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The front page of the Chattanooga Sunday Times

Baby, It Was Cold Outside

The Valley Region Is No Stranger to Extreme Snowfall

It would have been a fitting headline for any local newspaper this past week: “Extremely Heavy Fall of Snow Virtually Paralyzes the City.”

But in this case, it was the headline in a Chattanooga newspaper on Valentine’s Day 1960, when a storm dumped a heap of snow on the region.

And it was just one among many monster snowfalls that winter.

From February to mid-March 1960, the Tennessee River Basin saw record accumulations of snow, with some areas blanketed in depths of 21 inches or more.

While knee-deep snow isn’t a regular occurrence in much of the Valley region, the historical record reminds us that folks here are no strangers to severe weather.

For the Love of Snow

A Tennessee Valley Authority report in March 1960 noted that “the winter of 1959-1960 was the worst on record over much of the Tennessee River Basin.”

It began in earnest in November 1959, when up to 10 inches of snow fell on eastern parts of the Tennessee River Basin. Another big snowfall hit the first week of January.

But the storm on Feb. 13-14, 1960 – extending from Texas and the Louisiana Gulf Coast to states in the Northeast – wreaked a particular havoc.

While no part of the Valley region emerged unscathed, snow accumulation varied considerably from city to city and town to town.

In the western part of the watershed, snow depths varied from 4 inches near the western edge to 16 inches on Monte Sano, near Huntsville, Alabama. Depths of up to 16 inches were common on the Cumberland Plateau.

The maximum for the region was 21 inches, recorded at Maple Spring Gap in western North Carolina. In the Kingston, Tennessee, area, the oldest residents couldn’t remember a heavier snowfall.

The U. S. Weather Bureau station in Knoxville recorded 18.8 inches – the greatest there since 1886, when recordkeepers logged 22.5 inches.

A black-and-white newspaper photo of a snowy road on the Cumberland Plateau in February 1960.

‘It’s Too Durned Cold’

As folks know from experience in recent weeks, snow accumulations can lead to all manner of inconvenience.

Storefronts shut down. Every town’s Main Street turns into a virtual ghost town.

On the plus side, students get to trade schoolbooks for slick sleds.

It was much the same in 1960.

The Chattanooga Daily Times reported 9 inches of snow in the city during the Valentine’s Day storm, with more on the mountaintops.

Planes were grounded. Trucks were banned from the highways. Schools closed.

The heavy snowfall snapped limbs and transmission lines. In Chattanooga, the storm knocked out power to some 6,000 residents for varying periods.

Residents in many electrically heated homes turned to makeshift kerosene or gas burners to ward off subfreezing temps. Farmers reverted to hand-milking cows.

About 90 miles up the road, the Knoxville News-Sentinel shared similar information, reporting that transportation would be difficult as snowfall “may pass 16 inches.”

Knoxville Transit Line buses halted all routes, leaving several people stranded downtown.

Knoxville newspaper reporters measured the storm’s impact on neighboring towns.

Frank Holt, a firefighter in Clinton, Tennessee, told a Knoxville reporter that activity had crept to a standstill: “Roads are in bad shape.”

In Tazewell, Tennessee, a two-story frame building housing Helen’s Beauty Shop went up in flames. A deputy, E.W. Roberts, told reporters that no one turned out to watch.

“It’s too durned cold,” he said.

Greeneville, Tennessee, jailer D.F. Dowd provided his colorful commentary about road conditions: “It’s as slick as owl grease.”

Continued snowfall and freezing road surfaces drew sound advice from law enforcement: “Stay home!”

The snow continued in spells that season. The weather got a last lick in on March 2, 1960, with an ice storm that swept across a wide area of the Tennessee River Basin.

A black-and-white newspaper photo of a snowy scene at Soco Gap in December 1959

Neighborly Ways

Even as newspapers reported on weather conditions, reporters took time to share stories of community support.

During the Valentine’s Day snowstorm, the National Guard in Elizabethton, Tennessee, said Army personnel carriers, jeeps, and snow weasels reached almost all the families in the region, and there were no serious illnesses or needy cases.

A party of 40 volunteer guardsmen brought in hay for the livestock. Stranded motorists near Jellico, Tennessee, found locals willing to share their homes for the night, until roads improved.

Clearly, when it comes to severe weather, not much has changed between that storm 64 years ago and the one that hit the region this past week.

Road conditions become treacherous. Schools and businesses close. Travel plans are upended.

But amid it all, there’s always goodness to celebrate.

Snowballs. Sledding. A forced pause in busy lives.

And, best of all, neighbors reaching out – today, as they did yesterday – to help those in need.

In the Valley region, a love of community will always stand the test of time.

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For tips on lowering energy use at home, read the Warmer Together story.

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