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History in the Hills: A snowstorm remembered

Certain events in the life of a community seem to stick around. On a national scale I think that is common.

For my grandparents, it was remembering where they were on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, or for my parents when JFK was assassinated in November of 1963, or for my generation, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Significant events like this seem to live on in our collective memory. Here in our valley, one such event that has transcended time is the 1950 Thanksgiving snowstorm.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of this epic storm. Growing up here it was always something that was talked about among my grandparents’ generation. That week it began snowing on Thanksgiving and continued to fall, unrelenting through the weekend, dumping several feet of snow on our valley.

Nationally it was called the Great Appalachian storm of 1950, and it is still studied today as a super storm. It is listed as a category 5 extreme level storm on the regional snowfall index compiled by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. According to its website for the Ohio Valley Region, which encompasses the states of West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri, the snowstorm was the “worst storm to impact the Ohio Valley.”

The second worst storm occurred in March of 1993, but the 1950 storm was one of only four category 5 storms that have hit this region since 1900, the website explains.

In Steubenville, meteorologist Jeff Oechslein explained in a 2015 report, that the snowfall was a record totaling 41 inches of snow. Although reports vary, documentation of up to 44 inches in some places do exist. Memories vary of the actual amount of snowfall from town to town, but there was a lot of it.

The Steubenville Herald-Star recorded at the time that roads were completely impassable, and some were blocked by drifts of snow up to 25 feet in places. The weight of the snow was enormous, so much so that the mansard roof of the Jefferson County Courthouse collapsed under the weight. It was reported that “More than one third of the roof and fourth floor of the courthouse crashed into No. 1 Courtroom.” The county law library was completely wrecked as were many county records.

With the collapse came the additional danger of the rest of the 1874 structure coming down as well. The ceilings of the offices directly below the debris sagged, too, in some places up to 8 inches. The damage was valued at around $200,000. Today, if you look at the top floor of the courthouse you can clearly see the repair to the building. To mitigate the danger at the Hub Department store, the male employees were pressed into service to go to the roof and shovel the snow off.

The Steubenville Christmas Parade, which was scheduled for Nov. 25, was postponed until Dec. 8, as recounted by the Herald-Star. Evidently Santa, who makes a regular appearance even up to the present during the festivities, wired the city and explained he was snowbound in Harrisburg, Pa.

The newly created City of Weirton was beside itself in the job of digging out. Bulldozers were dispatched from Weirton Steel and Starvaggi Industries to help clear the roads. Mike Starvaggi, owner of the P&W Bus Co., was touted as a hero in keeping his buses running between Weirton and Steubenville. It was important to keep the avenues of transportation open to resupply the stores with necessities. One important necessity was milk.

Dennis Jones, in his book “Images of America: Weirton,” which is still available and has a whole chapter dedicated to the “Perfect Storm” complete with pictures of the event, recalls that the Weirton Steel employees loaded and transported 1,200 gallons of milk in company trucks to the Weir-Cove Dairy for bottling and distribution. Without this emergency shipment of milk, Steubenville and Weirton would have experienced an extended shortage. The trucks with chains on their tires continued delivering despite the weather.

What I enjoy most about this event, is the stories people have of their experience in the blizzard. One of my favorites is the story the late David Weir related to the Weirton Museum about the blizzard. David and his family were staying at the Lodge, their home next to Williams Country Club. He relates that they were pretty well stocked with provisions, but one evening, a man arrived at the residence in a military snowsuit carrying a rucksack full of food. It turned out to be Tom Millsop who had trekked through the deep snow from his home thinking that the Weir family was in need. As David writes, “It had taken him nearly all day. Tom was an old Marine and wasn’t going to let something like a little snow stop him.” But the best part about his experience was sledding with his grandmother in the following days, making memories that lasted a lifetime in the “Big Snow.”

For area children, this snowstorm resulted in the cancellation of school for a week. Naturally, most kids spent their time off sledding on the freshly cleared and icy roads, which proved to be the perfect ready-made sled riding tracks. Steubenville Mayor Jerry Barilla remembered that the streets were the best places to ride in Steubenville. Not as many folks had cars then, and Jerry recalled that Adams Street hill and South Street hill were the best places to ride in those days. Howard Street also was a popular place in Weirton to sled ride due to its steepness crossing Weir Avenue down to the mill. Brightway on Marland Heights also was quite the ride. George Bilderback, a resident of Heazlett Avenue at that time, recounted to the Weirton Museum that after a Weirton Steel bulldozer plowed the street, and the snow packed down, the neighborhood kids used that hill for sledding, too. Each neighborhood had its own place for sledding that was the best.

The 1950 Thanksgiving snowstorm was one to remember. And if you are privileged enough to remember back 70 years to that weekend, chances are you have a story to tell. I would encourage you to tell your loved ones about waking up and looking out the window on a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’ll bet you’ll remember the cold weather but the memories you made will keep you warm for years to come.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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