Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 26, 2008

Blizzard of '78 turns 30

Traverse City nearly shut down after storm blanketed region


Traverse City -- Northern Michigan is no stranger to snow and harsh temperatures, but a storm that swept through the area 30 years ago remains one for the record books.

January 1978 brought a blizzard that surged with such force, snow completely buried cars, trapped farm animals in fields and caused the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Most people were confined to where they could walk, snowmobile, ski or snowshoe, but a helicopter provided Leelanau County resident Jim Gilbo and other local officials a bird's eye view.

"You couldn't see any roads. They were all obliterated, they were all white," Gilbo said, adding he could only make out some barns, silos and trees poking through the blanket of snow.

"It was the worst one in recent times and I think anybody that was around would verify that," said Gilbo, who worked for the Leelanau County Road Commission at the time. "The temperatures were about the kind we're having now, so it was doubly difficult because of that. The wind howled for three days; that's what made it so bad for drifts."

Traverse City's snowfall ranged between 22 and 28 inches from 10 a.m. Jan. 26 to 10 a.m. Jan 27.

As many as 34 inches of snow fell in some parts of the state on Jan. 26 and 27, according to the National Climatic Center. Winds reached 50 to 70 miles per hour, creating drifts as high as 50 feet.

A local man died from a heart attack while shoveling snow and a girl was killed when she fell through ice in a creek. A 140-foot training vessel capsized while docked at the Northwestern Michigan College Maritime Academy.

Anyone who had snowplowing equipment chipped in during the storm, said local resident Bill Rosa. He worked for an excavating company and spent countless hours clearing the streets.

"I was in the Long Lake Fire Department, too, and the guys were delivering groceries and anything that folks needed, whether it be their pills and medicine," he said. "There were lots of times you'd be riding snowmobiles right atop cars."

The Traverse City Police Department turned into a human services agency of sorts, said Chief Mike Warren, who was a patrol officer at the time.

Officers slept at the station and borrowed four-wheel drive vehicles to take doctors and nurses to work, he said.

Don Maxbauer kept busy at his father's Ace Hardware store on Front Street, which he now owns.

Semitrailer loads carrying about 40 snowblowers rolled in when roads were passable. Maxbauer estimated the store sold about 120 during the storm.

"We'd unload a whole semi-load of snowblowers, we'd work all night assembling them, and then they'd all be sold by 10 the next morning," he said. "We did that day after day."

The storm may have caused more work for some, but it also shut businesses and schools, and left many snowed-in residents with time to relax and enjoy nature's marvel.

Geraldine Greene's teenage kids donned cross-country skis to venture out of their snowed-in 11th Street home onto Cass and Front streets.

Greene, however, was happy to stay warm inside.

"It's a good time to stay in and make homemade soup and just watch the world not even go by because it had basically come to standstill," she said. "It was great ... (I) just cozied in for a couple days. You didn't have to worry about going out anyplace."

Northwestern Michigan College cancelled classes, said Carol Hilton, who was a student living in the dorms at the time.

"I remember everybody going outside the next day and playing in the snow and ... building snowmen and all that kind of stuff," she said. "It was just really fun. I was from the East Coast so I had never seen anything like that."