That 1959 St. John’s Blizzard

Battery after avalanche

Reports from the huge blizzard besetting St. John’s this weekend brings inevitably to mind the night of February 16, 1959, when a savage blizzard blockaded the entire city, precipitating a disastrous snow slide at the Battery that snuffed out five lives. The avalanche struck two houses, sweeping them downslope. Several people were injured, including one woman who was rescued after 12 hours buried under the snow.
The tragedy sounded a grim reminder of the perils of life at the edge of the Atlantic, but the experience had its lighter side as well for those of us coping with winter at its wildest. I told this story in my first book Yesterday’s News, describing adventures in my days as a St. John’s news reporter:

Bill and Margaret Werthman

The storm caught us – my fiancée Madeline Roche and me and another couple, Canadian Press correspondent Ian MacDonald and his wife Lillian – enjoying a little party in Glendale, Mount Pearl with friends Bill and Margaret Werthman. Telegram reporter Tony Thomas and his fiancée Sylvia Godden were there too but had left for home before the storm struck. What started as a gentle snowfall blew up into a massive blizzard, so we had no choice but to stay put for the night.

Ian and Lillian MacDonald

A wood stove kept us from freezing entirely, but it was a cool and uncomfortable night, especially for some whose footwear had been soaked in early attempts to get cars on the road. No spare beds being available, chairs and coffee table tops had to serve as makeshift supports to prop up our aching bodies. Discomfort gave way to hilarity at one point when a whiff of something burning was traced to Ian‛s shoes, carefully tucked in the oven to speed up the drying process.
Next morning, snow drifts were still at rooftop levels, and the best we could do was to wade hip deep through the drifts to nearby Samson‛s Supermarket to fetch bread and something else to eat. It was late afternoon before the rumble of snow plows encouraged us to set out for home. Even at that, the narrow track along Topsail Road was in zigzag pattern – at one point the zag took us between the gas pumps and the building at Parsons‛ garage as the highway drifts were too high for the plough to topple. We were so relieved to get home at last.
Yet, despite a surfeit of aches and groans, and the stench of smouldering shoe leather, that night we spent by Werthman‛s woodstove is one none of us was likely to forget for many a day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *