March 1958 blizzard was the worst

I get jittery about March weather.

Two of the most damaging storms I've ever experienced arrived in the month that ushers in spring. The St. Joseph's Day Snow of March 19, 1958, was easily the worst winter weather ordeal I've seen. And the brutal March 6-7, 1962, storm devastated the Maryland and Delaware Atlantic coast although it didn't bring so much snow. And before my time, there was the blizzard on Palm Sunday, March 29, 1942.


No Baltimore snow has ever scared me the way the one in March 1958 did. The snow was 2 feet deep. Several people who tried to shovel it had heart attacks and died. Live electric wires dangled in alleys. About 100,000 homes were without lights or heat for about five days.

Like all freak March weather, the 1958 snowstorm was unexpected. The morning weather forecast made no mention of snow. But by afternoon, light rain had changed into big wet snowflakes, some 2 inches across. The snow fell for 28 hours.


Under the weight of the wet snow, it didn't take long for trees to start snapping -- on Charles Street, all over Roland Park, in Parkville, Hamilton, Mount Washington and Forest Park. Before long, electric power lines and transformers fell. Roofs, porches and sheds gave way.

How well I remember standing in our warm kitchen (we had heat, many did not) and watching the power lines attached to the poles in the alley. After a few hours, they had sunk so low they looked more like wash lines than high-voltage cables.

The vacuum tubes in the old Bakelite Philco gave off an orange glow as WBAL Radio's Galen Fromme reported the damage in a voice that bespoke trouble. Some 100,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers were without service for days. Forty-five thousand phones went dead. The entire city of Frederick was without electricity.

You could hear the noise as the snow caused a back porch to collapse or fall to a roof from another nearby surface. Electric poles snapped and sent orange sparks flying. Live wires buzzed pools of melted snow.

The weight of the snow caused metal garages to buckle and snap. The popular 1950s-style aluminum awnings were breaking like match sticks. A main high-voltage power line, supported by a 70-foot tower, collapsed at the Safe Harbor hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River. It was a major source of power for the city.

Although this was Baltimore before the Beltway and Jones Falls Expressway, the suburbs were rapidly opening up. We drove on the existing main thoroughfares -- Reisterstown and York roads, Edmondson Avenue, Pulaski Highway and Hanover Street. But life seemed to have stopped. Northwest Baltimore was cut off completely from the rest of the city.

In those days, more people rode public transit. But even the usually unfailing streetcars, which had their own massive snow sweepers, were idled by the snow. Trees fell across the No. 8 tracks near Paradise Avenue on the Towson-to-Catonsville line. Downed electric wires short-circuited the No. 15 Overlea-Walbrook Junction route at Belair Road and Nicholas Avenue. It took nearly a week for some bus lines to resume normal business.

Henry Barnes, the city's traffic director, was quoted as saying, "The transit company folded, as usual."


Even the big red trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad capitulated that last full day of winter. There was no service at all between New York and Washington after a power failure at Havre de Grace. Six passenger trains were stranded there.

The storm left nine Marylanders dead. One East Baltimore man was discovered frozen on the street. A shed collapsed on a Cecil County farmer, who struggled from underneath the snow and debris and made it to his porch. That too fell in under the weight of the snow and did in the luckless man.

In all, 56 people died from Virginia to Maine.

So, when weather forecasters talk about the possibility of a March snow, I take their words seriously.