About 200 people listened to a presentation by local weather historian Karl Bohnak Tuesday night on the Upper Peninsula’s legendary blizzard of 1938. On Jan. 24 and 25 of that year, heavy snow totaling about 20 inches fell, covering most of the U.P. and shutting down daily activities for the rest of the week. The storm was widespread, with the snow total in Ironwood amounting to 32 inches.
Bohnak said the snow was so wet, it was described in contemporary accounts as having the consistency of sand. The conditions were worsened by gale-force winds, which made the snow drift into huge banks then harden to the point people could walk on top of it.
The mines, businesses and schools closed, and small towns like Deerton in Alger County were basically cut off from outside communication, Bohnak said.
Only two deaths were attributed to the storm, both in the Copper Country, he said. One was a plow driver who got stuck in the snow and was asphyxiated by carbon monoxide in the cab. The other was a lumberjack near Lake Linden who froze to death in his truck.
Some residents shared their own stories of the blizzard.
Marlene (Ranta) Hanson, 75, of Marquette, told of how her parents owned Hillcrest Dairy in Green Garden at the time. Travelers on U.S. 41 were stranded and came to her family’s house for shelter.
“There were 50 people in my grandmother’s home and 50 people in my mother’s home, and we had to feed them,” Hanson recalled.
With no electricity or hot water in the houses, the family relied on a steam pump in the dairy barn to boil potatoes for the crowd to eat.
“I think that’s probably all they ate — potatoes,” she said.
Don Curto, 84, of Marquette, was 14 at the time of the storm and recalled not only the weather, but the fire that destroyed Marquette’s historic Opera House during the blizzard. He skied downtown afterward to take photos of the destruction, he said.
“I was young enough during this that it was more exciting than fearsome,” Curto said.
The Opera House and three other buildings were gutted by the fire, which was discovered in the early morning hours of Jan. 25. It had been burning for hours already.
The high winds, blowing snow and lack of water pressure meant firefighters struggled all day trying to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings. They eventually succeeded, but $400,000 worth of damage was done — in 1938 dollars.
The sheer amount of snow, while essentially shutting down daily life, was a wonder to the children of the area, Curto recalled.
“The benefit of this storm was my friends ... and I skied behind my house, down behind all the houses on the street, on top of the garages,” he said.
Marion Sonderegger, 85, of Marquette, said the same, although without the garages.
“We went all over town to see what the storm had done, but we never went to school,” she said.
Ralph Peterson, 77, of Beaver Grove, was 8 years old that winter, and recalls his father Julius working for Marquette County as a plow driver. The elder Peterson went to plow near Rumely and got stuck there for three days after the plow’s engine failed in the cold weather.
“There was no antifreeze in those days,” Peterson said.
Ralph and his brother were given the job of getting wood from the family’s woodshed to heat the house. A typical chore, except that snow was drifted up to the woodshed’s roof. The boys dug a hole down to the door, and Ralph threw logs up the hole to his brother, he said.
The difference between that kind of storm then and now, Bohnak said, was that Marquette County didn’t have the kind of heavy snowplowing equipment it does now. Much of the snow was shoveled away by hand, with groups of men banding together to do the work.
“Today we’d be able to handle a storm like the one in ’38 a lot better, but it’d still have a major impact,” he told the audience.
After the presentation, Bohnak said the ’38 storm has a way of living in residents’ memories — although there have been worse storms before and since.
“It’s really a legend. When I came up here, it’s the first thing I heard about,” Bohnak said. “People just can’t forget that one. It’s the storm against which all others are measured.”
Marquette’s downtown Opera House after the blizzard of 1938 and coinciding fire, which gutted four buildings nearby. (Jean Carey photo)