Above: Main Street looking south, with the Elms building (Besos today) in the distance, from the Rhode Island Pendulum. Scanned by Terry Romano, courtesy of the EGHPS.
We asked readers for their stories about the Blizzard of 1978 – when Providence got a record 27.6 inches of snow between Monday, Feb. 6, and Tuesday, Feb. 7 – and readers came through! We start with this one from Laura Sullivan, who provides a glimpse of the storm from someone who had to work through it, providing essential coffee and donuts (of course) to first responders, bus riders and others who just happened by. We will be posting more remembrances in coming days. Thanks to all who wrote in!
Monday, Feb. 6: The day started out ordinarily enough, perhaps a bit windy and overcast, but there was no radar technology, “Pinpoint Weather,” or a “Weather Alert” to tell us what was coming, and to prepare accordingly. No early school dismissals, pretreating of roads, or bread-and-milk runs to the market. The snow started late morning, as the wind picked up. Having been out on local errands, including Thorpe’s Pharmacy (present-day site of CVS), I arrived home on Peirce Street to several inches of the white stuff already on the ground. My housemate had left work early, and there was her car, stalled at the end of the driveway. Jumping out with my packages, I went in the house to check on her. After I moved my car up to the town lot a block away, I attempted to call into work to see if I should come in early. Finding our telephone out of order, presumably due to the wind, I walked up to St. Luke’s church, and placed the call from the office there. Learning that the owners wouldn’t be able to come in from their home in the outskirts of town (four-wheel-drive vehicles were not widely owned), and the baker was going to leave shortly, I returned home, put on my uniform, bundled up in my maxi-coat, hat, boots, scarf and mittens, and headed out for my job as night waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street (now the site of Hill & Harbor Cigar Lounge).
Night had fallen, the wind was howling, and the flakes stung my face as I slogged down Liberty Street. No traffic, for the snow was up to my hips by this time. I arrived around 6 to start my solo shift.
Conditions worsened as the evening wore on, and I was not alone, by any means. Motorists, who were still on the road, found themselves stranded in the store if they attempted to stop in for coffee, and a break from the storm. The pay phone in the kitchen rang incessantly, as callers inquired after riders on the bus from Apponaug, which was overdue, or for others who hadn’t made it home yet. Whiteout conditions made it impossible to see beyond the doors, much less across the street to Almacs (now Kon Asian Bistro). Only the flashing lights of plows and huge payloaders could be seen emerging from the whiteness, like the beady eyes of a looming monster, as they pulled up to the door.
Every so often the power would go out, leaving only an emergency light. But then it would flicker back on. I’d make more coffee, as patrons dived for the cigarette machine.
Among those who decided to stop, and subsequently became stranded, were a well-dressed businessman, desperate for a cup of coffee, and then an auburn-haired woman in a white fur coat. As they chatted, comparing notes on the CB radios in their cars, she asked him, “Are you the Silver Fox?” to which he replied, “Yes! You must be Rhode Island Red!” Well, well. Only in Rhode Island.
And so it went. Like the plow drivers and other essential personnel, the police made frequent stops at the store, dropping off other refugees (stranded motorists), and getting coffee for those working overtime back at the station. As the evening wore on, and the storm still raged, it was decided to shuttle my stranded customers, including some from that overdue bus from Apponaug, up the Hill to Swift Gym, where the Red Cross was setting up an emergency shelter.
Making a number of trips, the police herded folks out the door into the blizzard, and in the back seat of the cruisers. One man, who had been stuck in traffic for hours, came in, clearly not well. Whether it was the stale trail mix he nibbled while in the car, or even some noxious fumes, his gray pallor and subsequent nausea had me adding the role of Florence Nightingale to my responsibilities. He too was taken up to the Red Cross shelter.
As the store emptied out, I busied myself with filling box after box of donuts to be sent up to the shelter. Being February, the featured flavor was cherry: Cherry-filled and cherry-frosted, cake donuts with chopped cherries mixed in, along with the usual varieties.
A four-wheel-drive police vehicle somehow made it out to the owners’ home, and returned with the key to the store, so I could lock up. By then, it was after midnight as I squeezed into the back of the cruiser with three other people. As we made the left turn from Main to Dedford Street, someone remarked that a baby had been born at the Fire Station a short time ago. Oh my. What a tale that child, and its mother, would have to tell in years to come.
[Editor’s note: According to Fire Chief Bernie Patenaude, who was a volunteer at the time, there was indeed a baby born at the station that night, on one of the firefighter beds. A North Kingstown rescue truck was heading to Kent but couldn’t make it. For now, that’s all the info we have on Baby X – if anyone has more, let us know!]
Amazingly, the patrol car made it up Dedford Street, and I bailed out at the top, into a very snowy Peirce Street, as the car continued up to Swift Gym. Trudging through the drifts, I made it home, wide awake, and filled with wonder as I pondered the events of the evening. Sitting by the window in the dining room, and watching the storm, still in full throttle, I listened to the radio in the kitchen, broadcasting live as people called in with their reports and their stories from all over the state. What a night.
Forty-five years later, as I reflect upon the memories made that night, and in the days that followed, it’s the realization of the uniqueness of how it all happened, and how it’s highly unlikely it will happen that way again. It’s a matter of what we didn’t have, and what we did have. As mentioned, we didn’t have the technology to track the storm and prepare for its sheer magnitude and impact. We didn’t have cell phones to stay connected, which would have eliminated the hours and days (for some) of not knowing where everyone was, or when they’d get home. No GPS or Google Maps to offer alternate routes. No smartphones to snap and share endless digital photos, selfies and videos. We didn’t have those all-terrain vehicles or four-wheel-drive SUVs and trucks to navigate snow-filled roads. Even then, there would have been statewide travel bans for the duration, thus omitting those hundreds of stranded vehicles that shut down the major arteries. No online ordering of groceries and other needed supplies. No in-home entertainment for the snowbound suffering from cabin fever. No texting or social media. And more.
What we did have: Esprit de corps. Acts of kindness and heroism. Hospitality. Innovative solutions to tackling recovery efforts, transportation (think skis, snowmobiles, sleds), stepping in to cover shifts, deliver medical supplies, and more. Friendships made. Here in East Greenwich, in the afterglow of the previous summer’s Tercentenary Celebration, community spirit and camaraderie were still going strong. Neighbors helping each other shovel out, freeing up buried cars, gathering for potlucks, and joining the kids in sledding the hill at Academy Field (and many of those unplowed streets). Living in the moment, and amazed, as we all had snow days, and perhaps got to be kids again. We got to have some fun.
Even as there were indeed hardships, including lives lost, property damage, and businesses impacted, the Great Blizzard of ’78 is mostly, for Rhode Islanders, an eclectic collection of situations that have mellowed into smile-worthy memories. A moment in time, and in Rhode Island’s history. One for the books.
And yes, for me: What fun!
– Laura Sullivan
The Red Cross shelter, initially set up in Swift Gym, moved a day or two later, across the parking lot to St. Luke’s Parish House, where those stranded stayed in the various classrooms on a short-term basis until they were able to be transported to their homes.
Among the items I bought at Thorpe’s, earlier in the day, were two bayberry candles and a bar of soap. Once I arrived home and opened the bag, the candles and soap were not there, so I assumed that the clerk had not put them in the bag. Returning to the store days later, they kindly gave me a refund for the missing items. However, weeks later, when the snow had melted, there were the candles and the soap on the grass at the end of the driveway, where I had jumped out of my car.
Speaking of my car, which had been parked up at the Town Lot, it was literally buried in snow, along with all of the other vehicles. A few days after the Blizzard, I was up there, along with many others, to shovel out the cars, many of which struggled to start up. Not my little Honda Civic, which immediately sprang to life!