News people fell over themselves this weekend. They pulled out all the foul weather adjectives in the dictionary. They predicted the snowfall would be "unprecedented."
But they have short memories.
What fell here Saturday can't hold a bag of salt to Baltimore's March 1958 pounding. Now that was a real March snow, a treacherous invasion full of the surprise this weather-notorious month often delivers. Sparking electric wires dangled in the alleys of nearly every neighborhood. Whole sections of the city and entire towns were without electricity.
This violent storm was a shocker. It slithered in on Thursday, March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, when some Catholic schools already had a day off. The storm caught Baltimoreans unaware. Maryland had already been hit with a bad snowfall in February. Another drubbing seemed out of the question so late in the calendar.
The day the storm hit, Northwood Shopping Center merchants were staging a goodbye-to-winter sale. The Arundel ice cream store knocked a nickel off a chocolate soda, lowering its price to 15 cents. The Acme's Virginia Lee doughnuts were 19 cents a dozen. A pound of Silber's bakery cookies was 94 cents. The Clayton Shops had ladies stretch gloves at 88 cents and the Betty Blue gift shop offered English china cup-and-saucer sets for a dollar. Nobody --ed out to stock up on milk, bread and toilet paper.
Baltimoreans calmly watched "Charlie Chan," "Father Knows Best," "The Betty White Show," "Wagon Train," "Tombstone Territory," "I Love Lucy," "I've Got a Secret," "Circle Theater" and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" on their televisions the evening before the big snow hit. Back then, the television weather forecasters had yet to become the powerful masters they are today.
By lunchtime on that Thursday, big wet flakes (some as wide as 2 inches) started falling. The Evening Sun carried a three-paragraph story headlined, "Wet Snow and Sleet Forecast." Schools dismissed classes early. But downtown offices did not let out early. There was the usual rush hour traffic.
By the next morning, the paper proclaimed, "Thousands of Homes Heatless After 20 Inches of Snow Fall; Damage in Millions."
It was a storm system that brought rain to the Carolinas, but met just enough cold air around Baltimore to produce a wet, clinging snow that clung to electric and telephone wires. By the morning of March 20, poles and lines were snapping from downtown to Parkville.
It was a killing storm. A man was found in the street frozen to death near his Eager Street home. A Sweet Air man was crushed to death when a metal roof fell in under the weight of the wet snow. A Navy woman's car plunged off a 90-foot drop at Conowingo on U.S. 1. A Reisterstown man fell over from a heart attack while shoveling a path. A Hagerstown man died while struggling to put chains on his tires.
A Cities Service repair center roof collapsed at Golden Ring Road and Pulaski Highway. It crushed a half-dozen autos there for servicing. Some 15 people escaped injury. The snow also twisted the roof on the Cockrell-Owens auto agency on York Road in Towson.
The snow came so fast that rush-hour traffic was totally blocked on the main arteries. Charles Street was stopped at Cold Spring Lane. Reisterstown Road was impassable as drivers ditched cars at Park Circle. Edmondson Avenue stopped at Hilton Street. Park Heights was shut down just north of Belvedere.
Henry Barnes, the city's commissioner of traffic and transit, heaped criticism on the old Baltimore Transit Co., long his favorite target of scorn. He said the transit company "folded as usual." Other critics heaped contempt on anybody in public office as public works crews labored to patch Baltimore back together. Come the weekend, thousands were still without heat or light. Those with gas stoves huddled in the kitchen.
In the Baltimore of 1958 there were two heavily patronized streetcar lines, the No. 8 (Towson-Catonsville) and the No. 15 (Belair Road). Even during the worst snowstorms, the heavy yellow streetcars usually made it through. Not so this time. Even the streetcar snow sweepers -- large motored cars with swirling circular brooms used only during storms -- labored as long as they could until power lines died. The storm crippled the Catonsville line at Paradise Avenue. The Belair Road line conked out at Nicholas Avenue.
A bunch of trackless trolleys piled up in the snow on Roland Avenue at the base of the Roland Park water tower. People took the storm seriously when there was no public transit for more than 24 hours.
Longtime Baltimoreans have a distinct reverence for March's weather. Some who made it through 1958 compare the storm to the Palm Sunday blast of March 29, 1942, when 20-some inches of wetness piled up. Archbishop Curley got on the radio to warn people to stay away from churches.
This weekend's blizzard was not the worst. It was only characteristic of our March messes.