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!
Find Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE.
This is a fabulous story, thank you Laura Sullivan!!
Yes, that was an excellent reminder of ’78 Blizzard. It made me remember fondly about people helping, people. To this day, I still have the Providence Journal stored away in my closet. Black and white pictures were all you needed. That’s pretty much all you could see! I was in at my mom’s warm home. However, I was also 7 months pregnant. It was all a jaw dropping experience. If I had to live though it again, my only hope is that someone would knock at my door to see what I needed. Thank you, Laura Sullivan! eastgreenwichnews.com
Thanks, Sally. If you are able to take a photo of that Projo front page, we’d love to see it!
I was 15 yrs old and a HS student at Prout Memorial HS Wakefield. They never cancelled school on snow days because it was South County and near the ocean. This morning was no exception. The Prout Bus picked us up in front of The Donut Kettle in Artic West Warwick. It was on average a 45 min bus ride to school each day. None of us even bothered to wear snow boots that morning. By the time we got to class the snow started really coming down but our principal Sister Mary Jane hesitated to cancel school. It was debated and debated and by the time lunchtime came there was the dilemma of is it too late now to send us home and will the buses make it? We were on our bus back to West Warwick for hours and sometime a little after 4pm !! the school bus skid down the hill at Roch’s Market and into the chain link fence just stopping us from going into the river. Most of us girls were let off the bus at that point to hike it home in the dark in our uniform skirts with no snow boots. I think some of us had jeans on under our skirts but no boots. The snow drifts we’re up to our thighs. We had no cell phones back then and no way of calling home. I arrived at my house close to 5pm that night! I remember my Mom had supper going ..we had an old gas stove and our neighbors spent days at our house.My mom made homemade pizzas and baked breads wrapped in tissue paper which we took up to St Johns convent on a sled 😊we played board games and cards for so many days in front of a kerosene hurricane lantern that my cheeks were sunburned. As a teenager it was a great little survival story and reflecting back it was a scary time and trying time for many but also a time where neighbors and communities united together and without realizing it then, we created some of the very best memories to last a lifetime ! PS…my 11 year old brother was messing around in the basement at the tool bench and cut his hand open on a baby food jar full of screws. The ambulances weren’t running and so they sent a national guard army jeep out . He and my mom were hoisted into the back and taken to Kent Hospital! Despite it all …it was a cozy time full of love and caring for each other and our neighbors
Nice memories. I was very much younger for my memories. I was in second grade and I remember that we had gone to school and gotten dismissed early the first day of the storm. I lived in Western Coventry. I remember the bus letting us off early in the afternoon. Like many of my bus memories back then we just did it. I can remember the bus sliding around and the back end slipping about many days as it took a good amount of snow then for school to get canceled not just a hint of it. Like the article said we had no warning with the weather technology then. I remember the biggest worry being would my father make it home. Thankfully he had a Volkswagen Bug then, rear-wheel drive with the engine in the rear to give it some weight. I still remember him telling me how he was driving with the front tires not doing much just kind of floating over the snow and taking his steering as the most basic guidance. He made it up the main road, but are side roads were impassable. He ended up leaving his car out on that main route and walking the half mile or so down our side street to home. The only other memories I really have are using our gas grill on the deck and huddling round our coal stove when the power went out. We were out of school all week and had awesome snowball fights from the gigantic forts we made with the piles to either side of the driveway.
I can confirm a baby was delivered at station 1. During a Main street stroll a few years ago A woman came up and asked me if she could see where she delivered her baby during the blizzard of 78. And typical Rhode Island she was a friend of my parents.
That was a wonderful description of your Blizzard experience! In my minds eye I could see it all as if I was there with you !Thank you for sharing!
Wow what an amazing story. That blizzard fell on my 15th birthday. So I joke about being a year younger because I never had my birthday cake! I remember that storm so well. We had a house full because we were the only few with electricity at that time.
I remember that well! I was graduating from high school. We were home from school and decided among the neighborhood kids that we would build a huge snowman. We worked on it for hours. The middle was so heavy that we couldn’t pick up it up, and had to roll it up my mother’s picnic bench which broke under the weight, LOL. We were able to eventually complete it with the help of a couple of our other neighbors. It ended up being about 7 feet tall!
Delightful telling of a special time in East Greenwich history, Laura! If you’ve got any others, would enjoy reading them.
Totally agree. Made me relive mine. I ended up at the Warwick police station with other E.G.-bound passengers when the 3 p.m. bus from Providence got stuck in Apponaug. Got home via Jeep 4 wheel to the Trafalgar East apartments the next morning.
Some story, Anna!
I’m originally from East Greenwich, born in Providence in 1943 and I moved to upstate NY in 1962.
I just found out about the East Greenwich News and I’m looking forward to reading it more often thanks to a dear friend who still lives in RI.
Glad you found us, Sandra!
I was a nursing student during the blizzard of ’78. We got stuck at St. Joseph School of Nursing at Fatima Hospital in North Providence. Class did not get canceled until the weather became so bad so quickly that we couldn’t get home. We stayed at the hospital and worked different shifts for four days. We ate in the cafeteria that fed many who were patients or stranded there also. There was a baby born that night and we got to sneak up to the patient’s room to see him. He was in a laundry basket as there was no maternity floor at that time. Along with many wonderful stories of people being saved, there were also many lives lost. It was very chaotic at times but everyone worked together. After four days I was able to walk home to Pawtucket.
Thanks for sharing your story, Donna.
I remember us pushing cars up Mineral Spring Ave hill toward Smithfield Ave as an 8th grader at 1pm after they released us from Slater Jr. High early so people could get home. Most cars were rear wheel drive back then. After the storm my dad and I used our Bolens 8hp snowthrower with a taboggan with 5 gallon gas tank in it and made it from our house at 181 Finch Ave in Pawtucket near Shaws Meat market.all the way down Power Rd to Higginson Ave to my grandmothers house on Shawmut Ave in Central Falls near St. Matthews church to get her house cleared of 2+ feet of snow. That was one cold long walk as a 14 year old with my dad Roy Brodeur. Looking back I would have done it all over again for Meme’ !
I was living in Westerly in ’78, running the Westerly and Woonsocket Pizza Huts (only two in the state back then). I drove back from Woonsocket around 1 p.m., stopped by the Westerly unit and sent everyone home. The next day, I walked the 2 miles to the store and called my plow service to see what they thought. They figured they would be able to plow us out maybe by late the next day. So I took stock of what I had – restaurant full of food and a coffee maker – and called the local radio station to offer up free coffee to all the snow plowers on the road that day. Ninety minutes later, I had a plowed parking lot and opened up with a limited menu. Turns out we were the only Pizza Hut that opened that day.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story! Thank so much, Laura! February 6th was my recently deceased husband, Bob’s, 28th birthday. I’d been home all day with my two little children preparing a delicious birthday dinner and baking a special cake to celebrate when Bob got home from work. He left Hill’s Home Center at some point that afternoon but his car didn’t get very far. He ended up abandoning it somewhere I think on Centerville Rd. and trudging through the snow to his older sister’s home in Greenwood. (Needless to say, he wasn’t dressed for a blizzard!) We didn’t have cellphones back then and I was so very worried about him and felt so awful that there would be no BD celebration. I can’t remember at what point I finally heard from him, but, suffice it to say, it was a long, unnerving night for all of us!
I’ve heard rumor that baby X still haunts main street. I think we should throw him a bday party at the Fire House and as a present give him with a life long membership at the Fireman’s Home. Happy Birthday Baby X!