The Great Blizzard of '44

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The Great Blizzard of '44

Postby meteorite » Tue Dec 13, 2011 1:03 am

Every year when December 11th rolls around, Mrs. M. and I look at each other sort of nervously, look at the sky, then go check the weather radar and forecast. Historically it has been an inauspicious day in our neck of the woods, and nerves are tight.

It's not that it doesn't snow in Toronto in December, it does - even earlier in fact. I can remember watching one Santa Claus parade (the Saturday after Remembrance Day) when the air was so cold and the snow so packed it squeaked when we walked on it. The opposite extreme was the year I was in Grade 13 - every phys ed period till Christmas break we went out in the schoolyard in shirtsleeves and played baseball. Mostly we are used to a suspense-filled countdown, as to whether the scant pre-Christmas snowfall will last long enough to provide a white Christmas. It usually does, but we've had some awfully close-run things! Don't ask what can happen after New Years Day - it doesn't bear imagining.

But for some weird reason, the three biggest single snowfalls we have experienced have started the evening of December 11th, with the mother and father of the lot the Great Blizzard of 1944, still the local record for snowfall in a 24 hour period and the deepest single-storm record so far - just shy of two feet, but gale force winds piled it high and deep. It was stunning.

It is hard now to visualize those conditions. But consider. Canada had then just moved from a murderous depression into an equally murderous war. There had been no money to restore the small coterie of available snowplows - and trucks built to early 1930s technology (if we were lucky) had neither the power nor the traction to cope with masses of snow on that scale. Nor were there men around to run them - they were in Europe fighting desperately in the Battle of the Bulge. Cars weren't blocked much - since there was no gas allowed on the strict rations to move them anyway.

When I woke up the morning of December 12th the word was covered by a blanket of white. Nothing was moving. The milk man had not come - even his mighty draft horses could not drag the high-clearance wagon through that snow - assuming the farmers had been able to get the milk to the dairy in the first place, as all the countryside was covered too. We turned on the radio. All the schools were closed and would remain so for the whole of the week, and perhaps more. Where possible, milk and bread would be delivered to neighbourhood pharmacies and sold from there. Only main arterial roads would be cleared. For the rest, we were on our own.

We lived in a house in north Toronto at that time. Since my father could not get to work (nor could anyone else; the business was closed till further notice) we - my father, my younger brother and I - set to work clearing a path from our door to the sidewalk. That was work enough for the day. The snow was heavy; there were actually thirteen deaths in the city attributed to excessive exertion that day. We would do the sidewalks as required - but not right now. And in case the milkman ever got through, we needed to clear a path down the side drive to let him access the milkbox, too. But that was for the next day, and I still remember how exhausted my father and brother and I were after digging that trench up to the midpoint of the house. At least the wind had abated; at one point in the evening a man had been killed as a trolley car had been blown onto its side by the force of the wind.

Meanwhile, we needed milk. My young brother had been given a pair of junior skis the Christmas before, which he tried with minimal success; I volunteered to see if I could use them to get out. To put matters charitably, that didn't work. But being as stubborn then as I am now, I pulled on my high-cuts (boots) and said I would go fetch it. I got told to forget it and replied fat chance. The folks decided to let me learn the price of folly by experience. I fared forth.

I lucked out. It couldn't be seen from our side street, but the semi-main street a block west being a bus route (both regular and premium-price express) had been given the version of ploughing available - not much, but it would let a high-clearance bus by so was easy on foot. To the astonishment of the family, I came back full bottle in hand. I was greeted by amazement in the league of Noah greeting the branch-bearing dove to the Ark. We later found that any streets that had a tram line were passable - the Transportation Commission had a special fleet of sweeper trolleys which together with a few plough cars had been kept busy all night, and the tracks were clear for travel the next day.

This was more than could be said for bus routes, which were cleared as well as possible but required detours in spots. As for side streets, it was either volunteer action or wait for spring. But such action did take place.

This was a time when the very term 'convenience store" had not yet been invented. Your bread and milk were delivered by horse-drawn wagons every day. The great department stores, Simpsons and Eatons, had put their new fleets of delivery vans in storage "for the duration" (of the war, of course) and brought back their horses and wagons too. If you wanted to go somewhere, you travelled by local bus to the nearest trolley line, some of which used the older but capacious Peter Witt design cars wile others had the new PCC streamliners introduced at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1938. Between towns you travelled by Gray Coach bus, and between cities by passenger trains.

There was no television; it would not be commercial for about ten more years. There was only AM radio; FM was a secret weapon unknown to the populace or the enemy. The internet was nearly half a century down the line. We exchanged news by letter, urgent news by telegram, and long distance phone rates were effectively prohibitive. Every place on earth was essentially small and local then, though newspapers were thorough, vigorous and active - it may have been in black and white, and with photos that had been sent by mail (wire transmission was a post-war invention), but the news was there - and the news did come by wire. Still it was radio that kept us informed about the blizzard; the newspaper carriers couldn't get through either.

The city stayed pretty well paralyzed for a week. Main route roads were open - everyone heated with coal then, so there was no shortage of buckets of cinders to toss on the hills to give the buses traction. Gradually ploughs bulled through where they could, and once one milk or bread wagon had opened the way, it was easier for each once to follow. The men ineligible for war, and the younger boys, wielded shovels on their own property and sidewalks, then might go help a neighbour too.

It took a couple of weeks to get the city fully functional again - memory dims, but I suspect a timely thaw or two helped. Since we had been at war for more than five years, we were already well experienced in improvising and making do. The Great Blizzard of '44 was too huge an event to shrug off, but we coped and carried on and came through. But then wasn't that the basic story of all of Canada, through the '30s and deep into the '40s?

But even so, even with all modern conveniences, each December 11th we still look at the calendar and shiver, just a little.
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