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The Big Snow of ’49

7-28-times-past-web

This is Andy Matson of Pinewood Dairy standing by his truck in Flagstaff trying to make a delivery. It is February 1949 and the white wall behind him and his customers is a huge snow bank.

From December 22, 1948, through the end of January 1949, it snowed in Flagstaff nearly every day. A series of 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.

By contrast, in 1947, it took a whole season – 222 days – for that much snow to fall.

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 information to dispel the rumors of world warming/cooling or atomic bombs having something to do with disturbing 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 January 25, the snow measured 68 inches deep on the level, following a snowstorm that had added nearly 20 inches the day before. That was as deep as it got.

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. At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the first ever sighting of red-winged blackbirds was recorded by the park superintendent.

People would venture out to nearby towns for food and supplies, only to be trapped for several days by another storm.

The city of Flagstaff was spending about $500 a day for snow removal. Art Kennedy, the streets supervisor, began looking into the purchase of a D-7 Caterpillar tractor. He also lamented the fact that the city was running out of places to park the snow. The only solution was to leave it piled up in the middle of the street.

Outlying areas of Coconino County were isolated by snow-clogged roads, even with 18 plows working around the clock. First priority was keeping the main highway open so mail, school buses and fuel trucks could move.

Andy Matson, the intrepid dairyman in the photograph, 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 a half mile from Flagstaff High School.

In a letter to the editor of the Arizona Daily Sun, Matson explained his extraordinary action describing “the importance of delivery of milk to our customers . . . especially children . . .” He said the county was not obligated to keep the dairy road clear from the highway to the barn even though people voiced complaints about public neglect.

Flagstaff has had other memorable snowfalls. In December 1968, a four-day storm caused Northern Arizona University to close early for Christmas break and collapsed roofs of several stores, including a newly-built Super X Drugstore.

In 1972 to 1973, snow drifted down nearly every day during the winter until the total snowfall was 200 inches for the season. 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.

That spring a popular T-shirt read, “I survived 200 inches of snow in ’72-’73.”

Photo courtesy Fronske Collection Cline Library, Northern Arizona University. Research by Joan Brundige-Baker. © Arizona Capitol Times.

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