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.

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Illustration by Josh Cochran

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.

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The blizzard plays its tricks on the Christian Science Plaza. (Photograph by Frank Florianz)

1. “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.

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From top, Kenmore Square, Commonwealth Avenue, and a Brighton corner. (Photographs by Frank Florianz)

2. “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.

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