Looking back on the blizzard of '67 in Oak Park

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By Bill Dwyer

Editor's note: This story first ran in January of 2007 on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 blizzard.

Forty years ago today Oak Park and River Forest were basking in a 65-degree heat wave, the third day temperatures had soared above 60 degrees. That fact tends to be forgotten by some, even people who vividly remember what happened over the ensuing several days.

On Jan. 25, a low front moved into the Midwest, dragging up warm Gulf Coast air, laden with massive amounts of moisture, which hit the Chicago area with rain and 50 mph winds. Over the next 24 hours the moist warm air collided with much colder air and rose above it. Fat droplets of water then began slowly sifting downward. The result was snow--lots and lots of it.

The Chicago area had practically no warning of what would be the largest two day snowfall in its history. After predicting flurries but little accumulation the night before, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin at 3:45 a.m. on Jan. 26 predicting "up to four inches."

Ironically, the Jan. 26, 1967 issue of the Oak Leaves being tossed onto porches around Oak Park that Thursday morning featured a large photo of the park district's new snow-making machine blowing snow onto the bare sledding hill at Ridgeland Common.

"The Park District of Oak Park used a snow-making machine to supply the missing white stuff on the sledding hill at Ridgeland Common," the caption read.

There would be no lack of white stuff that morning, however, nor for over a month afterwards. The snow began falling at 5:02 a.m. on Jan. 26, and by the time the general population heard of the revised weather forecast from the newspapers and radio later that morning, there were at least four inches already on the ground. When it finally stopped 29 hours later at 10:10 a.m. on Friday, Oak Park, River Forest and the rest of northern Illinois lay paralyzed under a thick 23-inch blanket of frozen white powder, blown into drifts as high as six feet by 25 mph winds. An estimated 75 million tons of snow fell on Chicago alone. Chicago dumped thousands of tons in Lake Michigan and sent many more tons south in empty railroad cars- reportedly to the delight of kids down south who'd never seen snow before. The city also piled it up in 30- to 40-foot mounds in the parking lot by the Columbus Park golf center.

Oak Park could only pile it up between garages and on parkways and public parks wait for the white stuff to melt.

The National Weather Service declined to officially label the storm a "blizzard," since, in technical terms, the temperatures weren't cold enough. It sure felt and looked like a blizzard, though, and it would be just the beginning, part of a larger weather pattern that wreaked havoc with the Chicago area's daily life for over a month. The "storm of the Century" was far more than just a two day event. From Jan. 23 through Feb. 24, Mother Nature suffered from meteorological bi-polar disorder, swinging from warm to bitter cold, from rain to snow and from winds as high as 62 mph in the western suburbs.

The villages would be hit with another foot of snow over the next 10 days, as Oak Park and River Forest endured one of the snowiest and coldest winters on record.

Streets were impassable for days, and garbage collection was suspended while garbage trucks were diverted to snowplowing duties. Most grocery stores ran out of basic food items like bread and milk, leading to mini-panic among some. One journalist described people's behavior as "heroism mixed with hoarding."

The effects of the snow were unprecedented. Midway Airport closed for three days while O'Hare Airport, which had previously been shut down for nine hours on the 24th due to fog, was again forced to cease operations and didn't re-open until four days later on Monday morning.

The relatively new Eisenhower Expressway system was reduced to a windswept tundra littered with hundreds of vehicles, half-buried by drifts. Snowplows were called in from as far away as Iowa to help clear the crucial artery. But it would be days before many commuters again trusted the expressway as a viable thoroughfare.

Commuters making their way back from downtown jobs had a range experiences. Some got home with relatively little difficulty. Others spent hours making their way back home from work.

Rapid transit proved to be an invaluable asset as Oak Park and the City of Chicago struggled to clear streets of mountains of snow. Media reports noted that the elevated trains were "packed" with commuters, and for the most part moving on schedule. The Congress line, (now the Blue Line) was knocked out of service for several hours on Sunday by drifting snow around Central Avenue and by a derailment in the Desplaines rail yard in Forest Park.

Chicago had to deal with an estimated 20,000 abandoned cars and buses. Thousands more were left buried under the snow on Oak Park and River Forest streets. Legally parked cars presented a major obstacle for snow clearance efforts, but it was abandoned vehicles left literally in the middle of intersections and roadways that proved to be the biggest headache. Streets had to be plowed before tow trucks could even get close to abandoned cars. Oak Park Police Captain R. Hutchinson was kept busy between assigning tows and managing the necessary paperwork related to the 119 cars that were towed to the Westgate garage through Feb. 5. Owners also had to be notified of their car's new location, and the Secretary of State's office was contacted about cars that went unclaimed.

River Forest police towed cars to the Wieboldt's garage on Harlem Avenue by the train tracks, while Forest Park officials utilized its four-block-long park along Harrison Street as both a parking lot and a place to dump excess snow.

A letter written to Oak Park Police Chief Fremont Nestor by one angry resident illustrates what officials and residents faced during the worst of the storm and its aftermath.

The man complained that his nephew's car had been unfairly ticketed and towed from the 600 block of North Linden. That block, he stated, hadn't been plowed as of Sunday night and many other cars were on the street. He accused the department of singling out his nephew's car.

"If you pull one car, why not all of them?" he asked in capital letters.

Nestor wrote back that the young man's Ford had been towed because it was blocking the street, not because it had been singled out.

"The Police Department had available to it two tow trucks and one caterpillar tractor to clear off all of the streets," Nestor wrote. "I am sure you can understand that no community in the country had enough equipment under this type of emergency."

Numerous residents, Nestor noted, had actually thanked the police for providing towing services that they had been unable to find anywhere else.

The sheer weight of the snowfall collapsed several roofs in the two villages. The morning of Jan. 27, a large section of the roof over the West Towns bus garage collapsed, damaging numerous buses and at least three cars parked alongside the structure. Smaller garages around Oak Park and River Forest also collapsed or suffered damage under the strain of tons of snow.

Businesses suffered their share of troubles as well. Thursday night, police discovered that a plate glass window at the Village Bakery, 200 block of Harrison, had broken under the force of high winds. The bakery's owner had to make his way through the storm from Elmhurst in the middle of the night to deal with it. By Friday morning, there was also at least one report of a downed power line.

Not just any storm

As Thursday morning moved toward noon, it was becoming apparent that this wasn't just any snowstorm. People slipped and slid about the village early on, which slowed to a laborious trudge as the snow deepened. At times the stiff, gusting winds lowered visibility to just a few feet.

As the day wore on, people endured snow-related injuries ranging from minor to life threatening. Over at Hawthorne Elementary School (now Julian Middle School), crossing guard Adelle Camp ventured out into the blizzard around 12:15 to return to her post at Ridgeland and Washington. As she reached the sidewalk, she slipped on the icy snow and landed on her spine. Police transported her to the hospital for X-rays and treatment.

She would soon be joined by others. Several hours later, a 72-year-old man fell under his car while trying to help push it out of a snow bank, but luckily suffered only a bruised knee. Around that same time, a janitor slipped and injured his back while shoveling snow from the rear of First United Methodist Church.

That night a man suffered a serious laceration to his left ankle when he got his foot caught in a snow blower's blades while clearing snow. The following morning, another man suffered multiple lacerations to several fingers while trying to clear out a clogged snow blower. Another person was hospitalized after being hit on the head by a falling icicle.

Others suffered more serious injuries. Police and fire personnel assisted at least a dozen heart attack victims, including eight who died. By Monday, West Suburban Hospital's emergency room received five people dead on arrival, all older people stricken while shoveling snow. Another 22 people were treated for weather-related conditions such as falls and exposure and heart attacks.

Oak Park was roundly criticized for perceived failures to clear snow from its streets in a timely fashion (see sidebar). Oak Park Village Manager Harris Stevens explained that the sheer volume and weight of the snow caused breakdowns with much of the village's equipment, and frontloader bulldozers were rented to deal with task.

River Forest, by comparison, reportedly had most of its streets cleared initially by Thursday night. However, the continuing snowfall and ongoing winds required the task be repeated numerous times. Fire, police and Public Works personnel in River Forest were later praised for working exceedingly long hours battling the snow. Some reportedly put in 72 straight hours on the job before going home.

There were no serious fires in Oak Park during the main four days of the snowstorm, and only one in River Forest--on the 300 block of Forest. But fire and police personnel were kept busy throughout the long week providing ambulance services for heart attack victims and other snow-related injuries, plus another dozen or so pregnant women trying to reach the hospital. Police from both villages were also busy transporting doctors to and from hospitals for days after the blizzard.

As the snow faded to a halt mid-Friday morning, the sun shone down on a surreal, still landscape of thick virgin expanses of snow. The wind had sculpted an array of shapes over and around trees, garages, porches, fences and cars. Autos accessible on one side were covered to their roofs by drifts. On most side streets, lonely sets of tracks were the only evidence of a human presence.

The cultural life of the villages pretty much stopped. Sports events at the high school were cancelled, including OPRF's home basketball game versus Proviso East, and Fenwick's game at Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

The snow stopped volunteers from going door to door, collecting donations for the annual Heart Fund campaign, which extended its campaign into March. Meanwhile, the start of the annual Community Chest fundraising effort had to be postponed until Feb. 18.

It's unlikely Oak Park Village Players rehearsed much for their latest play, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which was scheduled to open Feb. 10.

Best of behavior, worst of behavior

The storm brought the best--and the worst--in people, with some taking advantage, and others making tremendous efforts to be helpful.

Fair Oaks Pharmacy at Ridgeland and Chicago avenues worked through the night delivering drugs to customers on foot. Through both villages, people helped neighbors plow, blow and dig out. The Oak Park Public Library suspended all overdue fines between Jan. 26 and Feb. 2.

"Three cheers for wonderful young people!" one letter to the editor began, praising the "eager, cheerful, spirited, tireless, crazy, wonderful kids" who helped older people deal with the snow.

"They were magnificent," Donald K. Knable wrote in praise of the youth he witnessed shoveling old folks' walks, pushing stalled cars, and "digging furiously in alleys so that people could get in and out of their garages."

Boy Scouts from Troop 22 and other groups set to clearing snow from around fire hydrants in Oak Park.

Other kids were, unfortunately, simply juvenile. One woman on the 500 block of Jackson Boulevard complained to police that a group of 20 or so kids had pushed large quantities of snow back onto the side walks she had spent $32 having cleared. There were also reports to Oak Park police of teens looting abandoned cars and of kids later dropping snow and ice onto passing cars from expressway overpasses.

Both Oak Park hospitals benefited from the kindness of neighbors. People around Oak Park Hospital pitched in to assist hospital staff with the gargantuan task of removing snow and dealing with various other challenges.

Several fathers present at the hospital while their wives gave birth reportedly stayed on to help operate the laundry facility after many staff couldn't make it to work. And five Navy corpsmen manned stations in the kitchen, preparing and serving meals.

Over at West Suburban Hospital, "hundreds" of people volunteered to do everything from kitchen work to shoveling snow to feeding patients from Thursday night through Sunday.

"The hospital has always been blessed with an active group of volunteers," said Hospital Administrator Wendell H. Carlson gratefully, "but this was something magnificent."

As Friday wore on, residents who ventured outside were treated to the once in a lifetime site of people trudging ahead of sleds, loaded with children making their way along the middle of Ridgeland Avenue. Others took cross-country skies on the deep cover, including Dr. George Krawzof, head of West Suburban Hospital's X-Ray department, who skied to work that Friday.

Many people braved thigh deep snow to reach grocery stores for basic food needs. In most cases, reportedly, stores ran out of the basics by Friday afternoon, though some, including the Jewel Store on Madison Street, were able to stayed well stocked.

More than a few kids around the two towns gleefully ran up snow drifts to the top of garages, and built tunnel systems through the towering mounds.

A cleansing effect

Besides providing a sprawling playground for kids, the historic snowfall had at least one other very positive effect--the purest air the area had experienced in decades. The monitoring station at River Forest Middle School reported a pollution rate of minus 13.889.

The heavy snow acted like a magnet on particulate pollution, pulling it from the sky as it fell. With few automobile engines spewing exhaust fumes, the air stayed beautifully clear throughout the weekend.

After the worst impact of the storm had faded, both Oak Park and River Forest passed stricter post-snow parking bans. Oak Park also improved its fleet of snowplows and other equipment. Oak Park and River Forest would have to deal with massive snowfalls in the future, but nothing quite like the great storm of '67.

Click here to read part two as Wednesday Journal recalls the personal experiences of various Oak Park and River Forest residents during the Storm of '67.

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