Time Machine

Time Machine: The April 1973 blizzard

45 years ago, a freak blizzard stranded travelers, killed livestock

Residents walk home from work along what was then Glass Road NE in April 1973 after abandoning their cars. Center Point Road NE is in the background. (Gazette archives)
Residents walk home from work along what was then Glass Road NE in April 1973 after abandoning their cars. Center Point Road NE is in the background. (Gazette archives)
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Forty-five years ago this week, the worst April blizzard in Iowa history paralyzed the state.

On Sunday, April 8, 1973, it started snowing, with 3 inches predicted. The slow-moving storm sped up a bit on Sunday evening, and 5 more inches of snow was added to the forecast.

But the storm refused to move on. It stayed put for 18 hours, and Eastern Iowa was in the grip of a full-blown blizzard. In April.

“Like a tire spinning on ice, it continued to intensify, generating northerly winds in excess of 60 mph and dumping heavy snow over the same areas, hour after hour,” The Gazette reported.

The storm finally began to weaken around 10 p.m. Monday and ended Tuesday morning.

Most of Iowa was covered in 15 to 19 inches of heavy, wet snow, with only northwest Iowa and far southern Iowa escaping the brunt. The wind piled the snow into drifts as high as 16 feet.

“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.

AT A STANDSTILL

In Cedar Rapids, most factories closed, including Wilson & Co., Collins and Quaker Oats, with most not reopening until late Tuesday or Wednesday.

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.

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School was canceled. City buses didn’t run. Garbage wasn’t collected Monday or Tuesday, with crews running 10-hour shifts the rest of the week to catch up.

Cedar Rapids firefighters and police resorted to using a toboggan to get a pregnant woman to the hospital on Tuesday.

The Cedar Rapids airport closed, with 34 employees stranded there. Crews cleared the runways and then the highway leading to the airport. No planes landed until 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Three city snowplow trucks were abandoned in 10-foot-plus drifts.

From Sunday afternoon through Wednesday, one local wrecker service’s seven-man crew towed more than 350 vehicles. Some of the cars were visible only by their antennas.

The Gazette delivered about 75 percent of Monday’s in-town papers — none to the rural areas — but left it up to city carriers to decide if they could deliver the papers to homes.

The storm halted delivery of the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribune altogether. “No paper left the plant, except for those in the vending machine out front and a few that were hand delivered to downtown hotels last night,” the circulation manager said.

Ironically, Nor-Ski, a popular ski slope area in Decorah, closed because of blowing and drifting snow.

DEADLY STORM

By Tuesday afternoon, 14 deaths had been attributed to the storm, many of them people who had suffered heart attacks while shoveling snow. Two people died of exposure. One was killed in a seven-car accident west of Forest City in north-central Iowa.

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Desperate farmers called county road maintenance, trying to get roads cleared so they could feed their livestock or get them to the farmyard. Efforts to clear the roads, though, were hampered by stranded cars and blowing snow.

Farmers originally estimated they had lost several thousand cattle and calves. The final tally was much worse: 78,137 calves, 22,235 cows, 6,874 other cattle; 19,329 hogs, 5,467 sheep, 214,400 turkeys, 25,210 pigs and 150 chickens.

The Iowa Conservation Commission estimated thousands of bluebirds and purple martins — which had begun their northward migration — were killed by the freak storm.

STRANDED TRAVELERS

The storm also stranded travelers, who sought shelter in rural farmsteads.

Verne Oliphant was in California, but his daughter opened his home south of Center Point to 21 people, including Center Point Mayor Bob Pepin and, fortunately, a Nash Finch food truck driver. Nash Finch gave the OK to open the cargo, and the stranded travelers had soup and sandwiches while they waited out the storm.

At the Amana interchange on Interstate 80, a man checked into the Holiday Inn, asking for a room “for me and my bear.”

The manager was called to figure out how to accommodate a 762-pound Alaskan brown bear. The bear’s owner was fine with keeping the bear in his van outside, but he insisted the bear perform for the hotel guests.

The bear had been a state fair, movie and TV performer. His owner assured the hotel manager the bear was gentle, declawed, defanged and loved marshmallows and Coca-Cola.

The bear performed, much to the delight of the blizzard-stranded guests.

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AFTERMATH

Even after the storm was over, Iowans faced the gargantuan task of shoveling out driveways toward streets still clogged with snowdrifts and abandoned vehicles.

Temperatures warmed into the 40s and 50s by Wednesday, but it took more than a week for most of the snow to disappear.

PAPER CARRIER STORY

On Tuesday, The Gazette reported about John Ogden’s valiant efforts to deliver The Gazette.

John was 12 years old and trying to deliver 61 papers in southeast Cedar Rapids. In attempting to get to one house surrounded by drifts, he fell over. A man came out of the house, took the papers and helped with the deliveries.

Even with that help, John reported it took about three hours to deliver the papers on Monday, about twice as long as normal.

That 12-year-old grew up to become a Gazette sports reporter and later The Gazette’s sports editor.

MY STORY

My husband, Richard, and I were visiting my parents in Iowa City on Sunday when the snow started. We headed home on two-lane Highway 218 (now Highway 965), the main route between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. About a third of the way, the snowfall became nearly blinding, and we crept along, barely able to see the road. When we arrived in Cedar Rapids, nearly two hours later, we gratefully headed to our apartment on J Street SW.

We were snowbound through Monday, but when the snow finally stopped Tuesday, we ventured out to the parking lot to discover our car buried under a mound of snow. Shoveling out was fruitless as long as the parking lot and street were snowbound.

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We took stock of our larder and found it was pretty bare. We decided to bundle up and head for my in-laws’ house, about 10 blocks away.

The only obstacle was the grading that had begun on what would eventually be Interstate 380. The roadway was still mostly level with surrounding streets, but it was covered with snow.

As we set out across the expanse, my husband told me to stay in his footprints. He was wary of unseen variances in the snow-covered ground.

I wandered off his path and sank waist-deep into the snow. We dug me out, and the rest of our trip was uneventful.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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