Remembering the Incredible New England Snowstorms of March 1956

When I wrote my recent post The 300th Anniversary of the Great Colonial Snowcover of 1717, I didn’t realize that one of the rivals to March 1717 was relatively recent.

March 1956 started with an unremarkable snow cover at the Blue Hill Weather Observatory a little south of Boston, Massachusetts.  However, snow storms in the second half of the month brought the month’s snowfall to an impressive 49.4″ (125.5 cm).

The following is a summary from Charles Orloff of Blue Hill on a paper by Conrad P. Mooka and Kenneth S. Norquest.

Blue Hill Observatory
Sky Mail
March 2017

Remembering the Incredible Snowstorms
of March 1956

The recent snowstorm this March brings back memories of the big snows of March 1956. In New England winter can still rule in March and heavy snows can indeed occur. Even April can see heavy snowfalls – a future SkyMail will talk about that month.

March 1956 started with 6.4″ (16.3 cm) of snow on the ground at Blue Hill Observatory. By the end of the month, three 12 inch plus snowstorms had blanked the Northeast bringing the monthly total to 49.4″ (125.5 cm) making the winter of 1955-56 the third snowiest on the Observatory’s then 132 year record.

Of the three major snowfalls in March 1956 the storm from March 18-20th was the most significant with upwards of 20″ (51 cm) falling along the Northeast corridor and much of Southern New England. What was remarkable was that there were three snowstorms in March 1956 in a period of just 10 days. The storms started with a rather typical coastal development on March 14th which left 2.3″ (5.8) of snowfall at Blue Hill Observatory. The next storm was just two days later.

On Friday, March 16, 1956, by 1230 GMT the stage was set for the typical development of a coastal Low which often produces heavy snow and high winds in the Northeast. The North Atlantic States had been flooded with cold air due to eastward passage of a 1032-mb High from the Great Lakes region to Maine. Meanwhile, a wave, which developed in the West Gulf on the trailing polar front, had deepened and moved northeastward to eastern Kentucky. This was attended by widespread heavy rains in the Southeastern States and snow through the Ohio Valley eastward to southern New Jersey. By this time the typical pattern of development was evident. A warm front lay along the Carolina coast, then extended eastward north of Bermuda. An area of 3-hourly pressure falls of 4 to 5 mb, concentrated in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, strongly indicated a secondary development on the coast. By 0030 GMT, March 17, the low center in eastern Kentucky had entirely filled and the secondary Low had formed and deepened to 984 mb just off Atlantic City, N. J. The pressure at Atlantic City fell 25 mb in just 12 hours, indicating the explosive nature of the cyclogenesis which took place. Snow had now spread over all of the North Atlantic States, attended by strong winds with gales on the coast. By 0630 GMT, March 17, the center was 970 mb just east of Nantucket. Snow and strong winds covered the Northeastern States and gales continued on the New England coast. By 1230 GMT, March 17, the storm was well out to sea some 380 miles east of Boston. This storm was a nearly perfect example of the rapid development of a coastal storm. It deposited 14″ of new snow at Albany, N. Y., 6″ at Hartford, Conn., and 10″ at Concord, N. H., New York City and Boston (35, 15, and 25 cm). In just 12 hours the intense storm moved from a position off the coast near Atlantic City to 380 miles east of Boston. Snowfall at Blue Hill Observatory measured 12.9″ (32.8 cm).

19560319

All of this set the stage for the biggest storm which occurred from March 18-20th. By early morning of the 18th (1230 GMT) the area of snowfall attending the developing southern low centers over eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia had enlarged to cover the Ohio Valley and had spread eastward over the Appalachians to cover most of the mid-Atlantic states. Precipitation fell as rain over southern Maryland and southern Virginia, while snow was falling over the remainder. Snow had spread from southern New Jersey, beginning at 1545 GMT at Newark and 1603 GMT at New York City. At this time one low center was moving eastward near Quantico, Va., while another was also moving eastward near Danville, Va. During the next 6 hours there was little change in the area of precipitation. Showers and thunderstorms moved eastward across southern Virginia and eastern North Carolina as the southern low center moved to the coast near Elizabeth City, N. C. and began to strengthen into a dangerous gale. Snow continued from Maryland and Delaware northward over Pennsylvania and into Long Island as well as westward to Cincinnati, Ohio, as the northern Low center moved to southern Delaware. By 0630 GMT on the 19th the surface Low system was off the coast, some distance southeast of New Jersey, moving northeastward. Snowfall continued over the New York City area, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and eastern Pennsylvania. On the 19th the snow spread over Southern New England. Meanwhile, the low pressure cyclonic center moved northeastward along the coast at an ever-slowing rate toward Nantucket, finally passing to the northeast of that point and filling on the 20th, while a new center formed farther east near Sable Island. It is interesting to note that the duration of precipitation in the form of snow at Philadelphia, Trenton, Atlantic City, Newark, and New York City (Battery) ranged from 31 hours at Philadelphia to 35 hours at Atlantic City. Farther east, over Southern New England, the duration ranged from 26 hours at New Haven to 24 hours at Boston. In spite of this, the depth of new snow added by the storm was remarkably uniform, measuring 12 to 13″ (~32 cm) at Trenton, New York City, New Haven, Bradley Field (Hartford), and Boston. A notable exception was the 18″ (46 cm) which fell at Newark. Snowfall at Blue Hill was 17.5″ (44.0 cm) with a total snowfall on the ground on the 20th of 25.3″ (64.3 cm).

All in all, this was one of the most severe and deadly snowstorms in Southern New England history. Approximately 162 people were killed and most towns were left paralyzed under deep snow drifts as high as 14 feet (4+ meters).

As if this wasn’t enough the blizzard of March 18-20 was followed by another 12.3″ (31.2 cm) snowfall on March 24th with a final 3″ (7.6 cm) falling from the 29th to the 30th. Many of us remember shoveling much of the month, fortunately under a warm March sun!


The Blue Hill Observatory was built atop a hill a little south of Boston in 1885. It was the first weather observatory built in the United States and has an unbroken weather record.

Some of their early “high tech” equipment is still in use although “antique” is sometimes the better description now. If you’re in the area, check their schedule and stop in for a visit. Whether there or not, check out their store, especially their books, or donate some money to help make up for cuts in state support.

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73 thoughts on “Remembering the Incredible New England Snowstorms of March 1956

  1. And yet Boston continued to thrive despite the dirty weather. Amazing resilience and sustained fortitude demonstrated by people who were not getting freaked out by the weather. What changed? Bobby the nutjob got a PhD and a started yapping on cable TV.

  2. Now when you start talking about “big” snowfalls in the 1950’s, …. I distinctly remember this “snowstorm” which deposited 4 feet (48”) of snow on the ground (in central West Virginia).

  3. Thanks for the history, Ric. It is amazing what can be found looking through the past, and it is handy to have knowledge of such events when dealing with someone overly excited because they imagine current weather is “unprecedented”.

    Also young whippersnappers have this idea we old geezers are making stuff up, when we talk about the blizzards of 1978. (Some things I do make up, such as the little known fact that George Washington and I chopped down cherry trees together…….but 1978 was for real.) It helps if you have old newspaper clippings to show youngsters.

    David Ludlum mentions a winter back in the 1600’s with a sequence of nor’easters like March 1956, only they came early, in December. Then they kept right on coming until spring. As I recall it was the worst winter Boston had in all of the 1600’s, with over 20 storms. Yikes!

    • Here’s a video to help prove the 1978 Blizzard was BIG:


      (youtube)

      Sigh. It’s in black and white (mostly). Just tell them that this apparently (to them) anachronistic fact has a perfectly reasonable explanation (I don’t know what it is — sorry — shrug).

      • Here’s a 2013 documentary by WGBH Boston with eyewitness testimony. And in living color!

        Greater Boston Remembers the Blizzard of 1978

        (youtube)

        LOVE those accents. Boston has the coolest accent in the country, imo. I don’t have one, of course (smile).

      • Even better – I have two web pages on the New England Blizzard of ’78. One of them talks about the Midwest blizzard of ’78. I may post both of them here next year. I’ll certainly have something to say about each.

        Start with the NE Blizzard, on of my best pieces of prose on the web. (Not as good as some of Caleb’s, but no surprise there.)

        http://wermenh.com/blizz78.html it links to the other page.

        I had it easy, folks on the seacoast did not.

      • I was on one of the first Greyhound buses back into Boston when the travel ban was lifted. The Mass Pike was one lane each way and one Greyhound bus wide with the snow so high that looking out the window caught an occasional glimpse of sky over the banks.

      • I had the good fortune to be living in LA at the time. A friend of mine was not so lucky and living in Cambridge. Her VW Beetle got plowed in and didn’t reappear until late April.

        Accents, really?

      • I also was in “The Blizzard of ’78”. But not the New England one. The one a couple of weeks before in the Midwest.
        http://www.weather.gov/iln/19780126

        Before the “.gov” became the convention, my local NWS had a link that included a bunch of pictures. One of them had a shot of Ohio National Guard troops driving bulldozers to clear the roads. I was few miles from the county they were they were working in.

      • President Carter ordered the US military “to go in and do whatever it could to help.”.
        Imagine such an order being issued from President Trump……!

      • My family and I lived in Terre Haute, IN, during the 1978 blizzard. Terre Haute got 25″ of snow, and Indiana State University didn’t call off school right away, since the president, Richard Landini, was at a conference in Florida and had not delegated that authority. By the time the call-off came, I had already tried to get to school in my VW Squareback, which got caught in a monster snowdrift; I tried to get it out, but blew the engine instead and ended up walking home. When I got there, I found out about the call-off, as well as the absolute ban on travel on the Interstates–or, indeed, anywhere else.

        The year before, 1977, the mayor of Terre Haute had sold off the snow-removal equipment, which hadn’t been used in the previous three or four very mild winters. When asked about the wisdom of this course of action by the host of reporters who gathered after the 25″ storm, the mayor drew himself up to full height and declaimed, “In His infinite wisdom, GOD has brought us the snow. And in His own good time, GOD will take it away.” The mayor was defeated for re-election that fall . . .

        That was, indeed, quite a storm.

    • Most of the olive trees in southern France were wiped out in 1956 as well .

      Not totally dead, just dead above ground. They were but back at about 12″ above ground and selected offshoots which grew from the stumps were retained and developed. The result is that most ancient olive trees which survive today are 60 years of growth based around a central stump, itself well over a hundred years old.

      • I wonder if those are the small, black olives from France that taste so great. They are smaller than Italian or Greek black olives.

    • ’78 paralyzed the state of Rhode Island for a week. Businesses and schools let workers and students out in the early afternoon when snow was falling at a fast rate. All it took was a few cars unable to get on or off Rt 95 and everything bogged down.

    • Well, they make a big deal of young Washington not getting punished when he admitted to his father that he had, indeed, chopped down the cherry tree. But of course he still had the axe in his hand, so maybe his father was just taking no chances that there might be an axe murderer in the family.

      • Actually the moral was that he told the truth. I think he likely got caned anyway. “Spare the rod and you’ll spoil the first president.”

      • ….. of young Washington not getting punished when he admitted to his father that he had, indeed, chopped down the cherry tree

        Whenever someone mentions the historical “fable” about George Washington “cutting down a Cherry tree” …….. it reminds me of the historical “fact” about George Washington finding what would now be considered “a gigantic Sycamore tree” when he was surveying the Great Kanawha River valley of western Virginia in 1770, ……. to wit:

        He encamped on the Virginia side on November 1, and had proceeded up the Great Kanawha about ten miles when his journal reads: “Proceeded up the river with the canoe about 4 miles farther, and then encamped, and went a hunting; killed 5 buffaloes and wounded some others, and three deer. This country abounds in buffalo and wild game of all kinds, as also in all kinds of wild fowl, there being in the bottom a great many small grassy ponds, or lakes, which are full of swans, geese, and ducks of different kinds.”

        On descending towards the Ohio River again, he describes finding a sycamore tree about sixty yards from the river that measures forty-four feet and ten inches in circumference three feet above the ground. This corresponds to a diameter of close to fourteen feet. Fifty feet away is another sycamore measuring thirty-one feet around.

        Read more about GW the surveyor @ http://www.galliagenealogy.org/History/washington.htm

        Now that was back in the days that “virgin timber” was actually “virgin”.

      • Indeed talking can be dangerous. Saint James says, “(Animals can be tamed) but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly evil.” The problem with being snowbound and talking is there is no delete key.

  4. Plenty of U.S. blizzards over the last half century. I was in college in Vermont for the 1978 blizzard and they canceled classes for two days. Few of the professors could make it to school even though most lived within walking distance or 2 miles at most from campus.

    It has been snowing here in Vermont and New Hampshire since yesterday afternoon and we have picked up 8-9 inches in the Northeast Kingdom already with a foot expected at Jay Peak and Burke Mountain. I am headed out the door shortly to put some runs in after shoveling twice.

    http://www.pressherald.com/2015/01/26/10-worst-snowstorms-in-the-northeast-in-the-last-60-years/

    http://www.wbur.org/news/2015/01/26/boston-biggest-snowstorms

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/weather/atoz/the-12-worst-blizzards-in-us-history/ss-AA9npVj#image=9

  5. And then there was the time we got 20 feet of snow in Detroit back on April 1, 1950.
    David S April1, 2017

  6. Lived through the blizzard of 78. Our condo building in Stoneham was on the top of a wooded rocky noll. We were on the third floor facing west, in the blizzard lee. The snow drifted up to the level of our balcony, 18 feet deep. Used cross country skis to lay in supplies on a sled before the local grocery ran out. Average undrifted snow depth in that locale was about 4 feet. Took ten days to get roads cleared sufficiently to be passable.

  7. I grew up in Dedham and Randolph, MA in the shadow of the Blue Hills. My (now) wife and I would park at Chickatawbut (base of the tower) evenings ostensibly to talk.

  8. The flag on the observatory gives some indication of the wind speed. The trouble is that I have no expertise in doing that. This link makes me think it is more than 37 mph.

  9. Dowdy and Catto’s (2017) analysis of storm combinations and extreme weather finds:

    “The highest risk of extreme precipitation and extreme wind speeds is found to be associated with a triple storm type characterized by concurrent cyclone, front and thunderstorm occurrences.”

    China’s Typhoon Nina dumped a year’s worth of rain in 24 hours, destroying the Banqiao and about 62 other dams.
    How many more “extraordinary” winter storms will hit new England?

    • Uh, an extratropical cyclone has a cold front. Cold fronts spawn thunderstorms and offer wind shear that can help develop tornadoes. Tornadoes are generally considered extreme weather.

      I thought I’d go see what the authors are were trying to point out, but this is as far as I could go:

      Introduction

      Recent years have seen a growing interest in the socioeconomic and biophysical impacts of extreme weather events1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 including how they relate to climate change10,11,12,13,14,15,16 and sustainable development17,18,19,20 throughout the world. However, a current knowledge gap in understanding the causes of extreme weather events is the role of concurrent phenomena, noting that different types of phenomena such as cyclones, fronts and thunderstorms can sometimes occur simultaneously in the same geographic region (i.e., concurrently)5,21,22,23,24.

      Kinda makes me wonder about how extreme weather feels about its misdeeds. Perhaps it feels resentment that we don’t build structures and homes that can coexist (concurrently and simultaneously) with extreme weather that just wants to do its thing.

  10. With all the snow events (plus rain) we’ve had this winter and early Spring, and a series of mostly-rain events coming, it’s ta-ta drought here in New Hampshire. I guess that’s what they mean by “weather whiplash”.

  11. The NE has been shattering snowfall records lately.

    In Philly, 130 year-old record broken in 2014:

    http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2014/02/13/snow-totals-piling-up-fast/

    In Boston, 20 years in 2016:

    http://www.wcvb.com/article/boston-breaks-20-year-snowfall-record/8218910

    And all-time seasonal record in El Nino year of 2015-16:

    https://weather.com/news/news/new-england-boston-record-snow-tracker

    Now, this winter, the West is piling up snow in record or near-record amounts.

    But it’s just weather. Unless of course man-made global warming causes more snow.

    • ” Unless of course man-made global warming causes more snow.”

      Of course it does!!! Especially when it’s cold. When it’s warm, it causes that too.
      With more (or less) funds we might finally be able to put a lock on Mann’s climate irritability.

      • Gunga – you are 97% correct.
        The blizzards of 1950, 1956, 1958, 1978 and 2015 were all due to global warming.
        The heavy snowfalls this year are due to us being past the “tipping point”.

        The CO2 horsesh*t has to stop.

    • Perry
      The Metro is owned by a cove called ‘Two-Beards’, son of a Russian Oligarch, who probably made his money greening Siberia, or some such.
      Same stable as the London Evening Standard – shortly to be edited by Blackrock [or is it Goldman Vampire Squid] employee, and practically-full-time MP, George Osborne. For some reason, the European Working Time Directive doesn’t apply to any of his jobs . . . . .

      Auto – with one job.
      Quite enough, unless another paying £500,000 for a four-hour week can be found.
      I guess I don’t know many Vampire Blackrock Merchant Bankers [a well-known bit of Cockney Rhyming Slang!].

  12. “Many of us remember shoveling much of the month, fortunately under a warm March sun!”
    My guess that was some pretty heavy wet snow, too. Makes me cringe just thinking about it.

  13. Oh yeah, how could I forget this other remarkable early March storm? It messed me up pretty badly in Atlanta. Ironically, I was there for a Mensa climate symposium where James Hansen was the keynote speaker. He left right afterwards to get to a protest in Washington DC where they had more snow. I made it back to NH where we had a 9″ of snow and 4″ more a week later.

    More annoyingly, I think I brought some bedbugs with me from Atlanta….

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/03/01/hansens-coal-and-global-warming-protest-may-get-snowed-out/#comment-92826

  14. That great scientist Michael Mann had a great time at that Congressional hearing and a soft, of course, ride on BBC radio – but wittered on about his paper on the extreme weather events caused by global warming. Is the blogosphere ready to shred it?

  15. I was a student in Boston (actually Cambridge) for the Blizzard of 78. I still remember it vividly. It hit right before the first day of spring semester, so all the students were back, but none of the “adults” could get to campus for a week.

    Luckily, our house had just gotten its monthly beer shipment in, so we were in great shape!

    As the blizzard let up, a few friends and I walked across the frozen Charles River into Back Bay Boston. We were literally the only people out on the streets. It reminded me of one of those after-the-holocaust films — very eerie.

    The weather after the blizzard was actually very nice. And since no one was allowed to drive in the city for a week while they cleared the streets, and no one could work, it became a fantastic walking-city holiday.

    They ran out of places to put the snow, so for several months, dump trucks were going around the clock taking plowed snow out to suburban landfills.

  16. Average global atmospheric water vapor is now about 8% higher than it was in 1956, It is countering the cooling that would otherwise be occurring but is a ‘thumb on the scale’ for increased precipitation and harsher weather.

  17. A snowfall of 87 inches in 27½ hours on April 14–15, 1921, was reported at Silver Lake, Colorado. This is regarded as the all-time record snowfall for the U.S. — Of course this was at an elevation of over 10,000 feet; and many other such snowfall records have undoubtedly occurred at such elevations, but were never recorded.

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