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The Blizzard Of 1960

The decade of the 1960s began with a bang in Watauga County. More specifically, it began with a blizzard.

The winter of 1959-60 began normally enough. The first snow fell in November, and 19 inches was reported by the start of the New Year. That was slightly more than average, but not enough to notice. Then January came and just 8.5 inches of snow fell, which was well below normal.

And then it started. Beginning in February and continuing well into March, heavy snow fell every Wednesday. It happened like clockwork. Thirty inches of snow came down in February, but that seemed minor compared to the 51 inches that fell in March. In those two months, just under seven feet of snow poured down on the High Country.

What accompanied these storms was even worse. Temperatures remained below freezing continually, preventing thawing. The mean temperature for February 1960 at Grandfather Mountain was a bone-chilling 24.4 degrees, eight degrees colder than the year before and 10 degrees colder than the same month in 1961. Then it really got cold. The mean temperature in March on Grandfather was an all-time record low of 19.8 degrees. The average over the last 43 years is 36.0. Of course the record for that month is incomplete: in March 1960, workers could only reach the top of the mountain nine out of 31 days. Add to this strong winds and there was the making of disaster.

The heavy snow innundated all efforts to clear roads and streets. The situation was similar to the first few days of the infamous "Snow Hurricane" of 1993, but it lasted for weeks on end. In towns, the streets became impassable and there was simply no place to push the huge piles of snow. In the rural areas, all transportation shut down and massive drifts covered mature apple trees in some areas. Whole homes were covered. In Boone, one woman froze to death trying to walk from the road to her home after a short shopping trip.

Children were trapped in schools at times, and there seemed to be no end to the misery. Finally, the state stepped in. Traveling by helicopter, the American Red Cross and National Guard arrived. Heavy snowmaking equipment was rushed in as well as food. The choppers dropped supplies in rural areas.

There was humor amidst the problems. A classic mountain story, possibly true, possibly not, comes from this great series of storms. A Red Cross team discovered an isolated cabin and landed their chopper to see if the family there was alright. They went up to the door and knocked, and were greated by an elderly woman. "We're from the Red Cross, ma'm," one said. "I'm sorry," she replied, "but we can't give anything this year. It's been a hard winter."

True or not, the story reflects a reality of the Blizzard of 1960: the really rural families, who still put up food for the winter and had been reliant on electricity for a decade or less fared far better than their neighbors in towns. Until factories and regular work arrived in places like Boone, most people prepared for and sat out the worst storms. Old-timers then spoke of major snowstorms earlier in the century, of which we have accurate records, that may have been as heavy but produced little damage.

The thaw finally came in April, even though that month produced another 3.5 inches of snow. When it was all over, 112 inches of snow had fallen that winter.

That record stood until the winter of 1995-96, when 116 inches of snow fell on the region. This time the largest amount was in January (41.5 inches) and blizzard conditions were not reported. Thanks to improved snow removing equipment - relatively little was available in 1960 here - life continued pretty much as normal.

Heavy snows have come and gone in the 40 years since the winter of 1959-60. The record of 51 inches in March 1960 still stands as the most ever for that month, and stands second (behind 54 inches in January 1976) in the list of heaviest monthly snowfalls for the area.

A generation after the last flake fell, the Blizzard of 1960 remains the standard by which all High Country winter weather is measured.