It Was The Last Friday of January – Forty Years Ago. An Epic Blizzard Swept the Region

A Brief One from Doug Draper

Posted January 27, 2016 on Niagara At Large

While so many of us are wondering what happened to winter this January, some may also recall the day winter swept eastward across Lake Erie, bombarding large swaths of Niagara and Western New York with an epic fury that claimed lives and had millions of people on lock down for the better part of a week.

This ambulance and the cars around them were not going anywhere - a typical scene on the highways and streets of Niagara and Western New York during the storm

This ambulance and the cars around them were not going anywhere – a typical scene on the highways and streets of Niagara and Western New York during the storm

It began on January 28th, 1977, on a Friday morning after many had already left home for school and work. Then sometime around 9 a.m., television and radio stations began broadcasting alerts fast and furious. There was a ferocious winter storm coming our way and everyone ought to go home or to anywhere where there is food and a warm place to ride the storm out – and do it as soon as possible.

Not everyone took the alerts as seriously as they should have.

I was still going to school in the Niagara region and working part-time at a big-box store in Welland, and was a shift at the store when the first alerts came on a radio we had turned on in the electronics department. I still remember the manager – a nice guy – standing at the front windows looking out as the winds got stronger and visibility lessened to a point where it was getting hard to see anything at the other end of the parking lot.

He was in a jam because he would have to answer to his bosses in Toronto if he closed the store and sent everyone home, only to find the storm over by afternoon. I suggested he should close and asked him if people could leave on their own, without penalty, if they liked, and he was good enough to say they could.

So I got in my car and by the time I got from one end of Welland’s Main Street to the other, I was driving through near white out conditions and the winds were so strong, the very few people left on the sidewalks were clinging to lamp posts to keep from being blown over and there was no way I could stop to help them without having the door of my car – already riding up and down on its wheel carriage in the wind – torn off.

Fortunately, for those people on the sidewalks, there were unlocked doors of stores still open for them to find shelter.

It was common to see whole houses buried up to the roof in snow.

It was common to see whole houses buried up to the roof in snow.

It was the beginning of what became known as the Blizzard of 77 – a storm that by the first day of February when it finally ended, claimed more than two dozen lives on both sides of the border and left countless thousands stranded in stores and schools and other places away from home where brave crews of citizens, delivering them food, medicine and other essentials on snowmobiles, was there only lifeline.

It was also a storm that created drifts of snow so high, they buried cars and trucks – one photographer from a local newspaper recalled driving over the top of a buried bus on a snowmobile – and closed virtually everything, from roads and highways, to business and government offices down.

There was also a cast of heroes and villains – the people who risked their lives and gave generally to help people who were stranded, and there were those who took advantage and gouged people in desperate need of food and shelter.

The storm had a way of accentuating the good, the bad and the ugly sides of human nature. It made for stories that were heartening and, in some cases, disgusting and horrific. But for the most part, the experience brought out the best in people and, as stranded, as people were, had away of bringing communities close together.

If you were around then, you might want to share a few of your memories of this historic storm below.

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3 responses to “It Was The Last Friday of January – Forty Years Ago. An Epic Blizzard Swept the Region

  1. I was working for the ambulance service in Niagara Falls Ontario. We responded to emergency calls with snowmobiles leading and following and chains on the tires. Treacherous but necessary. It was like driving on a bottle.

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  2. I was stranded alone for days near Ridgeway, less than a mile from the lake. When I heard the storm was going to get worse I was allowed to go home from work to get my dog because she was alone. I barely got there through white-outs when it hit full force! Within hours I had to let my dog out of the upstairs window to pee. Five days after the storm finally ended, I also had to go out of the upstairs window and a volunteer took me by snowmobile to Hwy 3 so I could get a ride to work in Welland. My garage was buried and my road had drifts to the tops of the telephone poles. I even took my dog because my neighbours were American summer folks or wisely had gone south, so nobody was around to care for her if I couldn’t get back.

    Early in the storm a man stumbled to my house completely snow blind and couldn’t see for hours. I gave him dry clothes and tinted ski goggles and, against my advice, he left to walk home because his wife worked in Buffalo and he wanted her to know he was safe at home. (No cell phones then). His car, which he had deserted earlier, was later totalled by ploughs. They had to use cats and graders because trucks wouldn’t suffice. A week later, snowmobiles were still driving over the roofs of buried vehicles. My brother in Stevensville housed many children from the nearby school who could not risk trying to get even a short distance home in the rural setting.

    Buffalo and the lake shore as far as Wainfleet got socked much worse than Welland, Niagara and other towns. People did check in on others, especially those alone and the elderly, and helped whenever they could.

    Meanwhile, my sadistic mother, who was in Hawaii for my parents’ 35th anniversary, called and said only, “I’ve seen the photos of the storm in Buffalo on the news. Gotta’ go, SURF’S UP”. Rub it in already. Gee, thanks mom!

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  3. Gail Benjafield

    I’ll never forget it. Friends from Brock were stranded for three days at a welcoming house near Port Robinson as they never made it home. A neighbour in St. Catharines brought me a sled with runners, took care of all our kids if I would pull the sled over the traintracks hill blocks away and buy enough food for the two families for three days and return home. I filled the sledge with what I could buy at the open grocery store, and hauled it back over the hill — wherein the laden sledge tipped in the snow, spilling all sorts down the hill. I recall grapefruits rolling down and other groceries. I had to go down in the waste high snow, retrieve everything. It was five blocks away and took me three hours. Small potatoes given what true concerns so many had.

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