April 07, 2020

Snow Daze> Ice storm the latest addition to Maine’s snowy, icy history

Last week’s ice storm, though devastating, is not unprecedented in Maine history. Several winter storms have left their marks over the previous century.

In late December 1962, the year was ending quietly for Maine residents when Mother Nature dealt the state a one-two punch people are still talking about. In the days before high-tech satellites and The Weather Channel, few meteorologists forecast the big blizzard that blanketed Bangor with 46 inches of blowing, drifting snow.

By Monday, Dec. 31, snow was beginning to bury Maine and New Year’s revelers were changing their plans.

On Jan. 1, 1963, the snow just kept coming. In fact, it didn’t quit for days, virtually shutting down the entire state. It closed down the Bangor Daily News for a day. Even periodic spring flooding and the 1911 Bangor Fire hadn’t done that.

Unlike last week’s icing conditions that had Mainers revving up portable generators and power company spokesmen choosing words like “disaster” and “crisis,” the blizzard of 1962-63 was a quiet calamity of epic proportions. Even though four motorists died statewide in the storm, many remember it as an adventure that drew strangers together.

That storm, and last week’s ice storm, both brought out the best in people’s nature. Bill Zoidis and his family, owners of Pilots Grill on outer Hammond Street, turned their restaurant into an emergency shelter for stranded motorists during the 1962-63 storm. Bangor businessman Wally Sawyer joined Zoidis as a local hero that year when he used his state-of-the-art snowmobile to transport motorists to the restaurant.

Old newspaper stories reveal Maine and other New England residents have always opened their homes — and their hearts — to people in distress during snow and ice storms. They had their work cut out for them during New England’s worst blizzard of the 19th century, which fell on March 12-14, 1888, dumping 27.5 inches on Concord, N.H., on the edge of the storm track.

A fierce ice storm paralyzed Portland in January 1886. The book, “Yankee Superlatives,” published in 1977, reports that on Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 26-29, 1921, the most severe ice storm in New England history coated central and eastern Massacusetts with 3 inches of ice. The book also chronicles the greatest area snowfall over the widest extent of New England, which occurred in Maine, dropping 28.2 inches at the Blue Hill observatory and 56 inches at Long Falls Dam on Feb. 25-26, 1969.

Snow described by the BDN as “heavy, damp, and clinging — tons and tons of it” fell on Bangor on March 10-11, 1906, downing power lines and wiping out telegraph and telephone service. Driven by a strong gale, the storm raged for 12 hours, throwing many homes into darkness. Like last week’s ice storm, temperatures were above freezing during the 1906 disaster.

Before motorized snow equipment facilitated snow removal in 1920, ROTC students from Bangor High School and other volunteers shoveled the city’s more than 250 miles of streets by hand. When the city purchased a new Cleveland snow tractor for $1,675 in 1920, crowds lined up to watch a snow-removal demonstration on Broadway. A particular concern in the city was the clearing of snow from the network of streetcar tracks.

An article in the March 17, 1901, New York Times reported heavy snowdrifts in Maine and the ingenious ways people were dealing with the blizzard. Drifts measuring 6 to 24 feet were recorded in and around Bangor, “towering like foaming seas across the open fields.” In Glenburn, a doctor unable to drive to the home of a sick man was hauled 3 miles on a hand sled by two men. And at Oak Hill Cemetery on the outskirts of Bangor, a funeral procession was stalled a half-mile from the grave. The casket was pulled by hand to the deceased’s final resting place.

Some things never change when the mercury plummets and the snow and ice begin to fall. A Jan. 1, 1918, news clipping offers advice for Bangor homeowners with frozen pipes. Don’t try to thaw the pipes with a torch or oil-soaked wraps, it reported, and call the nearest plumber for help. Then keep your fingers crossed and hope he shows up.

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