Looking back on the spring of 1951

Central Alberta has just experienced one of the snowiest winters on record and a surprisingly cold February and March.

While there has been lots of talk of the winter of 2013-2014 being the worst on record, harsh winters are actually common in this part of the world.

Moreover, while there are hopeful signs of spring, some of the worst snowstorms on record have happened in springtime. One example of a challenging winter which ended with a late, cold and snowy spring occurred more than 60 years ago in 1950-1951.

The winter got off to a brisk start in November 1950. There was a slight warm spell in December, but the weather soon turned very cold and snowy again. For three consecutive months, more than 30 cm. of snow fell each and every month.

Towards the end of January, a bad blizzard hit. More than 15 cm. of snow fell in two days. High winds created huge drifts. Conditions got so bad that the provincial Department of Highways was forced to suspend plowing until the winds subsided. As it was, two plows got stranded, one at Alix and another at Bentley.

After the storm finally ended, the Municipal District (County) of Red Deer announced that it had purchased a new “blower” type of snowplow to try and keep the rural roads open.

Conditions remained treacherous, both in the rural areas and in the City. In one bad accident, a truck rear-ended another at the top of the South Hill. One of vehicles burst into flames. The occupants were severely injured.

Conditions turned even worse in early March. Temperatures fell to their lowest levels of the winter. On March 8, the weather station in Red Deer recorded -40 ͦ c. There were reports of temperatures as low as -50 ͦ c. west of Sylvan Lake.

On Thursday, March 15, another terrible blizzard hit. There was lots of snow and very high winds again. The Penhold Airport reported gusts as high as 122 k.p.h. Visibility dropped to zero. News reports stated that Central Alberta was caught in a “paralytic vise”.

Drifts grew as high as 4 metres. Moreover, the high winds packed the snow into the consistency of concrete. Plows worked non-stop to reopen the major traffic arteries. However, the storm was more than they could handle. One rural plow was only able to move 5 km. in 24 hours.

After the storm abated, bulldozers were brought in to try and clear the roads. However, many operators found it difficult to make a dent in the hard-packed drifts. Finally, a decision was made to leave several rural roads and City side-streets uncleared until the onset of spring made them passable again.

There were at least two tragedies from the storm. A child died at Bentley when a snow bank collapsed and buried him. A man in North Red Deer died while trying to shovel out his driveway.

The City issued a statement thanking the Public Works Department for its “Herculean job of snow removal this winter.” Another commentator wrote that while “streets have been bad and sidewalks nearly impossible for walking for the past few days, it takes little imagination to see what the roads and walks would have been like without the steady efforts of the public works crews”. The hope was expressed that “both motorists and pedestrians will be generous in expressing their appreciation”.

Finally, spring came and the snow began to quickly melt away. Then, a new worry raised its head –flooding.