Alex Palou holds on to win Detroit Grand Prix

Michigan’s blizzard of ’78 retains power to captivate

Mark Naida
Special to The Detroit News

Abandoning their cars on freeways, snow-blinded motorists stumbled through the darkness searching for shelter. At home, downed electrical lines forced families to gather around fireplaces as snow drifts blacked-out windows. They lit candles and waited for the storm to subside.

Snow is piled high around a trapped car at 54 Monroe in Detroit during the great snowfall of 1978.

It was 40 years ago when this storm — known to many as “The Great Blizzard of 1978” — affected Americans from Wisconsin to Massachusetts. It was a snowstorm more easily measured in feet than inches.

“The most extensive and very nearly the most severe blizzard in Michigan history raged January 26, 1978 and into part of Friday January 27,” National Weather Service meteorologist C. R. Snider said on Jan. 30, 1978.

In Michigan, wind gusts ripped across the state at 50 to 70 mph, downing power lines and forming massive snow drifts topping 20 feet in height. Fierce wind caused already freezing wind chills to plummet to 60 degrees below zero and whiteout conditions persisted for several hours. A ship recorded a 111 mph wind gust over Lake Erie.

Snow buried as many as 100,000 cars that were abandoned by their owners on Michigan freeways. Drifts blocked all major roads between Detroit and Ann Arbor for nearly 18 hours.

“It was one of the larger winter storms we have seen. It wasn’t the strongest storm we have ever seen in Michigan, but the blizzard conditions — the low pressure, arctic air and massive amount of snow — created the perfect storm,” National Weather Service meteorologist James Keysor said.

Two low-pressure systems, one traveling north from the Gulf of Mexico and one traveling southeast from North Dakota, collided over the Great Lakes, prompting meteorologists to issue blizzard warnings during the evening of Jan. 25, 1978.

While heavy snow began to cover most of southern Michigan just after midnight, some parts of southeast Michigan were still seeing rain. Detroit Metropolitan Airport reported at 1 a.m. Jan. 26 that the temperature was still above freezing at 36 degrees.

But later that evening, the swirling low-pressure systems dropped as much as 30 inches of snow in some parts of the state.

According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Gov. William G. Milliken declared a state of emergency and called on the Michigan National Guard to aid stranded motorists and local road crews. Many were hospitalized from exposure to frigid temperatures as homes lost power and heat. The storm was deadly, causing traffic crashes and heart failures as people cleared the snow.

Record snowfall for a 24 hour period included 19.2 inches in Grand Rapids, 30 inches in Muskegon, 9.9 inches in Flint, and 8.2 inches in Detroit.

The blizzard caused the University of Michigan to cancel classes for the first time in 140 years. It also capsized the USS Allegheny, which was stationed in Traverse City for use as a training ship by students at Northwestern Michigan College.

People try to dig out their cars after the blizzard. Drifts blocked all major roads between Detroit and Ann Arbor for nearly 18 hours.

Thomas Schmidlin, a professor of geology at Kent State University in Ohio, wrote about the storm in his book “Thunder in the Heartland,” and said a family legend made him want to explore the storm further.

“My father and uncle were trapped and had to be rescued by the military,” he said. “They were on their way to work at the factory and had to take shelter at an elementary school. They were brought home the next night. It was a story told again and again in my family.”

The snowfall caused issues of transportation all across the state, especially for hospitals.

At the time of the blizzard, Richard Hiltz was the president of Mercy Memorial Hospital System in Monroe. During the storm, he was stuck at the hospital with his coworkers for three days.

He said the hospital asked those with four-wheel drive vehicles or snowmobiles to transport employees from their snowed-in homes to work. To clear the parking lot of the seven-foot-tall snowdrifts, the hospital had to hire dump trucks and front-end loaders to take the snow away and pile it by the river.

“A big issue was we only had two or three days worth of food,” Hiltz said. “The state police told us that a bread truck had overturned on I-75. So we called the bread company and asked if we could have the bread if we could tow it to the hospital, and they said sure.”

When the roads cleared and Hiltz returned home, his family was sitting beside a roaring fire in their den burning kerosene lamps and working on puzzles.

After the storm, school closures lasted for a week or more, and snow-bound families rushed into grocery stores for supplies and children bundled up to play in the snow.

The cold only worsened in February, causing the deep snow to linger until April.

Though winter temperatures have only lately risen above freezing this winter, the snowfall totals and windchill will not be near the extremity of the winter of 1978. But 40 years later, the memory of the blizzard remains alive.

“It was one of those events that overwhelms society,” Schmidlin said.