50 years Ago: The Great Snowfall of ‘62

Throughout our lifetimes there have been several local events that we all shared, and will always remember. Many of these “where were you when it happened?” moments took place over a matter of seconds, like the 49er’s Dwight Clark’s 1982 catch against Dallas, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, or Brian Wilson’s strikeout of Nelson Cruz to give the San Francisco Giants their first ever World Series Championship. But for me, one of the first of these memories actually lasted for several hours, that is, until it melted away. Of course, I’m referring to the great Bay Area snowfall that happened 50 years ago this week.

Snow was one of the last things Peninsula residents were expecting as we headed for bed on Saturday night, January 20th, 1962. The first month of the year had not only been quite dry, but it had, up that point, been the warmest January in recorded Bay Area history. The National Weather Service predicted Sunday the 21st to be a bit windy with overnight lows somewhere in the low ‘40s. But during the wee hours of the morning, the temperature fell below freezing, and dipped as low as 21 degrees in Woodside. By 5am, snow started falling from San Francisco to Hollister, and continued for more than an hour. By 5:30 am, most of San Francisco and San Mateo Counties were completely covered in white. In Millbrae, residents of Pinehurst Court who were awake early enough to see the initial flurries, busied themselves by waking up everyone else on the block. Although it was still dark 5:45 am, street lamps and porch lights revealed to all of us what had happened during the night. Every kid in the neighborhood could not wait to experience what was for many, their first contact with actual snow. My family was not into skiing or any other Winter Olympic sports, and therefore none of us owned anything that could be described as snow clothes .My mother outfitted us as best she could, and my sisters and I “hit the slopes” in a wide variety of apparel that ranged from old housecoats and ancient sweaters to worn out football jerseys and raincoats.

Even though the snowfall caught us by surprise, most kids instinctively knew what to do. Snowmen and snow forts began to appear throughout the neighborhood, while snowball fights erupted just about everywhere. One Pinehurst Court resident broke out his skis, and attempted to glide down the block, but quickly learned that two inches of powder over asphalt does not exactly add up to Squaw Valley. One helpful group of kids stationed themselves at the top of Larkspur Drive with a handheld sign warning drivers that chains were advised for anyone thinking of motoring down that very steep street. Some other children made an identical sign at the bottom of Larkspur, but it probably was not widely read, as the Millbrae Police Department reported at about 7 am that their vehicles were unable to make it to the top of Larkspur Drive, Hillcrest Blvd, or Lomita Ave.

Pacific Telephone would later report that their switchboards became overloaded by mid-morning, as over 14,000 callers were simultaneously trying to contact everyone they knew on that memorable Sunday. Millbrae’s Hillcrest Pharmacy was overrun by customers wanting to buy film, as thousands of photos were taken that day, almost as if we knew this a once in a lifetime event. Alas, Sunday the 21st turned out to be a fairly sunny day, and the snow began to disappear by the hour. By late afternoon, much of our great snowfall was gone. As if to make up for their missed call from the day before, the weather bureau reported that the cold existing cold front could easily produce another snowfall in the near future. We’re still waiting.

The “blizzard” of 1962 turned out to be no more than two to four inches, and which made it the first significant snowfall since 1932, and the heaviest amount since 1887. Although there have occasional dustings up above Highway 280 over the last 50 years, there has not been anything close the amount of the white stuff that fell on us back in 1962. I’m sure all of everyone who lived on the Peninsula back then had their own personal stories to tell, but my favorite antidote concerns a group of cultural leaders from the Soviet Union, who were visiting the area, and were the houseguests of a local politician. Upon witnessing the “blizzard,” they laughed, claiming that the idea of “sunny California” was surely an example of Western propaganda. One of the Soviets stated that he would be sure not to send any photos back to Kruschev, as he might not think they ever left their country.

Note: The “Great Snowfall of 1962” was estimated to have been responsible for ten injuries and one death due to car crashes caused by the weather.

Photos: The faded black and white picture is of me and my sister Diane, taken at about 5:30 am on that memorable Sunday morning. Notice the snow is still falling. The color photo, taken later that same day, shows Mrs. Daley Planet throwing a snowball with what was left of the “blizzard” by the afternoon of January 21st.