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Jacques Kelly: Learning to respect Baltimore's March winter weather

Transit traffic jam at Roland and University Parkway. Transit bus stuck in the snow.
Transit traffic jam at Roland and University Parkway. Transit bus stuck in the snow. (Gardina / Baltimore Sun Photo)

A newspaper’s four-word headline told the story: ‘Weather Man Goofs Again.” Baltimore’s 1958 storm taught me a lesson: Beware March weather. It’s a month not to be trusted, no matter how many afternoons touch 60 degrees.

The storm of March 19-21, 1958, was an event that caught the city off its guard and left much of Maryland without heat or electricity.

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The storm seemed that it would be just another one in what already was a heavy snowy season. Baltimore had been battered about a month before, and we thought — wrongly as it turned out — that the February weather event would end out the season.

It began with big wet flakes. They fell fast that Wednesday afternoon and quickly coated roads, rooftops and trees. Before long, streetcar and electric bus overhead wires had fallen. Elm tees in Baltimore’s northern and northwestern suburbs — Roland Park, Ashburton and Forest Park — started crashing down. Whole sections of Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods — Northwood and Loch Raven Village — lost power as utility poles fell.

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Located behind the Mount Olivet Cemetery on Font Hill Avenue, the 52-acre campus of the SEED School of Maryland is home to students in grades six to 12 who arrive each Sunday evening from communities stretching from Salisbury to Frederick.

What began as wet snow turned treacherous as the evening temperatures dropped and a hard freeze set in. I watched as the power lines to my home were weighted down with thick, frozen snow. I was told I could not take out my sled. There were too many downed wires crackling along my normal sledding route.

As people lost power, they tried to improvise heat. A house caught fire on North Broadway and killed an 18-month-old baby. Three children in an Annapolis household perished in a flash fire

Soon the lighted-hearted tone of the first news stories changed. The snow was called “one of the worst storms since the turn of the century.”

There were stories about a newfound “pioneer spirit” — families were roasting potatoes in fireplaces and digging out Christmas candles for illumination.

In 1958, backyard grilles were newly popular and some thought they could warm their homes using charcoal, but neglected to ventilate the burning coals. Whole families were sickened as they were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes.

“They were keeping themselves warm near their charcoal fueled fireplace when they were overcome,” said a Sun news report of a Sherwood Avenue family. A Fire Department ambulance took the husband, wife and two children to Union Memorial Hospital, where they recovered.

By the following Sunday, the weather became spring-like. The news stories changed to “Roof materials, spouting demand up.”

Another March storm arrived four years later, but its effect on Baltimore was negligible — just a light snow. It was another story along the Atlantic coast. The spring tides and a powerful nor’easter struck from the Carolinas through New England, March 6-8, 1962. Wild, freakish weather sat over the Mid-Atlantic and battered the beaches and destroyed hotels, vacation homes and boardwalks.

A couple of weeks later, my family made an off-season trip to Rehoboth Beach, Del., to view the damage. We drove down Oliver Avenue to the place where an apartment house we’d lived in during the summer stood and found a pile of wood and a single room left, a small chamber where my mother usually placed a baby crib. Our sturdy wicker baby carriage that we stored over the winter near the fuel tanks apparently floated out to sea with the rest of the Sussex Apartments.

A patrolling Delaware National Guardsman allowed me, a curious 12-year-old let out of school for the day — to walk along the beach and see the damage. The erosion was staggering. No boardwalk remained. The buildings where I had bought ice cream cones and played pinball machines the summer before were just not there. The storm’s fury exposed old shipwrecks too.

That day, while I was surveying the wreckage, my family signed a lease for another summer rental. We arrived the last Saturday in June. A few weeks later, I stood on a new boardwalk and watched as the final nail was being driven.

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