Utah Center For Climate And Weather
Huge amounts of drifting snow stranded many cars in the howling wind in the winter of 1948-49.

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.

"This was due to several factors, including the availability of large expanses of open land — which was primarily agricultural — persistent high winds and periods of very heavy snow."

In the book "Under Granger Skies" he wrote that there are photos of telephone lines and barns nearly buried under towering drifts.

The winter of 1948-49 was the second coldest January and the fourth chilliest February on record for the airport. February had temperatures 10 degrees below average.

Alta had a record 165 inches of snow that winter, while the airport received 78 inches, eclipsing the previous record of 60 inches during 1937-38.

Milk and egg production fell significantly. "Operation Haylift" was begun to try and dump food from aircraft to struggling livestock in rural areas — especially in the west desert.

A photographic collection at the University of Utah has this caption attached to a winter snowpile in Delta —"The winter of 1948-49 was unforgettable. Snow was on the ground for 5 months. The snow which had been plowed to the sides of the road became so high that it had to be hauled off in trucks."

Coal supplies ran low in Utah that winter, too.

A South Jordan history posted on Wikipedia states, "The winter of 1948-49 was the worst in living memory. Snowdrifts lay five- to seven-feet deep across the roads making travel impossible."

Logan Canyon was closed most of February 1949. Once it opened, it was closed a few more days from snowslides. The town of Clarkston in western Cache County was completely shut off by snow drifts from Feb. 4 through Feb.15, according to a history by Joan Shaw and the Lewiston-North Cache Valley Historical Board. During portions of February that year, all roads north of Brigham City were closed.

Trains too got snowed in. A snowslide buried a train in Cache County and killed three railroad workers.

Idaho too had a severe winter that season. According to a history by the Idaho Department of Transportation, every week between Nov. 21, 1948 and Feb. 19, 1949 included a massive new storm in eastern Idaho. These 13 consecutive weeks of snow were also accompanied by high winds and sub-freezing or below-zero temperatures.

Feb. 4 to Feb. 11 was probably Idaho's worst ever winter blast. Three snowplows and their drivers were stranded between Pocatello and American Falls. Hundreds of motorists were also trapped at Coldwater Camp, between American Falls and Raft River. Food and supplies for them had to be dropped by aircraft.

Rotary plows could do little to clear the thick layer of ice from roads.

Many road repairs were required in the spring and when the interstates were constructed in the coming years, they avoided deep cuts where snow could drift as it had that winter.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com