Blizzard of 1947

Blizzard of ‘47

By Cynthia Sommer

Every generation remembers a snowstorm that they would say was the worst ever!  While several memorable snowstorms have hit Milwaukee, the worst was the blizzard in January, 1947 because of the amount and length of snowfall, the wind conditions, the drifts created, the impact on the city, and the cost for clean-up.

For three days snow fell to more than 18 inches with winds blowing from the northeast at 25-45 mph with gusts to 60 mph and visibility at times near zero.  Drifts of more than 15 feet brought all traffic to a standstill.   All stores, factories, offices and schools were closed for several days.  Many people were stranded in cars, buses, trains, railroad depots and hotel lobbies unless they were able to walk home by foot over many miles.  The city was literally paralyzed and soon became a “ghost town”.

A light snow started to fall on that Tuesday evening and the weather forecast in the Milwaukee Journal for Wednesday was an expected “inch or so” – a typical winter snowfall.  People went to work, children were off to school and the City Sanitation Department chose to believe the weatherman and did not switch from garbage collection to street plowing.  Heavy flakes of snow began to fall by 8 am and by mid-morning it became clear that this was “no ordinary snowstorm”.   Heavy snow and howling east winds increased and soon produced large drifts of 5-8 ft.  All transportation shut down quickly because the cars stuck in the snow were blocking all traffic.  Stories are still told today of those who walked for 6-8 hours in the heavy snow and treacherous conditions. Some found overnight shelter along the way home in snow-trapped streetcars since the electric wires could still provide power for heat and light.  Many workers were stuck for several days in downtown hotels and buildings and slept in telephone booths, stairways or on any floor space that they could find. The snow and wind continued all Wednesday night through late Thursday.  Over 400 streetcars and buses were stranded all over the city.  The snowplows were no match for the amount of snow (estimated at 9.6 billion pounds) and it took the City six weeks at a cost of $810,000 to eventually restore the city streets and alleys.

Ask any senior today who lived through the blizzard of ’47 and they will clearly remember the conditions and stories of that storm.   Accounts include:

  • neighbors shoveling a path so the doctor could come to deliver a baby;
  • a mother and new baby going home on a toboggan from Columbia Hospital to Downer Avenue;
  • a husband walking miles along the streetcar route to find and help his pregnant wife home (pregnant with our board member Gary H);
  • going down Oakland Avenue on skis;
  • teams of neighbors shoveling out their street so they could go to work again;
  • people with snowshoes, skis or toboggans delivering milk and food to desperate mothers;
  • coffee, sandwiches and blankets offered to strangers by strangers;
  • strangers becoming close and grateful friends.

The blizzard was a test by Mother Nature that brought out much good in people.  It is hoped that if such a storm came again, the results would be different due to better weather forecasting, snowplowing and snow blowing equipment, communication alert systems and emergency planning.  But no matter the level of our professional responses, there would always be a need for neighbors to help neighbors.