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A lot of snow, a little bit of history

The Virginia Gazette

We dodged a bullet. Snow bullet that is.

The weekend's little white flakes stayed small here while the full thrust of megastorm Jonas was spent to the west and north. January 20th's weekend forecast for a nor'easter proved to be oh, so true!

While the Williamsburg area snow total was somewhere between four and seven inches depending upon where you were and with whom you talked, not far way the scene was different.

Richmond, 50-miles westward, was hit by 16-inches of the white stuff, while further north toward Washington, Philadelphia and New York City the snow really piled up.

The weather service reported six areas in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York that endured their heaviest snowstorms on record. For example, Newark, New Jersey, had 27.9 inches on January 22-23 surpassing the 27.8 for the 1996 blizzard. For your next trivia game, the other record-breaking locations were: Allentown and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, LaGuardia and JFK airports in New York and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland.

Speaking of the 1996 blizzard, local records show it was no blizzard here. During the month of January that year, the Williamsburg area had two storms and 11.5 inches of snow with 9.50 inches coming in one 24-hour period. Elsewhere in Virginia it was a blizzard with the state's deepest single day snowfall in history coming on Jan. 7 with 47 inches falling at Big Meadows along the Skyline Drive. Likewise, the largest monthly record of 53 inches also was reported there in the same January.

In the "believe it or not" category, the heaviest single-day snowfall in the U.S. was reported at Silver Lake, Colorado, on April 14, 1921, when a total of 75 inches fell. Now, frankly wouldn't you like to know who went outside to take the measurement?

Do you swear by the Farmer's Almanac? In the same Ripley's category, this year's almanac -- compiled last year -- projected for the Atlantic Corridor Region (Richmond to Boston) "Jan.20-28, snow showers, cold." Made a believer out of me.

Locally, let's look at a little history.

Williamsburg's record snowfall, since measurements began back in the 1920s, came on Jan. 5, 1980 with 13.5 inches officially recorded. Ten of those inches came during a four-hour period. Unofficial totals in James City County reported upward of 16 inches.

The 1980 blizzard was called a "Mountain-Style Snow" by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Their story called it the biggest storm in three-quarters of a century and said automobiles on almost every major street had been left abandoned at the height of the storm.

Colonial Williamsburg employees in the historic area, dressed in their period attire, trudged through the snow and some remained at their posts, even though the storm struck Saturday about 8:30 a.m. Men dressed in 18th century military uniforms, by mid-morning, stood nearly boot-high in the snow outside the Powder Magazine and Guardhouse, much like they may have looked 200-years earlier in a blizzard.

Although the storm had exited, Sunday morning found the area still frozen and covered with snow. Nearly all area churches canceled services and the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church minister said he "really felt guilty about calling off services but it was the realistic thing to do. The weather was just too bad."

Most restaurants were still closed that Sunday, but some fast-food outlets opened, but only after tractors plowed a lane to the take-out window or cleared off a few places in the parking lot.

Still more history: One of the latest snows recorded in Virginia came on May 4, 1774. The Virginia Gazette reported snow in Dumfries about 16 miles from Mount Vernon where George Washington recorded in his diary: "a cold day with spits of snow and the wind blowing hard at NoWest." Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in his Garden Book on the same day wrote: "Blue Ridge of mountains covered with snow."

Kale is a retired journalist and considered by many to be William and Mary's "unofficial historian." His next book — a military history of the college — is to be published this year.

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