The Great Blizzard of 1978

February 6, 1978, dawned uneventfully with everyone heading off to participate in their normal Monday routines, but before the day ended, returning home had become an ordeal if not an impossibility as a blizzard moved in during the early afternoon hours and buried eastern Massachusetts under two to three feet of snow within 24 hours.

This site presents eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles, and town department reports written about this blizzard, which brought all regular activity to an abrupt halt for over a week. It is a story about the people of Walpole meeting the challenges presented in a unique moment in history.

The information presented at this site was compiled by Margaret Strumwasser for the Historical Commission in Walpole, MA.

Department of Public Works

One of the very busiest departments in town during the Blizzard of ’78 was the Department of Public Works. The Department had 36.1 inches of snow to remove from Walpole’s streets and roads. The full-time crew of 43 men worked their regular 46-1/2 hour week plus 90 hours of overtime in seven days. During that week, the men frequently had only four hours at a time for sleep.

Due to the amount of snow that fell, the town’s own equipment was not large enough to remove it. Most of the town-owned equipment can accommodate a snowstorm of up to 14 inches, and some equipment handles up to 20 inches. Therefore, it was necessary for the town to borrow heavy-duty equipment from sand and gravel operations and construction firms. The Department of Public Works borrowed the following equipment:

Dedham Sand and Gravel: 2 #6000 front-end loaders, carrying 7 yards; 2 #988 front-end loaders, carrying 7 yards; 4 Euclid dump/pit trucks, carrying 20-25 yards (these are not usually used on the roads); 2 auto-car trucks, carrying 20-25 yards; 1 Mack truck, carrying 20-25 yards.

West Sand and Gravel, Walpole: 1 L6100 Trojan payloader; 1 L7100 Trojan payloader; 1 L3100 Trojan payloader; 1 L5100 Trojan payloader; 1 bulldozer; 3 auto trucks, carrying 20 yards; 1 Mack truck, carrying 20-25 yards.

The rental fee owed to Dedham Sand and Gravel was $116,000.30, and the fee owed to West Sand and Gravel was $962,267. Because of the disaster, the town qualifies for disaster relief funds. Consequently, the Army Corps of Engineers would pay 75 per cent of the price of the rental fees.

Police Department Report

Mr. Peatfield of the Walpole Police Dept. recalled that, during the Blizzard of ’78, town departments “with no rehearsal, worked hand-in-hand.” Walpole had not been victimized by a storm of this magnitude in anyone’s memory; but, still, life went on. He commented further that, during the immediate aftermath of the blizzard, the town actually functioned quite safely. The general picture, particularly during the driving ban from February 6 through February 12, showed the extensive cooperation of the townspeople. “Everyone was helpful, obeyed the law, and stayed off the streets. There was an air of friendship and help for one’s neighbor,” Mr. Peatfield said.

The police did ticket drivers who were on the streets for other than essential business. But only about 35-50 tickets were necessary. During that driving ban, snowmobiles became extremely useful to the Police Department. Various individuals in town who owned snowmobiles offered them to the police for department use. In some cases, the individuals also donated their time to drive the vehicles on assorted errands.

Because of the depth of the snow, the town ambulance could not park as close to the house as it normally would. Therefore, a snowmobile would accompany the ambulance in case the patient needed to be transported from the house to the ambulance.

There were no traffic accidents during the storm, even when the snow was still falling and people were trying to reach their homes. Even the ambulance was called out less frequently than police expected. During a storm of this magnitude, the ambulance typically receives many calls for storm-related accidents, such as heart attacks or snowblower mishaps. Twelve ambulance calls were received from February 6 through February 12. This number is close to the average number of calls that would have occurred anyway, including the birth of a baby. Mr. Peatfield said that “during a storm, people are more likely to panic. They want to get to a hospital in case they can’t get there later.”

Twelve to fifteen people stayed at Blackburn Hall for one to two nights; and the Police Department, through Civil Defense personnel, supervised their care. All of these people were travelling through Walpole when the amount of snow became impassable.

Principally, the police were responsible for transporting doctors and nurses and other employees essential for public health and safety to and from their places of work. With the aid of snowmobiles and volunteers, the police also picked up medications at local pharmacies and delivered them to those in need.

“Great Blizzard of Feb. 1978” by George Milliken (written in the Bird’s Eye-View )

I don’t like my title because this is a story of people helping people. At any rate I find it impossible to let this storm pass into history without calling attention to it and thanking many people for what was done for me.

The blizzard was the worst and most disruptive ever. It caused told and untold hardship and heroism in the whole storm area. The heavy snowfall and high winds lasted over 24 hours, laying near 30″ of snow on top of an old 6″ base. Drifts varied in depth from a few inches to porch roofs. Many a person used a window to go out when doors became blocked.

Some of the results were schools, industry and traffic at a standstill for over a solid week. No mail of any sort moved in that period. That’s a department that will have to add, “Well hardly ever,” to their motto of “No rain nor hail nor dark of night shall stop us.”

People were trapped in all manner of situations from being unable to leave their place of employment, or in their cars en route, or in other places where they sought refuge. All travel was quickly declared illegal.

Many of you know that I have a medical problem which required treatment twice weekly for five hours on a hemodialysis machine in East Providence, RI. Being unable to maintain my schedule could have calamitous, even fatal, results. In cooperation with the dialysis center, I was allowed to go two days beyond my regular Tuesday treatment; that’s when others came to my rescue.

Trapped within Bird Machine Co. were 12 or 13 young men who quickly became a “MASH” unit. When I asked for help and it was authorized, these fellows provided it in a smooth working plan which got me to East Providence by helicopter and return to Mansfield.

The T.V. “MASH” unit spends much time on humorous sequences, but not the B.M. Co. “Mash” or the Mansfield Civil Defense, who arranged my flights.

Part of my reputation at B.M. Co. includes the fact that I would previously not use aircraft, unless perhaps they stayed on the runway. So, I was supposed to be biting my nails and have cold sweats as the arrangements developed. Because I fully realized the alternatives, I was the usual Georgie, whom my wife says, “has no nerves.”

There was, however, some panic by Mansfield C.D. later when I failed to return and couldn’t be located for several hours. The story goes like this. I landed in East Providence and was taken to the dialysis center by the police. After the treatment they returned me to the heliport. (Zayre parking lot). There some long delay developed as two helicopters brought in emergency patients and medical supplies. In due time a large (approx. eight passenger) helicopter arrived and exchanged several passengers. The noise was near deafening so instructions were by sign language.

We rose up rapidly in the darkness, providing a fabulous view of city lights. In a few minutes we were down again in the parking lot of Rhode Island Hospital. Again airborne, we traveled further and came down again. I responded to a tap on the shoulder and a “You get out here!” When we got away from the noise, I inquired, “What am I doing here, is this a transfer point?” The answer was, “No, this is Kent County Hospital, Warwick, RI.” By now the helicopter was off and gone with a man who was fast getting lost also.

I was soon escorted into the hospital emergency lobby where I explained my dilemma to the receptionist. She telephoned Mansfield Civil Defense and I telephoned my home. by now I had gone 14 hours without any food. The hospital supplied some toast, tea and graham crackers, then some more waiting. At 10:00 p.m. I was assigned a room to stay over night. “Did I mind being in the Pediatrics Ward?” “No, so long as one of the requirements wasn’t to have a baby!” “Do you mind if you hear babies cry?” “Not as long as it isn’t my own.” I could forgive a crying baby because I’m sure I didn’t hold back when I was brand new.

I had my johnnie on and was in bed when the nurse came to say I had a telephone call. It was a Major Rovinson to say his men would fly that night if I wanted to go home. I refused, with much thanks, saying I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, besides his men should be tired and I had been up since 6:00 a.m. I didn’t tell him but in my mind I didn’t relish landing still further away in New Haven or Longmeadow. A new pick-up time was set for 8:00 a.m. I was provided a great early breakfast and all went well and I landed in Mansfield to a tremendous greeting. Oh, yes, I learned they still had not located my exchange passenger who failed to get off in Warwick.

I made another round trip two days later, mostly to receive 2 units of blood, and was again dialyzed. All went well, proving the system works better in less confusion, and me a little more seasoned.

We have had an unusual critical situation to combat and I and thousands of people needed and got special help. I feel deeply indebted to the B.M. Co. “MASH” Unit, the Mansfield Civil Defense, especially Sandra and the military unit that supplied the helicopters.

As I write this on Sunday, six days after the storm, I have just returned from grocery shopping in Walpole with the transportation being provided by the Walpole C.D. Everyone has been extremely considerate and helpful and I hope I can long remember the Blizzard of February 1978.

Funeral Homes and Cemeteries

Mr. James Delaney of the Delaney Funeral Home on Common Street in Walpole recalled the Blizzard of ’78 as a unique experience in his line of work. He has been in the funeral business for forty years and does not remember asnother incident when the waiting period for opening graves was so long. In eastern Massachusetts, graves are dug all winter even if there is snow on the ground. Usually, a path to the grave is plowed, and specialized equipment heats the ground overnight. This makes it possible for the grave to be mechanically dug in the morning. The amount of snow which fell during the Blizzard, however, prevented this as the plowing equipment to get to the grave sites was needed for other emergency measures.

Consequently, the vaults at the cemetaries were used for storage until such time as the graves could be opened. The vaults at both Maple Grove and Rural Cemetaries were full, and some bodies were stored in the Jackson Memorial Building at Terrace Hill. Mr. Delaney estimates that about ten bodies were stored for later burial in Walpole. His last burial, of a death occuring during or after the storm, took place on May 1, 1978.

On February 6, the morning that the Blizzard of ’78 actually began, Mr. Delaney had buried two people at Rural Cemetary. The burials of these were slightly delayed by a snowstorm of fourteen inches on January 21, followed by an ice storm later that same week. Mr. Stephen Huntress, Walpole’s Caretaker of Cemetaries, had prepared the two graves that morning. Mr. Delaney arrived at Rural Cemetary at 11 AM and recalls that it had begun to snow lightly at noon when he left.

Another unusual occurence for Mr. Delaney was his hiring a livery service to transport a body from a Boston hospital to Walpole. A death occured in Boston, and Mr. Delaney sought the permission of the Walpole Police and Civil Defense to transport the body to Walpole. He did receive permission on this end but was told that he would face a problem in each town he passed throught enroute to Boston. Consequently, Mr. Delaney made his arrangements through a livery service, which had blanket permission to be on the streets.

Town Relatively Free of Crime – February 16, 1978

After a brief flurry of random violence on Tuesday, Walpole stayed relatively crime free during the state of emergency.

Police chief Armando A. Betro said a few stores were broken into Tuesday night, and three youths were arrested for vandalism. Plate glass windows were smashed at the Shoe Outlet and Archer Kent at the Walpole Plaza and at MiMi’s variety store.

The most bizarre break during the blizzard might have been an attempt to riffle Gallo’s Flowers on East Street.

There were also reports of vandalism to town equipment. Vandals slashed the tires on at least two dump trucks. Thieves took the engine from a bus immobilized in East Walpole during the storm. One other man reported his snowmobile was taken. During the cleanup Sunday, a tow-truck driver was threatened at gunpoint when he tried to remove a parked car.

Walpole police were firm with motorists during the driving ban, but relatively few citations were handed out. Officers at the checkpoints set up during the driving ban said most drivers had civil defense passes. Some residents complained that they were told over the phone that they could run errands but were stopped when they tried to drive downtown.

There were few traffic accidents, Betro said. “They were all stuck at home.”

Police reported only one arrest for violation of the curfew imposed by selectmen.

The curfew and the order to close bars and package delivery stores were credited with doing much to prevent more outbreaks of violence.

Clean-Up to End Today – February 16, 1978

Town Administrator Edward T. O’Neill told selectmen Tuesday night that clean up operations following last week’s blizzard continue until today.

He said that he did not yet know the total cost of the cleanup to the town but added that the town could expect to be reimbursed by the federal government for all expenses contracted for safety measures through Friday.

O’Neill and Chairman Frank A. Farinacci plan to attend a meeting in Dedham tonight outlining federal disaster relief that will be available to area towns.

By Tuesday, the center of the town and East Walpole Center had been cleared of snow, O’Neill said. Crews were continuing to clear roads and remove snow mounds from intersections where traffic problems were expected. Most private contractors that worked on snow removal for the town had been released by Tuesday.

O’Neill estimated that the town’s snow removal budget had already been overspent by $73,000. He said that all bills were not in yet from the January 20th storm, which he reminded the board had brought a record snowfall until last week.

Although the federal government will pick up most of the cost for snow removal after last week’s storm, O’Neill said the town may have to pay the overtime costs for the police, fire, and public works departments. Fire chief Robert Gardener estimated the fire department spent $12,000 during the snow emergency for manning all three fire stations full-time and for marking hydrants ahead of snow removal equipment.

O’Neill concurred with School Superintendent John T. MacDonald’s decisions to postpone the opening of Kindergarten through third grade until February 7, after school vacation. He told the board that MacDonald had been unable to arrange for buses to transport all elementary students and that both he and MacDonald were concerned about people walking on the snow-narrowed streets.

O’Neill singled out Pasquale J. Marino, Superintendent of the Highway and Park Division, for praise for his work directing the snow removal operations after the storm. He told selectmen, “Everybody owes a great deal of thanks to everyone who worked so hard to keep Walpole going – the police, the fire department, volunteers, civil defense, auxiliary police, the DPW.”

He said snowfall this winter had already amounted to 85 inches, compared to an average of 48 or 49 inches for past winters. He pointed out that there was at least another month this winter during which heavy snows could be expected.

Town Struggles for Normalcy Ten Days After Storm – February 16, 1978

When the Board of Selectmen lifted its final emergency restrictions on traffic and stores Sunday, one member said, “Everything will be back to normal by 6 PM.”

But it will take more than just the lifting of a curfew to bring Walpole back to where it was before the “Great Blizzard of ’78” struck a week ago Monday night.

After nearly a week in a state of emergency, first declared by the governor and later extended by the selectmen, Walpole citizens were finally getting back to their normal routines, although snow removal and cleanup dominated the town well into this week.

Cost estimates for last weeks record-breaking storm are still being compiled, but the town has submitted a request for $500,000 in federal disaster relief, and town engineer Peter Boghossian has put the cost of cleanup at $30,000 a day.

The town is also eligible for federal reimbursement of 75% of the cost of the outside contractors it called in before Friday and all of the additional cost from Friday on.

Damage in Walpole during the storm was minor. One death, an elderly man who suffered a heart attack shoveling snow, was blamed directly on the storm.

One local resident, Harry A. Nunes of 1680 Washington Street, has been missing since Tuesday morning. The 37-year-old insurance agent last called his wife from the Boston area to say he was safe but stranded.

All the restrictions, with the exception of the parking ban on residential streets, imposed during the emergency have been lifted. The ban on parking continues while street-widening operations are underway.

While the roar of the diesel engines that for one week was the most common sound on Walpole;s streets has faded, some contractors are still engaged in clearing snow from some areas.

Walpole schools, with the exception of Kindergarten to Third Grade, are open this week as are most other schools serving local youngsters. Until sidewalks can be cleared, all students will be bussed to school, officials have announced.

Special education programs for the retarded and emotionally handicapped have been canceled at all schools.

Teachers in the primary grades are preparing packets to be sent home with older brothers and sisters of the first, second and third graders.

Most of the town’s industries opened on Monday when the driving ban had been lifted. One employee of the Kendall Company plant on West Street was stuck at the plant from the day of the storm on.

Even after lifting the driving ban, stores and restaurants in Walpole experienced shortage of perishables, although deliveries were continuing.

While Walpole is still trying to assess its own damages, the local Red Cross chapter will be making an appeal through area churches for disaster aid for victims in the devastated coastline communities and elsewhere.

For local property owners, banks in town will have information on how to apply for low cost loans from the Federal Disaster Assistance Authority.


Chamber Applauds Storm Efforts – February 16, 1978

To the Editor:

During the bizarre blizzard of last week, the Walpole Chamber of Commerce takes social pride in commending the outstanding and untiring efforts of our local government, elective and appointive, all employees, and the magnificent work done by our local private contractors. Without the latters’ ultra-modern, heavy equipment which moved mountains of snow so expeditiously, it would have taken the town much longer to regain any degree of normalcy.

The long hours, dedication of and effective planning, conquered, what, at the outset, seemed to be an impossible task.

To everyone involved, the Chamber, for a job exceedingly well done, extends grateful thanks and appreciation.

Alan D. Rockwood, President

Parish Says Thanks

To the Editor:

At a service last Sunday the members of Epiphany church offered prayers of thanks for the employees, both paid and volunteer, of Walpole for the grand job that they did during the storm. The members which wish to thank all those in Walpole who gave of themselves and went that extra mile for the benefit of others. The cooperation, friendliness, and services far beyond call are all very appreciated.

Speaking for the church members, Walpole has been known as a friendly town; this past storm shows how friendly we are. Thank you, everybody!

The Reverend John Griswald