The agony of dealing with a late spring

Michael Dawe

Michael Dawe

Unfortunately, this past winter seems to have hung on forever. Cold weather has lasted until well into March. There have been new dumps of snow while everyone wants to see the old snow rapidly melt away. The continual snow shoveling is getting to be a real chore.

A few people are starting to ask if this is a record late spring. Unfortunately, the answer is no. There have been many winters that have dragged on into late April and, on a few occasions, into the early part of May.

One such long hard winter occurred in 1919-1920. The first snow fell in late September. While much of that snow melted in a brief mild spell, a sharp blizzard struck on Oct. 8. Winter was now here to stay.

By November, temperatures were plunging as low is – 37C. There initially wasn’t much snow. However, this meant that the frost went very deep into the ground.

Heavy snow came after Christmas. In the first four months of the year, more than 120 cm. of the white stuff came down. In the third week of January, temperatures plunged to well below – 40C and stayed there for more than a week.

Old-timers commented that it was the worst cold experienced since the brutal winter of 1906-1907. Several public meetings were either cancelled or postponed. Only the local curlers seemed to be willing to press ahead with their bonspiels.

A serious tragedy almost occurred on Jan. 22 when a fire broke out in the Soldiers’ Hospital (old Alberta Ladies College) on the East Hill. Despite the very low temperatures, the Red Deer Fire Department was able to contain the blaze to the east wing. The patients were given temporary shelter in the nearby machine shop and garage. Fortunately, they did not have to be transferred in the brutal cold to either the Memorial Hospital on the South Hill or the Armouries downtown.

February brought little relief, as temperatures often remained around -20C. Because of the ongoing cold and the early onset of winter that had curtailed the fall harvest, feed for livestock began to run low. The local newspapers were soon full of ads from local farmers urgently seeking oats or hay for their animals.

In early March, temperatures plunged to – 36C again. Even more snow fell.

Conditions on the farms became critical. One farmer in the Dickson area related how he had been able to purchase a half wagonload of oat straw to feed his animals. However, as he proceeded home, he was besieged by the starving cattle from neighbouring fields, desperate to get at the food in the back of the wagon. Reluctantly, the man had to beat the animals back to save the little feed he had.

At the end of March, the newspapers reported the first sightings of bluebirds, hopefully a sign that spring was finally coming. However, instead the first week of April brought more misery. Temperatures dropped to nearly -30C on April 2. It was not until April 10 that conditions finally improved and it remained above freezing for an extended period of time.

While the warmer weather was sincerely welcomed, a new set of problems emerged. As the heavy banks of snow began to melt, with the ground still frozen, much of the water became run-off instead of being absorbed into the soil.

The melt water began to build in the Red Deer River and Waskasoo Creek. With temperatures finally reaching 10 degrees above, the ice went out on the river on Sunday, April 25. However, there was still so much ice upstream that another break-up swept past the City on the following Tuesday.

On Wednesday, April 28, Waskasoo Creek went into one of the worst floods in history. The floodwaters surged across the east end of Ross Street towards the north side of Gaetz Church and the old creek bed running westwards along 52 St.

City crews worked feverishly to build dikes along 48 Ave. to keep the flood from sweeping into the downtown core along Gaetz Ave. After several hours of hard work, the flood began to ease. Extensive damage to downtown businesses had been narrowly adverted.

People heaved a big sigh of relief, at least until the second day of May, when another 12 cm. of wet snow fell. Truly warm dry weather did not appear until the end of June.