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Canada is no stranger to snowstorms, and there have been some epic snowstorms in Canada’s past. As many great snowstorms as there have been in Canada, few rank as epic or as powerful than the snowstorm that hit southern Ontario in 1977.
While the storm hit the northeast United States much harder, Ontario was still heavily impacted with record amounts of snow falling throughout southern Ontario.
On Jan. 28, 1977, a Friday, as commuters were driving to and from work, the snow began to fall in southern Ontario without any warning. Zero visibility quick ensued and many drivers had to deal with blowing and drifting snow that made many roads impassable. Many vehicles had to be abandoned, and looters quickly began going to cars and taking out the radios. One truck was also looted of all its pop.
The wind blowing at the time reached 130 kilometres an hour and it took only a couple of hours for 10 metres of snow to accumulate in some areas.
Many areas in the south were hit hard, and on that Friday night 250 people were stranded in the International Nickel Company plant in Port Colborne. Several schools also served as a place for students to take refuge from the storm. A total of 1,000 students were stranded in schools over night in Port Colborne. In the entire Niagara region, it is estimated 2,000 students were stuck at their school on Friday night and many would not get home until Sunday.
Many of the schools knew about the storm coming as a blizzard warning had been issued. Principal Bret Murphy at Wainfleet South School told his teachers that students should stay home but he was waiting for confirmation from the board. Confirmation came at 10:30 a.m., but by that point students had already arrived. Snow was covering classroom windows and getting in through the cracks in outside doors. Students were told to get ready to go home and two buses showed up and departed with children. A third bus didn’t show up.
By the evening, with students and teachers realizing they would not be going home, people on nearby Burnaby Road came to help on skis and snowmobiles. They brought with them blankets, food and made phone calls to families.
A total of ten teachers and 44 students were trapped at the school for the night. Things began to get very cold due to the hydro being off, so all students were put into one classroom with their snowsuits on. For the next two days, neighbours would continue to help the school by bringing food and transporting supplies as needed, while also getting in touch with families.
“I’ve seen lots of snow and many snowbanks during my life, but nothing before or since compares to the mountains that had built up on both sides of the road, between Burnaby Road and The Village,” said Mrs. Rhoda Marr, teacher at the school.
At Winger School, things were worse as 175 students were trapped in the school overnight. Help came from those around the school, and a lot of soup, eggs, hot dogs and hot chocolate were cooked up. Staff members worked hard to keep the students happy and entertained. It was not until 5 a.m. on Sunday that the storm subsided and the students could go home to their families.
The Kitchen family, who lived along Highway 3, watched as the snow began to fall around their home. Around 11:30 a.m., a knock came at their door and they were told an accident had happened just out front of the house. With Dave Kitchen going out to help, he brought their former neighbour in who had suffered a minor injury to his head.
Within the next few hours, as more and more cars became stranded on the highway, 32 people were in the house. That Friday evening, all the blankets, sheets and rugs were being used to keep everyone warm with the power out.
By Sunday, the army truck had arrived, bringing school children home, and snow plows began to clear a path through the streets.
According to Jasmine Kitchen, her father, Charles Overholt, said that he had never seen a storm like that in his life. Considering he was 88-years-old at the time, that is quite a significant thing to say.
With roads impassable, it was left to snowmobiles to transport aid and provide much-needed transportation. A total of 60 snowmobiles were enlisted by the Niagara Regional Police Service alone, along with 15 four-wheel drive vehicles, so that food and medication could be delivered. Radio stations also helped out, allowing people to call in and state if they needed aid or help during the storm.
The Canadian Forces quickly responded and worked under the direction of the police. In St. Catharines, after aid was requested by the mayor, an Army Reserve Battalion was sent in to begin finding stranded motorists. In the Niagara Falls region, a total of 156 reserves militia and nine regular force soldiers helped out with disaster relief. In the London, Ontario area, the reserves and a 900-man infantry battalion helped out.
The storm hit the hardest along the Long Beach, Wainfleet and Lowbanks area. The most extreme conditions were found at the lake shore, with conditions improving as little as three kilometres inland.
Several residents reported severe damage, including one that had his window broken by wind, followed by snow quickly piling up inside his house. Many people dealt with similar issues, as well as the loss of power and heat. Residents were required to burn furniture in order to stay warm.
The amount of snow that fell was so extreme that the snow reached the power lines in the Wainfleet area and there are reports of people simply stepping over the power lines. Chimneys were often the only thing that could be seen of a house with the amount of snow that had fallen. Drifts of up to 45 feet were reported in Wainfleet and Lowbanks. In some areas, the drifts did not melt until well into the first week of June.
Plowing of the roads was a slow process, with some areas taking days to be plowed out. One resident was stranded for 19 days before snow plows could reach them.
A total of two people died in the storm.
One interesting thing about the blizzard in the Niagara region was that nine months later, there was a marked increase in the number of births in the area. According to records, there was an 18 per cent increase in births.