The True Story of the Milwaukee Blizzard of 1947

When an intense snowstorm took the city by surprise, people hunkered down and helped each other out.

“Man – as represented by the ordinary Milwaukeean – learned Wednesday night that, while he could build a large city and fill it with modern gadgets, all it would take to stop him would be a driving snowstorm.” – The Milwaukee Journal, January 30, 1947

The bad weather arrived ahead of schedule. By rush hour on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1947, a flurry of wet snow slowed traffic and a burst of galeforce winds whipped Lake Michigan into a frothy mess. By Tuesday night, almost two inches of snow had fallen and the city sent out a fleet of garbage trucks – vehicles that also served as snowplows in the wintertime – to spread sand and salt on the main streets. With a forecast for more snow on Wednesday, the plan was to use the trucks for their normal trash collection duty that morning and convert them for plow duty in the evening.

Temperatures were mild during the morning commute on Wednesday and a light drizzle led to a steady snowfall. The forecast for an inch of snow had been upgraded to several inches and, by noon, the flurry became bad enough that the garbage trucks got recalled to be fitted with plows and the drivers sent home to rest. Report back this evening to clear the streets, the supervisors told them.

But as most Milwaukeeans worked, and as the plow men rested, the storm quickly intensified. The early afternoon snow came down so furiously that visibility Downtown was less than a quarter-mile. By 2:30 p.m., six inches of snow had fallen and many factories and offices in the city prepared to shut down early so that their workers could get home safely. Traffic slowed as more motorists jammed the streets in an effort to beat the storm. By 3 p.m., traffic had come to a standstill on many major streets, with snow already beginning to drift around the idle cars. Armand Zulli worked the night shift at his father’s business, Marine Veteran Ice Cream Company, in Downtown Milwaukee. Shivering locals weren’t craving frozen pops, so he closed early and tried to start his car. It wouldn’t turn over, and the roads were mostly impassable anyway. He started on his walk home to join wife Evelyn on the East Side, but soon thought better of it.

“There was so much snow and so much wind, I thought it was going to blow me off the bridge,” the now 94-year-old says. Rather than risking the treacherous walk, he crashed nearby at his mother’s house on Booth and Center.

Corinne Schuenke, a librarian at The Milwaukee Journal, left the office around 3:45 p.m. With traffic moving slowly, she and a friend decided to catch a movie and wait out the storm. After a Downtown double feature, she emerged from the theater at 8 p.m. to find that the city had nearly shut down. She spent the next three hours trying to find a trolley that was not stuck in the snow.

It would have been hard to design a snowstorm better fit to cripple the city than the storm that struck that Wednesday. The forecast that day called for a steady, but drawn-out, snowfall: about seven inches across 36 hours. The city’s strategy was to strike at the snow in the middle of the storm, overnight on Wednesday, when traffic would be minimal, and to clear the roads in time for the Thursday morning commute. By the time the true scope of the storm began to reveal itself on Wednesday afternoon, it was too late for the city to change tactics.

As Milwaukeeans began to realize the severity of the situation, they were drawn into the streets just in time for the storm to trap them in place. And for the next 24 hours, the storm was free to blanket the city with virtually no resistance at all. The major pieces of Milwaukee’s snow removal system mostly predated the Great Depression, and they proved ill-prepared for so massive and cunning a storm. Nearly 20 inches would fall over a two-day span, leaving some 820 miles of city streets impassable except by sleds. Thousands of men would work thousands of hours to unbind Milwaukee, with the city spending over $1 million – nearly as much as it spent on snow removal for all of 1946 – to clean up what was, and still remains, the most crippling storm in city history.

Cars stuck in the snow on West Kilbourn Avenue. Photo from Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library

“In general, Milwaukeeans concluded as the storm increased in fury, the best place to get where you were going was to stay where you were.” – The Milwaukee Journal, January 30, 1947

As the blizzard built on Wednesday evening, massive back-ups formed in nearly all of the city’s main traffic arteries. The stock of automobiles in the city was mostly a remnant of the constraints of war years – older models with synthetic tires ill-suited for winter driving. As cars became stuck in the snow, drivers abandoned them to seek shelter. These clogs caught other cars and locked up buses and obstructed trolleys. Snow drifts trapped blocked vehicles and ice crusted over streetcar tracks. Near the North Western railroad depot on the lakefront, a single stalled car caused a backup of 14 city buses. Mitchell Air Field closed, passenger trains were halted, and the city’s carferry ships were held in port. By 9 p.m., the city had come to a virtual standstill.

Downtown glowed with streetlights reflecting off the thick, white blanket that covered everything, the air filled with a million fat, round flakes flying nearly horizontally. Disconcerting claps of winter thunder rumbled and muffled lightning strikes cast an eerie pall as the traffic lights dutifully blinked green to yellow to red for cars that could not move. The vicious wind sent frigid blasts of up to 60 mph tearing through the idle streets and whipping up huge drifts of snow. The snow coated every structure, blown sideways against theater marquees, street signs and woolen coats of pedestrians, sticking and freezing as if nature was trying to blot the city from existence.

Thousands of people sat marooned in Downtown office buildings, at their workplaces, or at transportation depots, with hundreds more stranded in stalled cars or on public transportation. A few streams of humanity made their way across the desolate Downtown landscape in search of shelter, drawn to the heated and relatively cozy lobbies of hotels and movie theaters. A foursome trekked in search of respite, singing Christmas carols while they marched. Another man, quite drunk and staggering past a police officer, took joy in taunting the cop when he was warned to get off the streets. “Go away!” the man jeered. “You can’t arrest me. You can’t even get the wagon here.”

Milwaukeeans also proved to be gracious hosts. Every hotel room Downtown was rented by Wednesday night, but hotel managers allowed stranded persons to sleep in their lobbies or banquet halls, even bringing them spare bedding and pillows. Movie theater patrons were allowed to sleep in their seats, with some theaters playing calming lullabies on the house organ. City Hall kept its doors open and more than 50 people spent the night on the floor or on wooden benches. Another 50-plus people slept at the Red Cross building on Water Street.

All across the city, taverns became refuges. Many kept their signs lit to attract those in need of a warm room, hot coffee or food, or even a place to spend the night. Laurence Eklund, a Journal reporter, walked nearly four miles from his stalled car before he tumbled into Rocky’s Tavern at North 50th Street and West Fond Du Lac Avenue. Proprietors Nathan and Ann Rochwerger began taking all comers around 5 p.m. and ended up cooking a pot of chili and a hefty beef roast for their guests. In the morning, Eklund called in his article on the storm to the Journal’s city desk using the Rochwergers’ telephone.

Wrigley’s Restaurant at North Second Street and West Wisconsin Avenue served 1,500 meals during the storm, asking people to pay only what they could. A hamburger shop at Second and Michigan streets served so many people that it ran out of buns and took to serving patties between two cookies.

Countless other people spent the evening in stalled streetcars or trolleys or trains. Evelyn Zulli’s uncle Joe spent the night with coworkers on a stranded streetcar, the 15 line, after finishing their shift at the Robert A. Johnston Company cookie factory on the South Side. Corinne Schuenke, the stranded Journal librarian, spent the night in a trolley that had stalled about a mile from where she had boarded it. Some who attempted to move by foot were taken into private homes or hid out in abandoned cars. Even as the snow poured down, residents came out to check on trapped travelers, offering them food or hot drinks. Julie Guzniczak, who was 9 at the time, remembers her dentist father, Joe, gathering all the men on their Prospect Avenue block. They trudged to nearby Luick Dairy and returned towing toboggans full of milk, bread and butter. They stopped at each house, distributing enough staples to get everyone through. The area had a mix of ethnicities and religions – Irish, German, Orthodox Jews, a Christian Scientist family – but everyone bonded together, the adults keeping everyone fed and safe, the kids bombing down two-story snow hills in a nearby field.

“We’d just been through a war,” says Guzniczak, now 79. “Everybody on the block had somebody involved.”

Linda Vehling, who was stuck on a train from Madison stalled near the yards of the Milwaukee Road, seemed to embody the oddly bright mood of the city in the grim situation. “I refuse to let anything irritate me,” she told a reporter. “This delay has been quite profitable in many ways – I’ve found out how kind people can be.”

Less optimistic than the bravest of the city’s stranded citizens was its crew of snowplow drivers. Despite having some 112 plows at the ready by 11 p.m. Tuesday, the city had only enough men to send about 90 of them into the streets. But it didn’t really matter. By the time the fleet finally saw action, there was almost nothing the plows could do. The streets had become so clogged with snow and abandoned vehicles that all major thoroughfares proved impassible. At the time, Milwaukee employed the “ward” system of plowing, in which snow removal vehicles left form a central location and drove to designated areas that they were tasked with clearing. The average trek for these plow was over two miles. As the plows left the central station that evening, most never even made it to their wards, getting trapped in drifts or stuck behind other vehicles. Only a single, heavier V-style plow and three rotary-style plows (known then as “Sno-Gos,” they were outfitted with a set of rotary blades that resembled a modern snow-blower) made any progress. By early Thursday morning, the ward system had been abandoned and the working plows focused on trying to clear paths for emergency uses. Meanwhile, a fleet of winch-equipped trucks ventured into the storm to try and free the dozens of plow trucks that were now trapped all over the city.

And still, it kept snowing. By the wee hours of Thursday morning, nothing in Milwaukee moved besides the four working plows. Sagging tree branches loomed over power lines, threatening to fall and leave huge swaths of the city without electricity. Fire and emergency vehicles sat locked into snow-bound garages or facing city streets that would be impossible to traverse. On any given night in Milwaukee, traffic moving about the city performed a thousand tasks vital to the safety and security of its people – bringing pregnant women to doctors, injured people to hospitals, medicine to the sick, police to crime scenes, firetrucks to blazes big and small. All of that movement stopped. More than 11 inches of snow had already fallen. Meteorological reports, relayed to the city by radio announcers who were trapped in their studios, suggested that the snow would continue for at least another 12 hours.

“Like a huge white beast with its head caved in, Milwaukee sprawled in the snow Thursday night, quietly waiting to see if it would live or die.” – The Milwaukee Journal, January 31, 1947

As the sun rose on Thursday morning, Milwaukeeans made extraordinary efforts to help neighbors and strangers alike, despite the weather. A dozen or more Milwaukee Ski Club members – men and women, some as young as teenagers – spread out over the city, responding to phone calls of sick or injured persons. Club members dragged two big oxygen tanks over three miles, from an ambulance service warehouse to a desperately ill man on South 56th Street. They brought food, milk and first aid to the elderly and the parents of infants.

Children’s sleds and toboggans proved to be about the most reliable modes of transportation in the days after the storm. At least three expectant mothers arrived at hospitals on sleds (and another eight mothers delivered babies at home, with doctors providing instructions to husbands over the phone). A pair of 14-year-old boys, Dick Thompson and Bernard Clay, performed one of the most celebrated acts of the storm when they found 34-year-old Gladys Friedland, partially paralyzed since birth, trapped in a streetcar at South 14th Street and National Avenue. She had been stuck for over 24 hours and needed to get back to her family home at North Third and West Clarke streets – some four miles away. Without hesitating, the boys carefully loaded her onto a sled and made the slow crawl towards her home. Two-and-a-half hours later, Friedland was reunited with her desperately worried family.

When the snow finally stopped falling on Thursday night, after nearly 36 hours without let-up, the total topped 18 inches in the Milwaukee area. The storm had hit hard all across Wisconsin, with the southern half of the state almost entirely snowed in. It was the result of what meteorologists called
a “panhandle hook” front that ran from New Mexico all the way up to the Midwest. Milwaukee was caught on one of the most treacherous parts of the front, pinned between the low-pressure front on the south and a wall of high pressure and extremely cold air rushing down from Lake Superior and Hudson Bay. Including five deaths in Milwaukee, all caused by over-exertion while clearing snow, 27 deaths nationwide were attributed to the strange weather front.

Even with the storm now over, many people were still stranded. Hundreds remained in hotels or stuck at their workplaces. Virtually every store, office, factory, school or theater in the city was closed and would remain so through the weekend. Mail, service, food delivery and public transportation had all been halted. Fuel trucks, which brought coal to the thousands of homes in the city that used stove heating, were unable to operate, leaving many people in fear of running out and freezing. The Third Ward gas plant, which provided natural gas to one-third of the city’s homes, remained snowed in, just hours away from running out of fuel. The scope of what human kindness could do had its limits. Milwaukee desperately needed a functioning snow removal system.

Frozen streetcars at South Kinnickinnic and East Potter avenues. Photo from Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library

The city had mostly given up on snow removal by Thursday afternoon. With no relief shift to spell the weary drivers – some of whom had been working 18 hours straight – all city plows were recalled but for the half-dozen working to clear a path to the Third Ward gas plant. On Friday, the plows went out again and the city enlisted 2,200 men, many of whom were factory workers who could not get to their plants, for temporary snow-removal work. Still, the work showed dreadfully little progress. “Roar into a drift, bounce and stop. Then reverse, shift, roar forward, hit into the bank again and stop without moving the snow more than a few inches,” wrote a Journal reporter watching a plow on East Keefe Avenue. Eventually the driver gave up. “It just doesn’t go,” he said. “We might as well wait till the sun comes out and melts this town out.”

Still complicated the process were the hundreds of abandoned cars in the streets. It was not until the Saturday after the storm that the Common Council declared a state of emergency, finally granting the city the power to remove the stranded automobiles. On Sunday, the council voted to purchase 13 new snow removal vehicles. The Milwaukee Sentinel had been relentless in its criticisms of city leaders and Mayor John Bohn for their lack of attention to the city’s aging plow fleet. “Perhaps this blizzard showed us, as nothing else could have done, how penurious and unimaginative we have been in the past, how incompetent and leaderless we are today, the Sentinel wrote in a scathing Page One editorial on February 2. “If the blizzard etches this fact deeply on the minds of the voters, it will prove to be a blessing in spite of all the loss, inconvenience, and suffering it caused.”

Bohn and the council passed the buck to the people of the city themselves for not cooperating during the early hours of the storm. “It’s easy to advise, you know, and everybody is willing to do so,” Bohn said, “but few are willing to lend a hand.” In the end, the council declared that no one was to blame for the trouble in the aftermath of the storm, calling it “an act of God.” Yet, they also scrambled to rent $352,000 worth of snow removal equipment and buy another $530,000 in brand-new gear in the weeks after the storm – an allocation greater than the city had spent on snow removal machinery over the 11 previous years combined.

On Monday, schools reopened and most factories and stores resumed their normal hours. But travel around the city was still difficult and most people made their way on foot. Three rotary plows that the council had purchased over the weekend were delivered and the Street and Sanitation Department was given a blank check to proceed with the cleanup. By the end of the week, it was estimated that the work was still only half done, despite the new vehicles and the thousands of temporary workers on shovel detail. In the best-case scenario, side streets and alleyways had a single clear lane, dug out by hand by local residents.

On Monday, Feb. 10, 12 days after the storm hit, the city finally began to clear away the massive banks and drifts that lined the streets. The volume of snow was so great that a warm snap could have put the city at risk for flooding. Truckload after truckload arrived at the Buffalo Street bascule bridge, which was kept half-open, and dumped into the Milwaukee River. For days, the snow got cleared and dumped, while city plows finally made headway in the residential portions of the city.

Milwaukee had been somewhat lucky that the storm’s overall damage wasn’t worse. Five people died of overexertion while shoveling, a surprisingly low total. Only one major fire occurred while the city was snow-bound (firefighters reached it on foot), with no serious crimes or major structural damage reported, though some roofs collapsed. Undertakers even remarked that natural deaths during the storm and its aftermath were fewer than usual. “It was as if Providence took notice of a situation man could not meet,” the Sentinel wrote. Finally, on March 15, 46 days after the storm first hit, the last streets were cleared and the remaining truckloads dumped into the river.

The Great Blizzard of 1947 proved to be the rarest of urban near-disasters. It was an event that exposed a great weakness in the city’s civic structure, and then quickly led to the correction of that weakness. There were valuable lessons to be learned in this storm, and the city used them to better its responses to future storms. The bad weather also brought out the best in Milwaukee’s citizens, a hearty group that retained the sense of togetherness inspired by the war years and the survival skills learned during the Great Depression. For all the trouble caused by the great storm and its aftermath, Milwaukee emerged from it a stronger place. Its legacy can be heard every winter with each passing plow. ◆

‘The Blizzard of 1947’ appears in the December 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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