A look back at some of the worst snowstorms in county history

A look back at some of the worst snowstorms in county history

6 min readPosted December 18, 2020

From the President’s Day Weekend Blizzard of 2003 to 1993’s “Blizzard of the Century,” these snowstorms prove that weather, if severe enough, can be a historic — and long-remembered — event. Here are just a few of the most memorable blizzards to hit Lebanon County over the years.

1888

It’s difficult to find information on blizzards in the area prior to the 20th century, aside from general guesses as to the conditions of the county during larger, recorded regional storms.

When the Great Blizzard of 1888 hit the East Coast in mid-March of 1888, it halted trains, shut down communication lines, wrecked ships, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds. To date, it is still considered one of the worst snowstorms in the country’s history.

The snow left on a street in New York City following the Great Blizzard. (Brooklyn Museum)

In Lebanon, the blizzard deposited drifts as high as seven feet over the county. Aside from this detail, LebTown was unable to find local newspaper archives detailing the Great Blizzard itself, but a January blizzard in the same year might provide some idea of how the county dealt with the March blizzard. In January, drifts of snow made roads in the countryside impassable as well as the “Berks-Dauphin turnpike” – the route connecting Lebanon and Annville that would become Route 422 in the 20th century.

Some residents, like liveryman (horse stable manager) Moses Bitner attempted to form sleighing parties to make their way across the snowy expanses, but even those failed; Bitner’s party was forced to pull the sleigh from a drift halfway through their journey to Annville and return to Lebanon.

Trains were either delayed or forced to stay in place, as was the case for two freight trains stuck north of Palmyra. Another train carried 50 snow-shoveling workers to clear the line ahead, while railroad contractor James March attempted to recruit shovelers on the streets of Lebanon to clear the Cornwall railroad.

This was the pattern for many snowstorms around that time, with other notable blizzards occurring in 1894, 1898, and 1899. Schools were closed and railroad lines were halted, if the storm was bad enough, but people also took the opportunity to sleigh if the conditions were right.

For a long time, in Lebanon and elsewhere, the Blizzard of 1888 was the reference point for any storm. Few seasons even came close, but those that did became infamous in their own right.

1977

Arriving on Friday, January 28, this sudden Arctic-air blizzard only deposited an inch or so of snow when it struck around the evening rush hour. But its high winds — at times reaching tornado speeds — resulted in many drivers abandoning their cars along major roadways, including Routes 501, 422, 322, and 72.

This car was abandoned west of Annville on Route 422. (The Lebanon Daily News, 29 Jan. 1977)

Although low-to-zero visibility and frequent drifting was reported, it seems there weren’t many major accidents besides a scattering of fender benders. But those that left their cars had to find shelter in subzero temperatures, holing up in public spaces, community fire halls, and the WAHT radio station near Route 241. Some even temporarily stayed with strangers in private residences.

One farm along Route 501, operated by John and Fern Swope, hosted 75 people that evening, including 13 who were forced to spend the night at the makeshift “inn.” The Swopes provided coffee, food, company, and wall-to-wall blankets in the living room. The guests included stranded motorists as well as a Lancaster group of boys and girls that had been on a ski trip over at Hawk Mountain.

The cleanup crews had to deal with all the high winds and freezing temperatures of the blizzard as well as the abandoned vehicles that lined (and sometimes blocked) the roadways. The winds were so high that one Myerstown resident was reportedly able to deduce their direction the next morning simply by looking at the snow accumulated on one side of the tree outside his front window.

1993

This photograph taken in Lebanon depicts either the 1993 blizzard or another large storm that happened the following year.

The Blizzard of ’93, also known as the Blizzard of the Century, ravaged the East Coast, and Lebanon County was no exception. It was a bit of a surprise, to boot; over 20 inches of snow in mid-March is not something anybody expects to deal with. The storm cost the city of Lebanon alone around $65,000.

Many around the valley were totally snowed in, some at the worst imaginable time. One remarkable story of the ’93 blizzard took place in North Lebanon Township, where one-week-overdue expectant mother Marcia Hess entered labor in her home. The roadways around her house were completely blocked, so a rescue team from the Perseverance Fire Company of Jonestown instead hitched a basket sled to a snowmobile and managed to take Hess out over the snow.

Hess made it to Good Samaritan Hospital and gave birth to a boy, stating that “the whole thing was hysterical — all of these guys racing towards the house on snowmobiles.”

There was a lot of snow

And I had no place to go

So I went to the gate

But I couldn’t wait

Because there was frostbite on my toe.

South Lebanon Elementary student Amanda Harmon’s limerick about the Blizzard of ’93, published in the Lebanon Daily News on May 4, 1993.

1996

On Walnut Street in Lebanon following the blizzard. (The Lebanon Daily News, 10 Jan. 1996)

The drifts piled up 10 feet high in some places. Whiteout conditions were rampant. It was called “the most brutal storm we’ve had to deal with” by Clyde Miller, at the time 16 years into his position as Director of the Lebanon County Emergency Management Agency.

While the storm that deposited over two feet of snow on the valley in the first week of 1996 was certainly nothing to sneeze at, the ’96 blizzard might be best remembered for the severe flooding that followed it. Rain followed about two weeks later, and, coupled with temperatures in the 50s, resulted in widespread flooding throughout the valley.

Though aiding in road clearance, the melting of the snow overwhelmed storm drains, creeks, and sewers, flooding many basements. The Swatara Creek rose over 15 feet, and roadways became impassable. The Valley Glen area north of Annville became so inundated that 13 people had to be rescued by boat, with some taken to Good Samaritan Hospital for exposure.

Read More: At the turn of the century, Valley Glen Park was the place to see and be seen

The National Guard, working on orders from emergency offices of Fort Indiantown Gap, spread out across the state on rescue missions and police help.

2003

At the Lebanon Valley Mall after the storm. (Karen Groh)

The President’s Day Blizzard struck Lebanon on the weekend of Feb. 15 and 16, 2003, dropping over two feet of snow in winds of up to 25 mph.

Schools around the county were closed on Monday — a holiday that was planned to be a makeup day for previous snow closures that season. Mayor Bob Anspach declared a snow emergency in the city on Sunday, which closed snow emergency routes to parking while a large team of workers operating 20 dump trucks and industrial snow blowers cleaned up the aftermath. The emergency was lifted on Thursday morning.

In the process of clearing the snow away, several municipalities ended up using up all or much of their snow-removal budget for the year, including Heidelberg and South Lebanon Townships in particular. The city of Lebanon ended up spending about $50,000 on the storm.

Depending on the way the wind blew, the snow in 2003 could reach several feet up on windows and doorways. (Karen Groh)

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