One of the biggest snowstorms in Flagstaff history began early on the morning of Dec. 30, 1915. During the subsequent 48 hours, 64 inches of snow fell on the town.
The photo (right) shows the morning after when the city was just beginning to dig out. The men on the peaked roof are shoveling snow off Babbitt’s Livery Stables to keep the roof from caving in, and the horse team in the center of the photo is probably working to clear the street. It took more than a day and a half to restore traffic and free the buildings; workers shoveled right through New Year’s Day.
The streets were cleared using four-horse teams pulling drags — a slow, yet effective method. When there was no place to pile up the snow, workers had to haul it away. Travel through the main section of town was restored by Jan. 2. There were no casualties, but many thousands of dollars of damage was done to buildings.
The Jan. 7 edition of the Coconino Sun reported that roofs had caved in on the Majestic Theatre, the box factory at the Flagstaff Lumber Mill, Brook’s warehouse and sheds, Rodriguez Dance Hall, Johnson’s Carpenter Shop and the Campbell-Francis Sheep Company storage barns.
Flagstaff was hit hard again 33 years later. From Dec. 22, 1948, through the end of January 1949, it snowed nearly every day. Storms dumped a total of 104.8 inches of snow, “the heaviest snowfall in northern Arizona in weather bureau history,” and more came in February. Paul Sorenson of the weather bureau pointed out that two cold air masses collided over northern Arizona and “overstayed” their welcome after the much-hoped-for white Christmas that year.
Sorenson published scientific reports to dispel rumors that worldwide weather was getting warmer, getting cooler or that atomic bombs had somehow disturbed the normal weather pattern for the West. Government sources assured all that “the tremendous energy released by an atomic bomb is not enough to start a decent-sized shower.”
On Jan. 25, the snow measured 68 inches deep on the level, following a snowstorm that had added nearly 20 inches the day before. Humans, animals and buildings began to crack under the pressure. A group of sheep was found standing in a garage on Grand Canyon Avenue, having wandered in from a field, desperate for shelter. People venturing into town for food and supplies would be trapped for several days by another storm.
The city of Flagstaff spent about $500 a day for snow removal. Art Kennedy, the street supervisor, began looking into the purchase of a D-7 Caterpillar tractor. He lamented that the city was running out of places to park the snow. The only solution was to pile it up in the middle of the street. Although 18 plows worked around the clock, outlying areas of the county remained isolated. The first priority was keeping the main highway open so mail, school buses and fuel trucks could move.
Andy Matson hired a crew and logging equipment from the Saginaw-Manistee Lumber Company to clear a road from Fort Valley Highway to his dairy, which was only half a mile from Flagstaff High School. In a letter to the editor of the Arizona Daily Sun, Matson explained his extraordinary action, talking of “the importance of delivery of milk to our customers… especially those with children….” He said the county was not obligated to keep the dairy road clear from the highway to the barn even though some of his customers voiced complaints about public neglect.
Flagstaff had other memorable snowfalls. In 1972-73, snow drifted down nearly every day during the winter until the total snowfall for the season was 200 inches. The big melt-off in May that year filled streams and flooded roads near the Rio de Flag channel, leaving Flagstaff Junior High School a virtual island.
A t-shirt reading “I survived 200 inches of snow in ’72-’73,” was a popular item around town that spring.
— Joan Brundige-Baker. Photos Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum and Northern Arizona University Cline Library.