The Blizzard of ’79 (1-14-1979)

Chicago’s two worst blizzards came within the space of a dozen years—1967 and 1979.  And like the Cubs and the Sox, each blizzard has its diehard, no-compromise fans.  Which of these storms was really our number one, all-time, downright-most-horrible weather experience?

The Golden Anniversary of the Blizzard of ’67 will be celebrated (?) later this month.  Today our topic is the Blizzard of ’79.

In 1979 the snow started on Saturday, January 13.  When it stopped the next day, 20.3 inches had fallen.  The total snowfall in 1967 was 23 inches.
Our house after the Blizzard of '79

Our house after the Blizzard of ’79

So that means 1967 was the worst?

Not so fast.  In 1979 the city already had 9 inches of snow lying around from an earlier storm.  Now Chicago had about 30 inches on the ground.  And on January 14 the temperature got down to 14-below-zero, with a wind chill of 49-below.  Both were records for that date.

So that means 1979 was the worst?

In some ways.  But in 1979, the snow fell over the weekend, and Monday was a holiday, Martin Luther King Day.  The 1967 storm had started on Thursday, a workday, and really screwed up travel.

Okay—so in 1979, the city had three days to clean up.  And by Tuesday, everything was back to normal.

No, it wasn’t.  As soon as the snow started coming down, Mayor Michael Bilandic was all over TV, talking about the heroic job his administration was doing in this weather emergency.  But the public could see he was wrong.  The snow was not getting cleared.

The City That Works wasn’t working.  Mike Royko, the newspaper columnist, put the blame squarely on the mayor.  According to Royko, city crews didn’t know how to deal with the snow because their skills were too specialized—specialized in cranking out votes at election time.  That was the real job of Chicago payrollers.

Our garage after the Blizzard of '79

Our garage after the Blizzard of ’79

Bilandic was running for re-election.  He was being challenged in the Democrat primary by Jane Byrne.  Now Byrne began hammering Bilandic about snow removal.  In one of her commercials she was filmed with snowflakes falling around her.

Byrne’s message connected with the voters.  Six weeks after the blizzard, she beat Bilandic in the primary, then went on to win the general election.

So when all is said and done, 1979 was Chicago’s worst blizzard?

Maybe not.  A few weeks after those super-cold temps, we had highs in the 40s, and the snow melted.  In 1967 the snow stayed on the ground past St. Patrick’s Day.  I lived through both events, and I’ve always felt the Blizzard of 1967 was our worst.

But then, I wasn’t running for mayor.


3 Responses to “The Blizzard of ’79 (1-14-1979)”

  1. 1 benson January 17, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    Nice piece, John. I grew up a half block from Howe School, and during the ’67 blizzard, I was just short of 9 years old. Short being the key word here. I eventually grew to 6’2″, but at that point, I tried to get our unattached garage and the alley, and the snow had accumulated/drifted to about my height. It wasn’t a claustrophobia, but still a feeling of being somewhat trapped.

    The lesson I learned from the ’79 blizzard was, don’t drive a Firebird on Chicago side streets after a heavy snow. You will bottom out and get stuck.

  2. 2 Garry January 20, 2017 at 5:59 am

    You left out an even bigger problem that made 70 worse.
    On Dec. 31/Jan 1, there was an ice storm that was never salted for some unknown reason, so there was a layer of ice on every street for weeks.
    In addition, the city was still operating under the idiotic idea of only plowing main streets & leaving the side streets alone. So exactly where are all the cars supposed to go when they finally get to their side street?
    The city still does that partially today, as they leave the side streets til last, instead of doing all streets at the same time.
    I watch the city plows & salt spreaders & what they do is go over & over & over again on the same main streets, when they had plenty of chances to do some side streets.

  3. 3 SWSIDEFAN January 23, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    I remember the ’79 storm very well. Someone somehow was able to set up an animatronic display in the lobby of the Daley Center of Mayor and Mrs. Bilandic sitting in front of a fake fireplace warming themselves while the snow kept falling. January 14 was the day of the annual Catholic HS entrance exams – one day, all test on the same day, and no make up tests or testing at more than one school. This was the first time kids could take it a second time as they had to give the test again the following weekend since so many could not get to the tests. My Dad got me there, out to breakfast afterward, to the Jewel for groceries, and home to help shovel our house and half the block with no problem.

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