116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
TIME MACHINE — 50 years ago: A shocking April blizzard
Up to 19 inches of blowing, drifting snow brought Iowa to a standstill
Fifty years ago, the weather was nice going into the weekend. Garden and spring fashion ads filled newspaper pages.
The high on Friday, April 6, 1973, was near 60 degrees and near 55 the following day. A chance of rain or snow was forecast for Sunday, April 8.
But then the bottom dropped out of the barometer, and a blizzard paralyzed Iowa, starting Sunday afternoon continuing into Tuesday morning. Up to 19 inches of snow fell on Eastern Iowa.
“The storm has no parallel in Iowa weather records for an April snowstorm, either in extent of coverage or length of the storm period,'” The Gazette reported.
The sheer volume of snow was record-breaking, but wind gusts of 25 to 50 mph whipped the snow into drifts, closing roads almost as fast as snowplows cleared them.
That was assuming the plows could get through in the first place. In many instances, the heavy, wet snow clogged the plows and left them stranded.
By Tuesday, when the storm ended, 14 people had died, many of them suffering heart attacks wihle shoveling snow. Two people died of exposure.
As shocking as the April blizzard was to city dwellers, it was fatal to farm animals, with livestock and poultry losses estimated at $20 million.
‘Can’t keep up’
Cedar Rapids Streets Superintendent Wayne Murdock told The Gazette the city had sand spreaders out all Sunday afternoon. Plowing began Sunday night, but “we can’t keep up with it. Trucks are getting stuck, even those with chains.”
Linn County pulled its plows off the roads Monday morning when windblown snow continued to drift the roads closed.
By the time The Gazette hit the streets Monday afternoon, the weather blurb on page 2 reported snowfall at 7 inches, with the barometer dropping and humidity at 89 percent.
And it was still snowing, and snowing hard.
The Gazette’s Monday front page was filled with stories about city buses being stuck on their routes and highways being nearly impossible to keep clear.
Cars were abandoned on the roads, making it hard for snowplows to clear a path. One wrecker service towed more than 350 vehicles between Sunday and Wednesday, with some cars visible only by their antennas.
A highway commission spokesman said snowplow operators were having a hard time staying on the highways. “Sometimes they cannot see beyond the hood of the truck,” he said.
Even though the Linn County Sheriff’s Office declared all roads impassable, a Central City ambulance made its way to a Cedar Rapids hospital, driving behind a snowplow, to transport a woman having a baby.
Cedar Rapids firefighters and police resorted to using a toboggan to get another pregnant woman to the hospital Tuesday.
At a standstill
By midday Monday, downtown stores had closed in Cedar Rapids.
Mail delivery was limited to downtown Cedar Rapids on Monday and Tuesday, which was OK since mail trucks couldn't get into or out of the city anyway.
School was canceled. Garbage wasn't collected Monday or Tuesday, with crews running 10-hour shifts the rest of the week to catch up.
Factories struggled to keep operating when 40 percent or more of their employees were unable to get to work. Quaker Oats, Wilson & Co., Collins Radio, Cherry-Burrell, Link-Belt Speeder and LeFebure — all closed early Monday, with most not resuming operations until Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday.
Only the switchboard operator at Collins Radio made it into work, after spending two hours getting there.
The Cedar Rapids airport, where 34 employees were stranded, shut down, which “caused a backlog at Chicago airports,” The Gazette reported.
A dome at the Anamosa sewage treatment plant collapsed under heavy snow Monday. Cleanup and repairs had to wait until the weather cleared.
A group of 150 teens and their 24 chaperones from northeast Iowa, attending an Archdiocese of Dubuque rally, were stranded at Sacred Heart parish in Oelwein. They were housed in the convent, rectory and gym until roads were clear enough for them to return home.
On April 12, streets superintendent Murdock estimated the blizzard cost the city of Cedar Rapids between $75,000 and $100,000.
“We went through 100 sets of tire chains,” Murdock said. The city had to rent equipment to help with the cleanup.
After the storm, it rained and the snow rapidly melted, clogging some of the city’s sanitary sewers, which had to be pumped out. A sewer on Oakland Road NE collapsed.
Scattered phone outages were reported because “saturated soil caused wet phone cables,” The Gazette reported.
After 50 years, memories of the April blizzard of 1973 may be fading, much like the memories of the terrific blizzards of March 1881 and 1936 that stopped trains on their tracks.
But not just yet. Many of us still remember the surprise April blizzard of 1973.