combination of both snow and cold, making it perhaps the state's worst-ever winter.

The National Weather Service lists that winter as the No. 4 weather event for the Beehive State during the 20th century.

Its description: "Utah's most severe winter since 1899 ... It was the coldest winter on record, with record amounts of seasonal snowfall ... Nearly a 25 percent loss in some livestock herds reported. Many fruit trees were killed. Wildlife struggled for existence. Tourist trade reached an all-time low, and 10 people died from exposure."

The more recent Utah winters of the mid-1980s and 1993 also featured heavy snowfalls, but they lacked subzero temperatures and howling winds.

Colby Neuman, a meteorologist with the Salt Lake Office of the National Weather Service, agrees the piled-up snow that didn't melt and extra cold temperatures and winds made 1948-49 a winter to forget.

For example, on Jan. 23 and Jan. 24, 1949, there were 23 inches of snow on the ground at the Salt Lake Airport, third greatest on record. Then on Jan. 25, the temperature plunged to 7 degrees below zero and never topped 8 degrees above zero for a daytime high — second coldest day ever in January.

"That was a huge snow event, then record cold," Neuman said. "The snow was on the ground for a long time and Salt Lake was stuck in an inversion."

William B. Smart, 86, former Deseret News editor, began his newspaper career in 1948 and said that was by far the worst winter in his lifetime.

"It was so cold, the snow did not melt," he said. "There was also a lot of inversions, extra bad, because most Utahns still burned coal for heat."

Smart had made an agreement with a landlord to do yard work — including snow removal — for a reduced apartment rent. "That," he said, "was the worst bargain I ever made," in light of how hard it was to keep a large driveway cleared of snow and ice.

Smart went with the Utah National Guard on some west desert hay drops that winter to feed stranded sheep. He also made a perilous trip to an airplane beacon on Antelope Island and was lucky to survive a fast-moving blizzard there.

Winter came hard in December 1948 with 39 inches of snow falling at the airport. There were only seven days that month without snowfall. And there were just eight snowless days in January 1949 and nine in February. It even snowed on 11 of the 31 days in March 1949

December in Salt Lake City featured two subzero temperature days; January had 13 and February four. Historically, the city averages only three days of zero degrees or below a year.

Because temperatures were so bone-chilling, the snow that fell tended to be drier. The powdery substance blew freely in the wind and snow drifts plagued the city.

For example, on Feb. 7, 1949, 10 inches of snow fell at the Salt Lake Airport, followed by near hurricane-force winds. The blowing snow closed schools in Davis, Weber and Granite school districts and halted traffic in Salt Lake City. It was also particularly bad in Bountiful, Delta, Milford and Cedar City.

Flame throwers had to be used in February 1949 to clear the Union Pacific tracks in Wyoming of snow and ice.

An estimate by the state of Utah on Feb. 20, 1949, stated that the harsh winter had cost the Beehive State at least $12.7 million ($115.7 million in today's dollars).

Clayton Brough, recently retired meteorologist on KTVX, said the winter of 1948-49 was probably the worst winter of "very high snow drifts" the western side of the Salt Lake Valley has experienced since the 1880s.

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