THE KENNEDY INAUGURATION OF 1961
A memoir of snow, cold, and good ole' fashioned determination.
Submitted by Foot's Forecast reader Terpguy.
Editor's note: Take a look at Capital Weather's report on this historic storm.
Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as published by the Washington Post.
An extensive history of Inauguration Weather is available from the Sterling, VA NWS.
It was somewhere between 9:30 and 10 AM on Thursday, 19 January, 1961. I was in the ninth grade, and all of us in our junior high school were excited that we had tomorrow off. Since we lived in a suburb of DC, schools were closed for the Inauguration.
The PA crackled, and the voice of the Vice-Principal came on, telling us that schools were going to close at noon. When he said that it was because of bad weather, we were totally confused, as there didn’t appear to be a cloud in the sky.
NWS-Snow was predicted to begin in the morning, change to rain in the afternoon and then back to snow overnight before ending early Inauguration Day morning. But in actuality, all snow fell, and a large amount in a short period of time.
When we were dismissed to the buses a little after noon, there was at least an inch of snow on the ground, and it was coming down hard. Before I could board my bus, I heard my name called out. It was my father, who had come to get me because he was concerned that the school bus wouldn’t be able to negotiate the steep hills between the school and our home. My sister, in our high school, was already home, as she had but a short walk.
NWS- Low pressure developing in Tennessee Valley interacted with a large Arctic air mass over the Eastern third of the country. [A] big area of high pressure over Canada -- providing the cold air supply critical for snow. As the low headed eastward, snow began to fall... At the same time, temperatures quickly dropped below freezing. The temperature dropped from 34 to 28 degrees between 3 and 4 p.m. at National Airport as the snow picked up.
With the two kids still living at home accounted for, my father could then concentrate on making sure that my mother was OK. She worked at the Department of The Interior, 18th and C Streets, NW.
Almost 9 miles away.
NWS-According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the snow became so heavy that afternoon that federal workers were released from work early. Federal workers mixed with scores of inaugural visitors, and a monumental traffic jam ensued. Throughout the region, thousands of vehicles ran out of gas or were abandoned. Pre-Metro public transportation came to a grinding halt.
My mother left work at 2 PM. There were no buses to be had, so she started walking up the street that my father would have driven down. My mother, who would turn 44 in a month, was wearing a cloth coat, a skirt and blouse, and high-heels. She kept walking. There was no place to go…all of the stores were closed and locked. Every few blocks, she ducked into a doorway to get out of the wind and snow.
NWS- The snow intensified as a secondary storm developed off the North Carolina coast, tapping abundant moisture from the ocean. According to National Weather Service records, visibility in snow at..National Airport was a half mile or less between 3 and 9 p.m. and snowfall rates were likely in the range of 1-2 inches per hour (0.85" liquid equivalent fell during this time).
It started to get dark, the streets were deserted, suddenly a bus drove by and stopped a half a block away. She ran for it, yelling for it to stop. In her words, “a huge Negro man got off” [please remember, this was 1961…that was not inappropriate then] and said, as the bus pulled away, “Lady, you want to get on this bus?” When she said “yes”, he grabbed her up under his arms like a package, and began sprinting after the departing bus.
When he arrived at the rear door, he reached over and ripped it open, and deftly placed my mother onto the stairs of the moving vehicle with a “Good Luck!”. She barely had time to yell “Thank you!” before the door automatically closed.
NWS- Snow continued overnight as the storm moved up the coast…The snow was lighter and more intermittent, but temperatures plunged through the 20s and winds increased to 20-25 mph.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, my father would drive his gigantic new Pontiac, with his tire chains, the two miles to the bus depot to see if my mom was there yet. Finally he gave up and just stayed there.
Cellular phones were, of course, Science Fiction then, and still decades away. Pay phones and home phones were useless as the network couldn’t handle the overload of voice traffic during an emergency, and you couldn’t get a dial tone.
The bus my mother was on got to the District Line (Maryland/DC) and turned around…leaving her about a mile short of her destination. She started walking again.
Finally, sometime after 1AM, my father spotted her trudging towards the bus depot. He drove out and got her.
At one point in her trek, she had stopped and purchased a newspaper from a machine, and wrapped her arms and chest with it under her coat to keep in the heat.
They got home at exactly 2AM. It had taken her 12 hours.
She had two shots of Scotch Whiskey, and a quick warm bath, then slept for 12 hours.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers- The Engineers teamed up with more than 1,000 District of Columbia employees to clear the inaugural parade route. Luckily much equipment and some men had been pre-positioned and were ready to go. In the end the task force employed hundreds of dump trucks, front-end loaders, sanders, plows, rotaries, and flamethrowers to clear the way. District and Army equipment worked side by side to move more than 1,400 cars from the inaugural route. Another contingent of troops cleared the reviewing stands and bleachers at the White House and U.S. Capitol. Some 1,700 Boy Scouts joined in similar efforts along the parade route.
Watching the Inaugural Parade on TV that day you couldn’t help but comment that there wasn’t a single shovelful of snow to be seen on the route.
NWS- (For the Inauguration Day itself). By sunrise, the snow had ended and the skies were clearing, but the day remained bitter cold ... [D]espite the cold, a large crowd turned out for the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade. At noon, the temperature was only 22°F and the wind was blowing from the northwest at 19 mph making it feel like the temperature was 7°F above zero.
From then on, nobody in our family drove anywhere in the winter without the clothes and equipment to survive a 10-mile hike.
While I’ve never had to repeat what my mother did, my “Wintertime Kit” has helped me out on numerous occasions.
NWS- Officially recorded the snowfall at 8” at National Airport. Other sources have the Maryland suburbs to a foot or more.
To the day she died, my Mother always thought that the large man who rescued her at the bus was a Guardian Angel.
Sources: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Sterling, VA NWS Archives, and of course the sharpest archivist we have around, a former teacher of 39 years from the Baltimore County Public Schools known to all of us as "Terpguy."