Life

Detroit's worst snowstorms

Snow blankets the streets of Detroit in winter of 1892.

“You people don’t know what snow is,” grandpa used to say. “When I was a boy we had REAL snowstorms and we had to walk . . . yakkity yakkity yak. . . ”

Well, chalk up one for grandpa. It seems he was right.

The worst snowstorm in Detroit history came in early April, 1886, and dumped 24.5 inches of the white stuff on the city. Accompanying winds caused drifts up to 12 feet high in some places. The second worst storm in 1974 brought us a mere 19.2 inches.

The Detroit News editions of April 6, 1886, reported that “Snow began at 12:30 a.m. and fell light until about 4 a.m., when it began to fall heavy . . . a tremendous fall of snow continued all day, ending at 9 p.m.

 A Detroit pedestrian tries to make his way along Lafayette after a 1982 storm.

A Detroit pedestrian tries to make his way along Lafayette after a 1982 storm.

“The fall at 7 a.m. was 4.6 inches and at 3 p.m. was 17.1 inches and at 11 p.m. 24 inches, making a total of 24.5 inches fall of unmelted snow.

“The rain gauge was soon snowed full and was practically useless.

“The drifts in some places were 12 feet high and the snow in the streets was from 10 to 40 inches deep.

“A heavy north gale set in at 1:45 a.m. and raged in fury all day, reaching 40 miles north at 2:15 p.m. and continuing all the remainder of the day. Its force with the snow was appalling. It blew the snow in fine particles against the face, cutting like a knife.

“The streetcar company attempted to run cars in the morning with six and eight horses until 10 a.m. when every line in the city was abandoned, streetcars laying in all positions on the street.

“On Woodward Avenue between the Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park there were 26 cars abandoned, and all people were obliged to wade through the snow. The snow packed solid when walked on and it became necessary to use crowbar and pick to clean a path.

“The railroads were snowbound in their yards and could not even move their engines from the houses. All freight trains were abandoned early in the day.

“The storm was felt over the southeastern part of Michigan very hard. It was unprecedented in fierceness, snowfall and blockade in the history of the service, and the oldest inhabitants can recall nothing to equal it.” Business almost totally shut down resulting in losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Except at J.L. Hudson & Co, where the whole workforce of clerks somehow arrived “being ready to wait on a single customer.”< >(Hudson’s wasn’t so lucky in the 1974 storm and was forced to close its doors.)

Apparently Detroiters were a hardy lot. No deaths were reported due to the 1886 storm. Telegraph wires from the east were down and, according to the News report, the funeral of Mrs. Jesse Reed was postponed due to the impassible drifts and “Silk hats have been abandoned.”

News readers had to wait to read accounts of the storm, however since the News could not supply its dealers. By 11 a.m. only 4 of 146 dealers in the city had received their newspapers. By the next day, though, the storm was old news and received no more coverage.

It didn't happen very often but occasionally heavy snows prevented The Detroit News' trucks from delivering the papers.

It didn’t happen very often but occasionally heavy snows prevented The Detroit News’ trucks from delivering the papers.


Instead, the story of the day concerned the city’s baseball team, the Detroits, who were to play in Louisville that day. They lost 6-2.

The newspaper’s coverage of the 1974 snow fall was more grim. While no deaths were linked to the 1886 storm, the 1974 storm claimed at least 27 persons, 22 from heart attacks while shoveling snow.

News accounts of the storm were filled with heroic and not-so-heroic vignettes. Gary DeVar, Waterford Township postmaster and owner of a four-wheel drive vehicle, responded to a TV-radio plea from a Clarkston woman who needed a ride for her kidney-dialysis treatment. He drove her to her appointment, waited for her, and drove her back home.

Dearborn police refused a call from a man who wanted them to come and put his snow tires on for him. But they did assist a man who had run out of gas and had suffered frostbite on his feet waiting for assistance.

St. Clair Shores emergency workers used a toboggan to rescue an accident victim in a snowbound subdivision.

Trees on Belle Isle take on the eerie appearance of a Martian landscape after a 1972 ice storm.</

Trees on Belle Isle take on the eerie appearance of a Martian landscape after a 1972 ice storm.


Roseville cancelled a safety course for snowmobilers while Wayne police ignored complaints from residents about snowmobile racers in the streets. “We could’t catch them if we tried,” said Patrolman William Bartels.

Travel agents from Hawaiian Airlines sent five agents to the Dearborn Inn to host a weekend party for travel writers and agents.

Schools closed to the delight of children and Pontiac Motors, Fisher Body and General Motors Truck & Coach closed due to lack of workers.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office averaged 10 calls per minute, mostly from stranded motorists. Deputies used snowmobiles to deliver three women in labor to their hospitals.

The largest seasonal snowfall came in the winter of 1925-26, when a total of 78 inches — nearly twice the annual average of 41.3 inches — were dumped on the city. An 11-inch snowfall on Feb. 25, 1965, cost the area an estimated $70 million in damage, 21 deaths from heart attacks attributed to the snow and six traffic deaths.

 A snow-covered car looks unhappy with its plight after a 1952 storm.

A snow-covered car looks unhappy with its plight after a 1952 storm.


Ice storms have also caused heavy losses but their records are measured in numbers of deaths and homes left powerless. The ice storm of April 9, 1979, left 7 dead and 100,000 without power. On Jan. 3, 1985, 200,000 lost power.

Despite improvements in weather forecasting, Mother Nature occasionally reminds us who is still in charge. And neither global warming nor El Nino can prevent her from occasionally opening the big refrigerator door.

A partial list of some of Detroit’s worst snowstorms:

  • April 6, 1886 — 24.5″
  • Dec. 1-2, 1974 — 19.2″
  • Jan. 26-27, 1978 — 19″
  • March 4-5, 1900 — 16.1
  • Jan. 31-Feb 1, 1878 — 15.7″
  • Feb. 28-March 1, 1900 — 14″
  • Feb. 28-March 1, 1875 — 14″
  • Dec. 18-19, 1929 — 13.8″
  • Feb. 12-13, 1884 — 12.8″
  • Feb. 19, 1900 — 12.6″
  • Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1881 — 12.5″
  • Feb. 9, 1911 — 12.3″
  • March 3-4, 1895 — 12.3″
  • Jan. 13-14, 1927 — 12.1″
  • Jan 30-31, 1982 — 11.8″
  • Jan. 7-8, 1874 — 11.7″
  • Jan. 13-14, 1910 — 11.4″
  • March 4-5, 1899 — 11.4
  • Dec. 19-20, 1973 — 11.2″
  • Feb. 3-4, 1901 — 11.2″
  • Jan. 13-14, 1992 — 11.1″
  • March 7-8, 1931 — 11.1″
  • Feb. 25-26, 1965 — 11″
  • Dec. 4-5, 1898 — 10.6″
  • Dec. 13-14, 1922 — 10″
  • Feb. 4, 1900 — 10″
  • Jan. 25-26, 1978 — 9.7
  •  Tree limbs bend under the weight of a varnish of ice after a 1959 storm. The beauty of winter can vanish quickly for commuters slowed by ice, snow and slush.

    Tree limbs bend under the weight of a varnish of ice after a 1959 storm. The beauty of winter can vanish quickly for commuters slowed by ice, snow and slush.

    (This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

    By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News