George Shepherd and his fellow Lucas County snowplow drivers thought an early quitting time was in their futures when they took a break at a Central Avenue restaurant in Sylvania Township during the evening of Jan. 25, 1978.
By dinnertime, Mr. Shepherd recalled, the big storm moving into northwest Ohio had been all rain. The plow drivers figured they’d push a few slushy inches off the roads later that evening, then get sent home.
But when the meal was over, Mr. Shepherd peeked outside and saw wind-blown snowflakes the size of quarters and told his co-workers they needed to look for themselves.
The snow fell so fast, and the wind whipped it into drifts so large, that by the wee hours, Mr. Shepherd and a fellow employee — the county assigned two men to a plow at the time — were stuck in their truck in the snow on Mitchaw Road near Sylvania-Metamora Road, blocked by abandoned cars.
There they would stay, running the engine to keep warm, until county workers with heavy equipment showed up after daybreak to dig them out.
“We were real close to running out of fuel,” Mr. Shepherd said last week, noting that once the truck was moved to a wind-sheltered spot at a quarry on Centennial Road, its engine quit.
It was the Blizzard of 1978, and it was the storm that beat the snow fighters.
Few, if any, Ohioans have seen a storm like it before or since. As temperatures plunged virtually overnight from above freezing to near zero, heavy rain changed rapidly to driving, horizontal snow.
About 13 inches fell, a pittance compared to some multi-foot Snow Belt events, but that combined with wind and extreme cold paralyzed northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan for more than a week and killed scores of people, many of whom made ill-advised attempts to seek shelter when their vehicles got stuck.
Thirty-five years later, Jeff Clark hasn’t forgotten how he spent that night.
He was an Ohio Turnpike maintenance worker, normally assigned as a janitor but qualified to drive a snowplow. He got called in to work at the Castalia maintenance base on the 25th to help out as needed.
Mr. Clark soon found himself at the wheel, assigned to plow from the base about seven miles to a service plaza and back. But he only made it to about a half-mile from the service plaza before he got stuck.
He started walking, then was picked up by a co-worker. They eventually made it back to the Castalia base, which over the next few days would become a makeshift hotel for both turnpike workers and stranded motorists.
Kept the road open
“The snow got so deep we couldn’t plow it any more,” Mr. Clark said last week from his home in Monroeville, Ohio. “We kept the road open most of the night, until it got ridiculous.”
By morning, the Ohio Turnpike was shut down, choked by drifting snow and abandoned vehicles strewn along the roadway at sometimes improbable angles. It would stay closed for its entire length for about three days, the only such shutdown in its history.
“It was not fun, but it was like an adventure,” said Mr. Clark, who was 22 at the time and professes having worked one 47-hour stretch. “You’d go out in a grader or a front-end loader and see how many more people you could find. We were running on adrenaline.”
Mr. Clark was hired to work on the turnpike in 1976, and during his first winter there had gotten stuck in the grass median when his plow went off the pavement edge during a whiteout. He considers that earlier incident to have been his initiation for what was to come.
The storm was meteorologically rare. It blew up over Ohio when an arctic system moving east from the Dakotas unexpectedly merged with a southern storm laden with tropical moisture. Barometric pressure at Toledo plunged to 28.48 inches of mercury, one of several record lows in the Great Lakes region. The winds gusting well above 50 mph piled drifts up to 16 feet high, burying mobile homes and reaching the roofs of two-story houses.
Wind chills dropped well below zero, and the wind blew for days.
Mr. Shepherd said one of his co-workers made his way to a nearby farmhouse after his truck got stuck and stayed there for a day. A foreman drove Mr. Shepherd home the next morning, towing his pickup with a front-end loader.
“When we did get home, I thought I’d be off a few days,” he said, but after about eight hours, a four-wheel-drive county truck came out to take him back to work.
“We had guys sleeping in their trucks,” Mr. Shepherd recalled. “To me it was a fun time. I was young and fearless.”
Garage’s pungent air
There were no showers back then at the turnpike’s maintenance facilities, so the Castalia base became rather pungent after a few days as emergency shelter for dozens of people, Mr. Clark recalled.
But a Kroger supermarket truck happened to get snowbound nearby, he said, and that provided provisions for the stranded travelers and turnpike workers who had no way to get home.
“We ate frozen pizza out of that truck for a couple of days,” Mr. Clark said, before adding that the truck also had milk and other food inside. “Whatever he had in there, he just busted the truck open and said, ‘Have at it.’”
The building’s boiler room became the de facto sleeping quarters; Mr. Clark said he slept there two nights before he finally made it home.
Serious road-clearing only began after the Army provided some “humongous front-end loaders” that could handle the huge amount of snow piled on the turnpike, with drifts downwind of overpasses sometimes rivaling those bridges’ height.
“They came out and got one path pushed through, so at least we could get through,” Mr. Clark said.
The biggest challenge, he said, was getting all the abandoned cars and trucks out of the way because there was no convenient place to put them.
“It was pretty chaotic for a few days,” Mr. Clark said.
Mr. Shepherd said he was driving a plow along Sylvania-Metamora Road west of Berkey after the storm diminished when he came upon a farmer driving a tractor who offered to tow out eight stranded cars with a rope and a hook, which would allow him to get through.
“I have no clue where he towed ’em to or what he did with them,” he said. “I didn’t tell him to do it because I wasn’t going to be responsible for it.”
In the eastern part of Lucas County, Mr. Shepherd said, “it was like driving through a tunnel” because heavy equipment had piled snow high on either side of the roads.
It took about a week and a half for driving conditions to reach a semblance of normal, he said. The county borrowed heavy equipment from the quarries to move the snow. But by the time plow crews could get through on many roads, wind had swept and compacted it, and thawing and freezing from sunlight had created icy glazes on the pavement.
Road salt ineffective
Rock salt was ineffective, Mr. Shepherd said. It just bounced and blew off the ice.
“I just remember using pure salt. It wasn’t cutting through what we had,” he said.
One night, what seemed to be a car was on a head-on collision course with Mr. Shepherd’s plow; at the last instant, the headlights split and veered to either side. Snowmobiles were the only way to get around on many roads.
On another occasion, Mr. Shepherd encountered a motorist, trying to get to a store to buy beer, who complained about road conditions.
“I told them, ‘I’m out here for the police and the firemen. I don’t care if you’re out for beer,’” he said.
Snow Belt work
Mr. Shepherd, who retired from the Lucas County Engineer’s Office five years ago but still accepts call-backs to drive a plow during storms, chuckles now when people complain about weather like the near-zero cold snap Toledo experienced early this week.
“This is nothing … there’s nothing like the blizzard,” he said, though he professed to having had one experience worse than being stuck all night in the plow truck: eight hours waiting for a gate at the Detroit airport in a plane with no working restrooms during the New Year’s storm 14 years ago.
Mr. Clark agreed, noting that while he encountered heavier snowfalls while working in the Snow Belt areas farther east on the turnpike — from which he retired seven years ago after 11 years as a supervisor in Elmore — the northwest Ohio wind makes a huge difference.
“Out west, with that wind, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “You get three or four inches and a 40 mile-an-hour wind, now there’s nothing you can do.”
Toledo’s current winter has been tame in comparison with 1977-78 — the snowiest in its recorded history — and that is unlikely to change in the immediate future. As of Saturday afternoon, just 2.8 inches of snow had fallen this month at Toledo Express Airport, for a season total of 9.8 inches. That's 6.8 inches below normal for the month to date and 9.3 inches below normal for the season. The season total also is eight-tenths of an inch below last winter at this time.
And while an approaching storm system is expected to bring sleet or freezing rain to the region late today or early Monday, warmer air is forecast to move in behind that. High temperatures in the 40s on Monday and the 50s on Tuesday were predicted for Toledo, along with rain.
Contact David Patch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6094.