A Wintry Blast

It hit with a fury that’s impossible to forget. But 30 years later, those who lived through the monster nor’easter of 1978 remember something else about that storm: While Bostonians were digging out from the mountains of snow, they were also having a surprisingly good time.

To see an interactive slide show presentation of more web-exclusive photos taken during the Blizzard of ’78, click here.

The forecast had called for snow. “Probable accumulation at least 6 inches,” reported the Globe. But nobody was prepared for what would hit us on February 6, 1978.

By late morning, with flakes falling at a steady clip, commuters were given a jump on their trip home. By midafternoon the region was gripped by whiteout conditions. When it was over, some 33 hours later, the Blizzard of ’78—a nor’easter that packed a hurricane punch—had dumped 27 inches of snow on the Boston area. The images still endure: Of cars swallowed up by snow on Route 128. Of impossibly tall snowbanks that would last until early summer. In all, the blizzard claimed 29 lives in the Bay State, destroyed 2,000 homes, and produced a $1 billion cleanup bill.

But devastation wasn’t the only thing the storm left in its wake. In Boston, something else emerged: a kinder, gentler city. By Wednesday, February 8, Bostonians struck with cabin fever straggled out of their homes, taking stock of the snow and the shocking quiet of their car-less environs. With the city largely closed for business, many had no place they needed to be. For those who did have to go to work, “commuter traffic” meant the clog of skiers on Commonwealth Avenue. Rather than huddle indoors, neighbors hosted cookouts, while parties, of a sort, coalesced around the arduous task of shoveling driveways. For six memorable days, Bostonians not only joined together to deal with the calamity; many of them also mustered an uncanny ability to somehow actually enjoy it.

“Um, honey? I’m stuck.”

On the first night of the blizzard, with the storm still gathering strength, life nonetheless continued on schedule downtown—and at the Boston Garden, that meant the opening round of the Beanpot hockey tournament. More than 11,000 fans turned out to see Harvard drop Northeastern in overtime, and many of them stayed to watch Boston University thump Boston College. Afterward, with the storm now in full rage and the T no longer running, a collection of Garden employees and a few hundred fans hunkered down in the arena, “surviving” on a diet of beer, popcorn, and pretzels. Those who risked the trip home (including the BU squad, which made its slow journey to campus by bus) were in for an adventure.

Steve Nazro (director, Beanpot hockey tournament): I ended up sleeping on my boss’s office couch that night. In my opinion, a lot of people stayed at the Garden who didn’t have to. They would call their wives and say, “Um, honey, you probably heard the weather? Well, I’m stuck and I can’t get out of here.”

Jack Parker (hockey coach, Boston University): It was a great win for us. We were going to the Beanpot final—everybody was excited about that. Then we got outside and the game was forgotten. It was like a shock. The streets were full of people, because they couldn’t move their cars. We were picking up BU students along the way. The bus was mobbed by the time we got to Kenmore Square.

Ed Carpenter (former sports information director, Boston University): We get to Commonwealth Avenue and we stop at Marsh Chapel, and Jack Parker says, “Anybody who wants to get out and go into the chapel and pray may do so.” Well, half the bus got off, but they weren’t going to Marsh Chapel. They went across the street to the Dugout. The bar was their home for a week.

Jack Parker: We were coming into Kenmore, and [team co-captain] Jack O’Callahan came up to the front of the bus and said, “If we go all the way up to Walter Brown Arena just to unload our stuff, everybody is going to trudge all the way back to get back to the Dugout.” He was right, but I didn’t want it to be known that I was encouraging people to go to the Dugout. So I got up and made my announcement. I didn’t go, but my director of athletics did!

Ed Carpenter: After I got off the bus, I headed up to my office in the Case Center on Babcock Street. As I’m walking, I see these little things that look like twigs sticking out from the snow. The next day comes and I go outside and I look, and those twigs were radio antennas from cars. I was walking on the roofs of cars.

“They were shoveling snow in suit pants and trench coats.”

All over the city, cars were engulfed by the drifting and fast-accumulating snow, none more dramatically than those enveloped and abandoned on Route 128. The desperate motorists who were forced to walk home found they couldn’t be picky when choosing a spot in which to take refuge for the night—or, often, much longer.

Mike Klau (co-managed the Red Cross shelter set up at the Dedham Cinema): At the height of things, we probably had 2,000 people. Everybody lived in the lobby and people slept in the chairs. We ate a lot of beef stew, but people also ate the theater’s candy and popcorn. We didn’t show any movies because the theater would have had to charge us, the Red Cross didn’t want to pay for it, and the projectionist had gone home.

Virginia Bright (got stuck in her car on Route 3 in North Weymouth, and ventured out on foot to find a place to stay): I came to a spot where there was this little stoplight and a drugstore. I made a beeline to the drugstore to get out of the wind, but it was closed. There was a motel a few miles down the road, but I didn’t want to walk in a hurricane. That’s when I went across the street to this house and rang the doorbell. I didn’t know who lived there—it was the only building around. This man answered, and I asked if I could come in from the storm for a few moments. We just thought it would be for half an hour. It ended up being a three-day stay.

Mike Klau: There were these two guys who had been stuck in a Brinks truck. They brought in the box—I’m assuming it was a lot of money—and the two of them took turns, four hours at a time, sitting on this box and guarding it. There was never an issue. Those guys, and the movie theater people who were still there helping out, were sitting around going, “How much overtime am I making?”

Michael Tougias (author, The Blizzard of ’78): I was doing a slide presentation about the blizzard a few years ago and this woman told this story about being trapped in her car in Framingham. This guy came out on his snowmobile and took her back to his house. When they arrive, the guy’s wife goes into labor, so he says, “Will you watch my kids? I’m going to snowmobile my wife to the hospital.” He makes it sound like he’s going to be back in a few hours. It was four days. She was this young cosmetic saleswoman, knows nothing about parenting, and she has these three young kids—she doesn’t know their names, and two of them had the flu. She wished she’d been left in her car.

Virginia Bright: The family had a beautiful, huge black Newfoundland dog. They settled me on their divan, and the dog would come over periodically to check me out and see if I was
still there. It was quite an experience. We were just glued to the radio and the TV all the time, listening to the news.

Mike Klau: We had a lot of people digging out the parking lot so the helicopters that were flying in supplies could land. People were in work attire—ties and jackets, wingtip shoes. We had lots and lots of trash bags, and people would take them and make boots out of them so they could really go out in the snow. It was something to see. Here were these people shoveling snow in suit pants and trench coats.

“I never saw people so nice to each other.”

Though the snow had paralyzed the city, not everything came to a halt. A few grocery stores managed to open. At hospitals, small staffs manned phones and treated patients. And at the Globe, a spartan crew of editors holed up at the Morrissey Boulevard headquarters in order to get the paper out. For his part, Governor Michael Dukakis stationed himself in the former NBC building next door to the State House, famously ditched his suit for a turtleneck sweater, and began a routine of much-watched press conferences.

Michael Dukakis
(was in his first term as Massachusetts governor): First, I like sweaters. And second, who would wear a shirt and tie in that kind of atmosphere? What did you expect me to wear? The snow was over my head, for God’s sake.

Matt Storin (was assistant managing editor of the Globe’s Living/Arts section; later became editor in chief): My wife and I were living on Beacon Street. The first thing you noticed was how quiet it was. There was no traffic, the roads weren’t even plowed—you might as well have been in rural New England. The snow almost had a yellowish tint to it because there was no sun at all. I figured out finally that I was going to have to walk to work. It was maybe 5 miles. I had a Minolta camera, and as I got near South Hampton Street in Roxbury there was a tractor-trailer truck overturned; it was on its side, filled with wooden cages of live chickens that were still on the truck. That picture appeared on the front page the next day.

Frederick Lovejoy (physician, Children’s Hospital): This storm hits and immediately all the specialists and the faculty that would be on site suddenly couldn’t come in. I was backup. I was living on Beacon Hill, so to go in I’d take the subway to Kenmore Square, and get out and ski from Kenmore to Children’s. I’d go in at 7 in the morning and handle the calls all day long. Then I’d ski out, get the subway, and take the calls at my house.

Matt Storin: Fortunately, we were still using typewriters, because at some point in time we were operating on reduced power. The auxiliary power was used to run the presses but we were drawing from it. They had to string up 100-watt bulbs just to light the newsroom.

Robert Aiello (former owner, Deluca’s Market on Charles Street): When the power went off, we used flashlights and candles in the aisles. We did business like that for five or six hours.

Maeve Blackman (former director of volunteers, Massachusetts General Hospital): I knew I was needed at the hospital, so a couple of days after the storm, I decided to walk to work. I’d leave in the morning—it was only a few miles—and as I’d get to Beacon Street all these other people were out and about, too, on foot or on skis. You’d end up walking in groups, maybe five at a time, talking about how everyone was managing. It was as if we’d known each other for years. But of course we didn’t. I don’t think we even introduced ourselves to one another. We just fell into step.

Joseph Casazza (former Boston commissioner of public works): I never saw people so nice to each other. If they ever counted them up, I think we got fewer complaints on the Blizzard of ’78 than we would on a 6-inch snowstorm that might come next February.

“It felt like a great escape, almost like, ‘look what we can do.'”

The revelry and camaraderie felt by many played out against a truly striking backdrop: crisp blue skies, moderate temperatures, and, thanks to a six-day driving ban that the governor had put in place on Monday, a lack of car pollution that left the enormous mounds of snow stark white. Unimaginable scenes began to unfold: In Cambridge, skiers flocked to the streets in such numbers that they were eventually ordered out of the roads, while across Greater Boston, a contingent of some 400 shoveling volunteers banded together to dig out the MBTA’s tracks in order to help restore rail service.

Christina Robb (former Globe reporter): The snow was this beautiful powder, nice and light—perfect for skiers. While I was walking around looking for stories, I met this rower who was skiing right down the middle of Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. He couldn’t get to the river to train, so he was doing this instead—he’d gone over the BU bridge and come back. He said it was fabulous.

Governor Dukakis: I remember that Thursday just deciding I wanted a bowl of hot soup. There was a place down on Charles Street at the foot of Beacon Hill, so I and two of my pals headed down there. It was a gorgeous day, with pristine white snow and all these people having a great time on sleds and skis. It was kind of a playground.

Dave Heger (a Dorchester native who was 15 years old at the time): A few friends of mine, we were out tossing the football around. We looked up at the Southeast Expressway and thought, Why don’t we go up there and toss the ball? There were a few patches on the road where the sun had melted things, but you’re talking at least 20 inches of snow in some spots. Just the idea of being out there—it felt like a great escape, almost like, Look what we can do. It was weird.

Steve Nazro: I was living in Watertown at the time, and there was this little market nearby. During the blizzard I went in there every day, and the husband and the wife who owned the place were in there together. I had never seen that before: The husband usually worked one shift and the wife worked the other. One day I’m in there and the wife and I are talking about the storm and she says, “It’s great. We go home at night and we have candles on the table and we actually talk.”

Christina Robb: After maybe four or five days, Dukakis said that essential stores could open. In Harvard Square, that meant bookstores and ice cream stores. People were walking around licking ice cream cones among these piles of snow, and browsing. I remember just feeling this sense of love for where I lived when I saw that these were the essential stores.

Ed Carpenter: It was one of the best weeks I ever spent. There was a restaurant up the corner called T. Anthony’s, and I would go and spend the day there. People were coming in and telling stories and we were just sittin’ around going, “How did you make it? What did you do? Where were you?”

Ian Blackman (a Chichester, New Hampshire, resident who was visiting his parents in Brookline): A few friends and I went cross-country skiing on the Mass. Pike. Who could not do it? There was nobody on it. There was just snow and it was super, super quiet. We went a couple of miles.

Ed Carpenter: Only essential vehicles were allowed on the roads. One day I’m walking down Comm. Ave., and a utility truck stopped in front of the Dugout and opened the back and unloaded a dozen cases of beer. Well, that’s essential: You needed beer at
the Dugout.

Kirsten Alexander (was a nine-year-old in Jamaica Plain): Some friends of mine had a husky, and my family had a toboggan. The combination was irresistible. We hitched up the dog to the toboggan, and I ran in front with a hot dog. I was small and not very fast, and the dog caught up to me, got the hot dog, and then ran away.

Ed Forry (publisher of the Dorchester Reporter): Everyone got to know everybody else. We became friends with the people across the street from us, a state trooper and his wife. We’d always said hello before, but there was never enough time—we were in our lives and they were in theirs. All of a sudden he pulled a hibachi out and started cooking steaks. We brought some food out, and then others came, and it just became a very festive thing.

Julie Floodpage (was a social worker living in Jamaica Plain): I had a gas stove and a freezer full of vegetables and a turkey. But when the electricity went off, I knew that turkey wasn’t going to make it. My friend down the street had an electric stove but without power she couldn’t use it. We figured we’d have
this great communal dinner at my friend’s house. My most vivid memory about that meal was walking down the middle of the street with this giant, steaming-hot turkey, cutting through this powdery snow that was up to my hips.

Frederick Lovejoy: In Beacon Hill, where everybody usually went about their business, all of a sudden people were having these cookouts. You’d trudge through the streets and you’d invariably get a hot dog. It was amazing: “Here, Doc, have a hot dog on us.”

Maeve Blackman: Walking home at night it was like a fiesta or a huge block party on Charles Street. It was wonderful.

“Suddenly, we’re all back to being our regular selves.”

By Monday, February 13, a full week after the blizzard hit, a good portion of the city had returned to form. The Red Cross shelters had emptied, the driving ban had lifted, and people were heading back to work. But the return to normalcy brought with it a touch of regret.

Christina Robb:
The closer people got to being able to drive, that’s when I’d say the possessiveness over the parking spaces started to get serious. They had put so much energy into digging out those spaces, and the idea then that someone would just come along and just use it? I think in the beginning, people understood that might happen. After a while, it got kind of old.

Governor Dukakis: Every time I’d speak somewhere, for months afterward, I’d be presented with another sweater—I think I had 20 of them. I had to start giving them away.

Ed Carpenter: The most frustrating thing about it was that, for a while, everybody was helping each other out: “Can I get you something? Are you okay at home? Do you need to be dug out?” Then suddenly it was gone, and we’re all back to being our regular selves. That to me was like, Ah, can’t we go back to being nice to each other?

Dave Heger: Two years ago, when we got another real bad snowstorm, I was on my way home early and I was in traffic, right at the same area on I-93 where we had played football. I thought, My God, this is the place. If I could jump out now, I would.