The Blizzard of '78
as experienced by Ric Werme
in Marlboro, Massachusetts

Update - 2003 marks the 25th anniversary of the Blizzard of 1978 so I've added a few more photos to this page. For the most part, the text remains unchanged from the original written for the 20th anniversary. Also, I'm coming across some other storm related information that isn't readily findable on the Web, so I created an addendum page to preserve that. There's a reminder at the bottom.

1998 marks the 20th anniversary of the Blizzard of 1978, the most memorable weather event of my life, and one I don't expect to repeat. Other records and people can tell you about the storm in Boston or Cape Cod, this is how I saw it in Marlboro, Massachusetts. Marlboro is some 25 miles west of Boston at the intersection of I 495 and US Rt. 20. I was 27 at the time and had moved to the region in 1974. I grew up in the Lake Erie snow belt and was a skier, so no snow hater here. Before 1978, I heard many accounts of the Blizzard of 1969, including claims that people simply abandoned cars on Rt 128, a major loop freeway around Boston. I also heard that a VW Beetle, buried in the snow, was chewed up by a large snowblower at Hanscom Field. While I felt I missed a great event, I hoped I would see something comparable.

Record 24 hour Boston storm

January 1978 storm On Jan. 20, 1978 a coastal storm set a new 24 hour record for snow in Boston, 25.1". I was on a fairly late schedule, so it was after noon when I dug my car out of the driveway, moved it across the street, and finished the driveway. When I went to start the car I discovered that parking VW Rabbits in snow banks was a Bad Idea and that snow had gotten on the timing belt making it slip. The engine's timing was so far off that it had no compression and wasn't going anywhere that day. My neighbor and I pushed it back into the parking space and I went upstairs to get my bicycle, my primary commuting vehicle. Two miles later I arrived a work and found that everyone had been sent home and virtually no one was around appreciate my bike ride. So I worked for a while and went home to read the service manual to see how to fix the car and did that the next day. All in all, a big storm, but a big disappointment.

The midwest's "Great White Hurricane"

January 1978 ice stormOn Jan 26, another storm came through well to our west. I do not remember it at all, and was only recently reminded about it. A couple days ago I looked up accounts in the New York Times to try to find something to trigger my memory. This was all rain in Eastern Massachusetts, but in Michigan and Ohio it was a major blizzard and perhaps the worst in their history. It set the record low pressure in the US for a non-tropical storm and brought 100 mph winds to Cleveland. From snow maps in Weatherwise Magazine it looks like the rain reduced our snow to about a foot, and to a few inches at the coast. The only memory trigger I found was that a Soviet spy satellite had malfunctioned and reentered over Canada. It carried a nuclear power supply, and people had to hunt down the various fragments that reached ground. I think this photo is from the right period, perhaps our rain was freezing.

Monday in Maynard

February 6th dawned gray but dry. The forecasts were talking about another major snow storm, but it looked like I could make it to Maynard for a morning talk by Vint Cerf, one of the Arpanet pioneers, and get back to Marlboro before the roads got too bad. I put my cat outside to give her some outside time while she could still walk on top of the snow. After the talk, Vint said he was going to Marlboro for a meeting, but would be back to talk to engineers in Maynard. So I decided to stay in Maynard until then. The snow started a little before noon when I went to a restaurant for lunch. After lunch it was already snowing heavily with an inch or two on the ground and I knew the cat was going to be annoyed with me. Vint spent more time in Marlboro than expected, but did return to Maynard where we had good chat until about 5:30. Vint left to spend the night at a hotel in Boxboro, and I hurried out to get home to catch Bruce Schwoegler on WBZ. It hadn't occurred to me yet that the only story that evening would be the storm.

The drive home

The first leg, Rt 117 to I 495 must have been pretty easy because I don't remember much. I had the road to myself, so I made pretty good time. I 495 was unforgettable. It hadn't been plowed recently, and might have had more snow than Rt 117. The wind was now a crosswind and driving was more of a challenge. There was no chance of seeing lane stripes, and there wasn't even a trace of where other cars had travelled, so I tried to stay centered between the guard rails and stakes along the road. The whiteouts were short enough and the road straight enough so I settled on 45 MPH as a "safe and prudent" speed. Where the road surface was built up the wind blew much harder. In the midst of one whiteout I felt the car moving sideways. Easing up on the gas stopped the slide and when I could see the guard rails again I recentered and got back up to cruising speed. By then I realized there were two things I was racing against. Not only would I barely catch Bruce, but I was getting concerned about the snow on the exit ramps, especially after passing an exit with a vehicle stuck on the ramp. No one else was traveling, so I wasn't too concerned about my ramp getting clogged just before I got there, but I really wanted to deal with as little snow on the ramp as I could.

After passing a couple more vehicles abandoned in exit ramps, I decided I needed to be ready when I reached Marlboro. I normally took Rt 20 West, but taking the East cloverleaf was okay too. Going beyond Rt. 20 had too many risks of not getting home, so I decided that if Rt. 20 West was blocked, I would go East no matter what shape the ramp was in. Well, West had a car or two stuck, but East was clear, and even seemed to have less snow than the freeway. The last mile was easy, and the pile of snow at the end of the driveway was just what I expected - a plow had come by around 3 or 4 PM and hadn't returned. The cat crawled out from under the deck and and into snow deeper than she was tall. Still, she managed to give me her most reproachful look.

The walk to work

After the news, I figured one good trip deserved another, so I dressed for the weather, including ski goggles, and walked to work, about two miles away. This may have been a more dangerous thing to do than the drive home. If power had gone out, it would have been seriously dark, moon or no moon. The route to work has enough street lights and so following the road was no problem. The grounds around the office building include some woods and an apple orchard. In fact, the orchard is a nice little shortcut and I decided to take it, figuring I'd be able to backtrack if necessary. Once away from the lights, blowing snow and the dark made it very hard to see the shape of the snow on the ground. In a couple places I waded through waist-high drifts and then stepped onto bare ground without seeing that the drift ended. Fortunately, I could see enough apple trees to keep my bearing and safely reached the driveway. I don't know if I could have backtracked, and was relieved I didn't have to try.

The (stranded) security guard was surprised to see someone crazed enough to come to work, but told me a friend had driven home, grabbed a sleeping bag and food and came back, figuring work was more interesting than his apartment. I don't think I did much work, and walked back home, without taking the shortcut, to catch the 11:00 PM news.

What's wrong with this scene?

Blizzard of '78: Neighbor's car The first thing I did the next morning was to look out the bedroom window and saw that my familiar world was, well, unfamiliar. I saw a drift covering half my neighbor's front door and made a mental note I should leave via the door on the second floor. Then I realized my neighbor's driveway was gone. Not quite, as I found the roof of his car. Then the car's radio antenna. No hood, no trunk, no windows. And I understood how that snow blower driver didn't see the Beetle.

The snow had stopped, the wind had died. Time for breakfast, time for pictures, time for digging out. No time for work, as Governor Dukakis, wearing a Cardigan sweater, was on the TV declaring that the state was closed and that only plows and emergency traffic was allowed on the roads. I also walked around the neighborhood taking in the scene. I guess the plows must have made it through sometime that day, but I don't recall when. The cat was not impressed with the canyon I created digging through the drift that blocked my door.

That night I called the Boxboro hotel and was put through to Vint Cerf. He said he had some work with him and that the hotel had plenty of food. I told him I hoped he had plenty of work.

Getting out and about

Blizzard of '78: Roadhouse restaurantWednesday dawned bright and clear. Governor Dukakis, wearing a Cardigan sweater, explained that people would have their car's registrations confiscated if they were caught on the roads. That sounded like I could ride my bicycle. Let them take my car's registration! On East Main St. the road was bare, and a photographer for the South Middlesex News snapped my picture. It was on the front page the next day. The caption reported that I was bicycling to work, and a few coworkers commented that was an odd place to be since home and work were both west of town.

Back on the west end of town, I checked one of our favorite restaurants. Their doorway was on an inside corner and its drift reached the roof. The path had been shoveled part way to the door, but the shoveler was nowhere to be seen. I felt a strong sense of despair lingering in the air. Robert Frost would have written a poem.

Blizzard of '78: I495 and Rt 20 Interchange Nearby was the I 495 and Rt 20 interchange. A few more people had come through after me, somewhat to my surprise. I could tell because the ramps still hadn't been plowed and the vehicles were still stuck. The ramp I had taken Monday evening had captured two tractor trailer trucks. I left my bike in the snow in the ramp, and walked up to the top of a rock cut to photograph the scene. I was beginning to head down when I saw a plow on Rt 20 turn onto the ramp. He was only turning around, but I had started hurrying to rescue my bike and slipped on some ice left by the previous storm. This sent me sliding down a 45 degree slope to the edge of the cut. I tried to dig in my boots at the lip, but to no avail, and I went sailing off the edge. Being a veteran of jumping and falling off roofs in Ohio winters, I knew the landing would be soft so I held the camera away from me to keep it out of the snow. Still, the camera wound up between chin and knee and the lens scraped my chin.

Blizzard of '78: I495 snow plow and car From there, it was into work and more pictures. I stopped to watch some snowplows on I495 and wonder if the driver would miss a car buried in the snow. (He drove around it.) At work, long ridge near the door had made a big drift on the downwind side, so I dug a tunnel into it, turned right, and made a "room" tall enough to sit in. Sunlight shining through snow or ice develops a turquoise color that appears nowhere elsewhere. A workman called into help dig out took a picture for me. My friend from Monday night was still inside, no longer happy about being stuck at work. I got some real work done that day, and the rest of the week.

On Thursday, Governor Dukakis, wearing a Cardigan sweater, affirmed that the state was still closed and that he feared lifting the travel ban would trigger traffic jams of sightseers and interfere with the cleanup and emergency traffic. News reports begin to show people were getting annoyed with the governor. Other reports from the western part of the state said police were no longer enforcing the ban because they got less snow and had things cleaned up Tuesday. (Massachusetts' state government often forgets that what's "good" for Boston may not be appropriate for the Berkshires.)

On Friday, Vint Cerf made it to Logan airport and successfully escaped. I think Friday was when Governor Dukakis, wearing a Cardigan sweater, said that the state of emergency would be lifted the next day and encouraged business owners to pay employees for time lost. That seemed like a great way for the state to protect its income tax revenue, but I didn't get double time.

The aftermath

This account is far too long, but I wanted to record the complete story from my point of view. Accounts in the news media had to cover a much wider area. There was no space to cover a story like mine - or yours. My experience is vastly different than other people in the area, I would have had a vastly different experience had I lived on Cape Cod or Cambridge or commuted on Rt 128. In many ways, Marlboro had it easy!

In retrospect

We have not had another storm like the Blizzard of 1978. While there have been some big storms, none have had the same impact on as large an area or as many people. Perhaps Massachusetts deals with storms better and has enough equipment to stay ahead of the storm. Perhaps people can put more faith in the forecasts thanks to the better computer models we have now. A generation learned that week to pay attention to the forecast, and I think employers are more willing to send people home early.

The timing of the storm maximized the impact. Had the snow started before 7:00AM many people would have stayed home. Had it started after 3:00PM, people would have made it home. On Saturday or Sunday, people could have coped better. The storm set Boston records for 24 hours (23.6"), single storm (27.5"), and total snow depth (29.0"). Marlboro had more.

On December 13, 2007, the area had a reminder of the hazards of mid-day snow storms. A storm that started late morning led to many employers letting people out of work around 1:00 PM. The ensuing traffic jam and gridlock was so severe that mayors of Boston and Providence were taken to task for the mess and the director of RI's Emergency Management Agency was fired.

For me, 1978 was the perfect year for such a storm. I was old enough to realize the storm was historic, young enough want to seek out its adventures, immature enough to take a few risks, but mature enough to do so fairly safely. Finally, I met the storm of my dreams, but I don't need it back. Still, wouldn't it be interesting to repeat that storm some Monday?

Don't forget my addendum page!

Contact Ric Werme or return to his home page.

Last change: 2008 Feb 7