Blizzard of ’78: Memories & Reflections, Part 2

by | Feb 5, 2023

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! Here is a story from our sometime-correspondent and favorite curmudgeon, who provided his vintage illustrations to boot. If you missed the first installment, click HERE. Check back soon for Part 3. And, thanks to everyone who contributed. 

Most people living at the time remember what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot. Certainly some events in life stick with you. Such is the case on Monday, February 9, 1978 when Rhode Island was hit with a great blizzard. It wasn’t your average Rhode Island snowstorm, not 6 inches of snow so everyone bumps into each other and gets stuck. No, this a fully decked out and humming, shades of Northern Maine, whomper. It started around noon and by the time everything settled down, there was three to four feet of snow on everything. Everything! There were floods! There were deaths! There was mayhem! People were stranded at work and on the roads, couldn’t get home. Route 95 was stopped and people were running their cars to keep warm until they ran out of gasoline. Snow plows were ineffective because there was nowhere to plow the snow to. As my old boss used to say at every sign of something unusual, “What a parlay!” The Blizzard of ‘78 was indeed, a parlay!

It all began around noon. I was in the Newport Creamery having a coffee before driving to work in Warwick. Second shift. At first, looking out the window, there were no signs that it was going to be a biggie but as I took off and drove out Division Street to Route 95, some incredible notion came into my head to turn the steering wheel to the left at Howland Road and go home instead. I was staying just there with friends Mark and Lyn at the time. There was much more snowfall in those days and I had spent over three years in northern Maine so I was not afraid of snow. But even so, evidently, there was enough subtle warning for me to forget work and take a nap instead. Good thing!

At noon the following day we walked into a ghost town. People were walking up and down a silent Main Street like zombies, amazed at a sight few had ever seen before… no cars! Hero of the hour, Bob Wadman, was working Civil Defense, delivering prescription drugs and making hospital runs in his Jeep. Almac’s Market and Thorpe’s Drugs on the south end of town were open, but shelves were bare! Little else open further north. Evidently few lost power, unlike the previous week when a catastrophic ice storm tore down tree limbs, stifling electricity for several days. 

The next day, still very few roads open. Television news showed Providence a disaster. National Guard and Army there. We walked into town again, but this time, Lyn rode her horse and pulled Mark and me on a sled. That proved too cold sitting there so we soon trod along behind. More people were walking up and down Main Street, some pulling kids on sleds. This time more smiles and cheers and blizzard tales. 

For a few hours I helped to get the Pendulum out for the week. On TV, Governor Garrahy in Providence and Senator Chafee in Washington were arguing. Chafee wanted assurances that the runway at the airport was clear before he sent up a supply plane. Garrahy assured him it would be cleared by the time it got there, so get the plane into the air. Silly argument but funny, nonetheless.

Each progressing day got better. More pedestrians were out exploring Main Street and even a few cars ventured forth. The Newport Creamery opened, for coffee only, if I recall. Suburban areas were getting cleared but Providence remained a disaster with some looting reported. Mark began the slow process of getting the very long driveway open. It took two days… and he had a plow!

By the following Friday, most things had cleared up and roads became mildly passable. It took me much of a day to get my car out. I took a ride down to see how friends made out in North Kingstown but there was no parking anywhere. Snow was six feet high beside the roads and it was like driving through channels in some places. Slowly, everything progressed back to Rhode Island normal. Touching up was all that was needed from then on. The Great Blizzard of ‘78 eventually fell into the part of our brains where history is kept. Everyone who experienced it will long remember how it all went with them. Good tales will become sagas.

1978 illustration of and by Alan Clarke. Illustrations courtesy of the artist

Epilogue: I heard later on that some people where I worked were stranded there for days and got by with nothing but crackers and soda from the machines in the cafeteria. Maybe some M&Ms. Chips, even! But all I could think of is that could have been me were it not for that fool notion that caused me to crank the steering wheel hard left and into my driveway before the snow really hit hard. Fact is, I slept through most of the snowing part.

Alan F. Clarke is a lifelong area resident and an East Greenwich historian, writer and illustrator. 

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February 6, 2023 12:02 pm

Great drawings…and memories!

February 7, 2023 4:47 pm

As a Shipfitter for General Dynamics – Electric Boat Division knowing a severe Nor’ Easterner was heading towards New England workers were dismissed at noon. For some of us that took the Pawtuxet Valley bus it would not arrive in Groton, CT until 4pm or so.

The bus originated in Providence up by Calart Flowers traveling Reservoir Avenue to Route 3 existing onto I-95 at Exist 6.
As the 30 or so of us that rode the bus to Groton, Connecticut, waited nearly 4 hours for the bus to arrive in Groton that afternoon the snow started accumulating as we waited. When the bus finally arrived in Groton, we were all aboard traveling I- 95 north homewards.

Through Connecticut the traveling was not as congested as it was in Rhode Island. The first time the bus got stuck in the snow being a young buck while others looked at me I told the ones of able body & mind come on boys let’s get off and push until we can’t push any more. Sounded like a good idea at the time. We must have pushed that bus at least five/six times and finally made it to Exit 6 or 7 in Rhode Island. The bus could go no further. We walked to the nearest fire station for shelter. I do not recall the time, all I remember was they had no food and sleep was an option of on the floor between an elderly woman and a pregnant woman. Nothing personal. I had not eaten all day and I was starving and I wasn’t going to sleep on a hard floor. I had worn, and still have an old army coat that had probably been worn by someone at the battle of the bulge which I bought at a Rocky Hill Flea Market for $7.00 during the 1960’s. It extends below, my knees, and has about three or four removable layers for a warmth.

After about 20 to 30 minutes of being at this station I decided this was not where I wanted to be and started my trek home which was off of Academy Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island.

As I was walking out the door, one of the firemen told me there’s nothing moving out there, you should stay here. I said I will be moving out there and and was able to hitch two rides, one to Baldhill Road and then once on Baldhill Road started thumbing again. A Jeep pick me up, and the driver, drove all the way down Reservoir Avenue only shoveling the stuck vehicle out from the snow once. Where Reservoir Avenue crosses over Route 10 I thanked him, got out and had a relatively short walk home down route 10 to Academy Avenue and was home by 1 or 2 AM. My cooked dinner was wrapped on a dish in tinfoil and sitting on the stove.

Rhode Island was shut down for the week or so, however Connecticut was not as severely affected by the storm compared to Rhode Island. We were expected to report to work, even though Rhode Island had declared a state of emergency and closed travel.

This did not hold, and we were not disciplined for not going to work. Rhode Island authorized for us workers that were affected to collect unemployment insurance, until the travel ban in Rhode Island was lifted and back to work we went.

Joan & Tom Blade
Joan & Tom Blade
February 8, 2023 7:02 am

Why is the blizzard of ’69 never mentioned? I delivered my son that weekend, driven by police because the rescue couldn’t drive down my street, something we will never forget. Thomas Jr. was born on Feb. 26th.


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