A Perfect Winter Storm

January 28, 1977. I remember that it was before noon in Niagara Falls when the snow and wind started. It snowed and blew ever more intensely into the after noon, it was obvious that it was going to continue.

I had my radio on, and for the most part things sounded normal. It was only when I heard announcements on our station, CJRN Niagara, I realized that the entire Niagara Peninsula and Buffalo area was snowed under with no end forecast. As I scanned the AM dial, stations in Buffalo were off the air. By mid afternoon, more area stations were off. The electric power was going out in many areas. The OPP closed the Queen E highway.

CJRN was a 5kW on 710 with a 1kW standby and still on the air. Auxiliary power was a propane unit capable of running the Gates BC1G standby transmitter at full power, and with the low frequency of 710, it did a good job with coverage of the Niagara peninsula.

Normal programming had been replaced with continuous talk, informing listeners of event cancellations and emergency facilities. A repeat call was made for snowmobiles to assemble on Queen Street in Niagara Falls to be dispatched for emergencies.

It struck me that there was approximately _ cylinder of propane at the site. A full cylinder was capable of fuelling the generator for 3 days. I phoned the propane dealer, no answer of course, but I knew the owners name, I called him at home. Gord said that there was no way he could get me any propane. I explained the situation. He told me to feel free to go to the compound and help myself if I could get there, “and by the way, take something to break the padlock on the gate”.

I went out to the driveway and cleared the snow off of the station wagon and threw my shovel in. I drove through the blinding snow, picking the path of least resistance through the drifts and deep snow on the roads.

I did get to the propane yard, broke the lock and loaded two one hundred pound cylinders into the back of the wagon. It was mid afternoon, and off I headed to Fort Erie with the constant chatter of CJRN’s announcers in the background and an opaque wall of snow ahead.

With the QE closed, my 20 mile route would have to be either the concessions and lines, or the River Road. Frankly the visibility was so bad that I thought it would be next to impossible to find turns and intersections on the maze of different roads in the peninsula center, so I opted to follow the river. The road varied from bare frozen asphalt to snow covered and the drifts. Some of the drifts were six to eight feet high and twenty feet thick, covering more than three quarters of the roads width. There were broadcast warnings that many abandoned cars were in the center of these drifts. On meeting some drifts, there was no option but to try and punch through a part of it. I stopped at each one, got out to check the drift and turned the wagon around to ram the smallest part with the back end of the car. I did not want to disable the car by smashing the radiator. Eventually I got to Kraft Road at Garrison and headed down Kraft toward the TX site entrance. I got halfway there, about five hundred yards, when through the swirling snow, the road appeared to go vertical. Out of the car I looked up a solid wall of snow across the entire road that was ten feet high! I tested the footing on the steep incline, it was very hard packed snow, the wind was incredible and had formed the drift like concrete. I had no choice but to walk to the site if I was going to get there at all. I pondered the situation for a few minutes, turned off the car, opened the tailgate and slid one of the cylinders out. I don’t know why, but I grabbed a large bag of peanuts out of the glove compartment and stuffed it into my coat pocket before I left the car. It took a long time, or what seemed like a long time to drag, carry and roll the propane cylinder up the drift and the five hundred yards to the TX building. I followed the tops of the trees that were visible for brief blurred glimpses along the road over the mesa of a drift. When the building came into view through the blinding snow, I could only see the top four feet. The building was in the center of a funnel shaped drift. The west wall of the building faced the wind and was clear almost to bare ground. The north, south and east walls were buried eight feet in sculpted hard packed snow. The propane cylinder was on the north wall of course, and completely snow packed. The sound of the generator exhaust, which poked out of the building at my knee level as I stood on the drift, could barely be heard above the wind even standing three feet from it! I left the cylinder on the north side and went around to look down the drift to the building entrance on the south side. It was obvious that I would have to move a lot of snow if I was to get the wrench from inside. I trudged back to the car to get the shovel. After digging my way in, I enjoyed the warmth of the generator, its noise was a change, a break from the howling wind outside that was getting stronger. I wanted to warm up and contact the studios to let them know what was going on. I picked up the phone and it was dead. The STL feed was working, but a quick check of the standby 8kHz bell line proved it was out as well. . If the Moseley STL (450 mHz link) failed, we would be off the air. I got back to the task of getting the new cylinder connected. I dug to the empty cylinder, shut down the generator, exchanged cylinders and hurriedly restarted the Onan. Only a brief quiet interlude, and the job was done. It would have been preferred to be able to coordinate the switch with master control, but without communication, they would have to wait to find out what happened. I sat in the transmitter room with the generator door closed so that I could hear the monitor. It was interesting listening, directions being given for a pharmacy delivery to someone on a snowmobile headed to Chippawa, food picked up at the local Burger King and McDonald’s was being taken to shut ins and others without, a number of machines were sent to rescue some school children from a stranded bus.

After a couple of hours rest, I thought I would try and make it out. I pushed the door open ….only about four inches! The wind was fierce and snow had built up enough against the bottom of the door, about three feet high in the two hours I was in the building. I grabbed an unused rack panel and worked through the door gap, digging away the packed snow until I could get to the shovel leaning against the wall outside. As I stepped outside, the cold went right through my damp pants and jacket, the wind driven snow cut at my face, and visibility was almost zero. I decided that leaving wasn’t a wise option. The snow, most being blown off of a glass smooth Lake Erie, was coming from only a half mile west and south of the transmitter site driven by incredibly strong winds. I went back into the TX building, reached out into the drift and filled an old Tim Hortons cup with snow, waited a while and had a drink. I sat in the shelter of the building listening to the increasingly strong wind howl outside, the air duct control louvers banging, the rapping drone of the generator in the other room and the program monitor. With no way to tell anyone where I was, it seemed almost comical to sit there and hear the continuous descriptions of rescue all over the peninsula. At some point in the evening, I remembered the bag of peanuts….dinner! And later, the gods continued to smile on me, I found two cans of “Mountain Dew” in the tool room. I kept my escape route through the door cleared every hour. The snow and wind stopped early in the morning almost a day and a half later. I looked outside at the clearing sky and waited until full light, eight o’clock or so. I headed toward the car. It was covered to the roof in packed snow. I thought for a few seconds about shoveling it out, but when I looked up Kraft road heading north, it was pointless. It would be a job for heavy equipment later.

I walked up Kraft Road to Garrison, and a half mile west to Jack Shaws “Supertest” gas station. The place was full of plow and tow truck drivers, snowmobilers and OPP, all drinking mugs of coffee and one upping each other with stories of “the blizzard”.

I really enjoyed the coffee. CJRN was a local station that was on the air for the entire weekend.

For more information on the story of the storm, the book
“WHITE DEATH – The blizzard of ’77”, by Erno Rossi
ISBN:0-920926-03-7 is fascinating reading.

Gary Hooper
HP Services