This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Looking down on snow-stricken northwestern Texas from a private plane on Feb. 4, 1956, a photographer for the Associated Press likened the “gigantic, white no-man’s land” to “a huge white sheet thrown over a world-sized bed (with) no sign of roads or people.”
According to an official report by the U.S. Weather Bureau, the freak storm came in two stages. Part One was a rather ordinary front that hardly covered the ground in the Texas Panhandle. The heaviest accumulations were in eastern New Mexico and El Paso, where children, who had never seen snow, frolicked in five inches of the cold wet stuff.
Part Two was no fun at all, however, as the weather system stalled over the Panhandle and deposited record amounts of snow on an area bounded by Amarillo to the north, Lubbock to the east, Wink to the south and Roswell and Tucumcari, New Mexico to the west. High winds with gusts as strong as 50 miles an hour piled the snow in dangerous drifts and made it all but impossible to see.
With an annual snowfall of 16 inches, the residents of Amarillo did not think much of the couple of inches that greeted them on the morning of Feb. 2. If anything, they were disappointed given the drought that had kept Mother Nature’s tap turned off since October.
Forecasters predicted the snow would peter out late that day, and for once they were right. What the meteorologists failed to foresee was the second stage, which arrived the next morning and for two solid days dumped snow on the Panhandle and South Plains.
At first light on Feb. 5, the snow was 14 inches deep in Amarillo, but Texas’ northernmost city had gotten off light compared to nearby Vega. The small community halfway between Amarillo and the New Mexico line was buried beneath an unbelievable 61 inches – a state record that stands to this day.
The snow got progressively deeper the farther south in the Panhandle. Canyon had 18 inches, Hereford, Happy and Dimmitt two full feet, Plainview a paralyzing 29 inches and Hale Center three inches shy of three feet.
Snow surrounded homes in Plainview leaving only the roofs visible. Six to eight-foot drifts blocked streets inside the city limits and all roads in and out of town.
A farmer tried to take his sick wife to a Plainview hospital 12 miles away but drove into a snowbank just four miles from home. He found a working telephone at a cotton gin and called the electric company, which sent a truck cross-county to rescue the couple.
National Guardsmen and highway patrolmen slowly worked their way south from Plainview down U.S. Highway 87. They managed to free the half-frozen occupants of 30 automobiles and a bus from their frigid prison of snow.
The most stirring saga of the historic storm took place on legendary Route 66. Early in the morning of Feb. 5, Continental Trailways driver John Hearon pulled out of the Amarillo bus station with 16 passengers, two children and 14 adults, and headed west in the blinding blizzard toward Tucumcari, New Mexico.
Less than 10 miles from the Texas-New Mexico boundary, the bus slipped off the icy asphalt and into a snow-filled ditch. Presuming it was only a matter of time until help arrived from Tucumcari, the driver stayed with his worried passengers.
At half past two that afternoon, Hearon decided he had no choice but to go for help. That meant walking eight miles through waist-deep snow to tiny Glenrio on the New Mexico side of the state line.
“I fell down at least three times but I knew I had to get up and go on,” Hearon later said from a hospital bed. “I was afraid to stop because I knew I would never start again.”
But he did accept an invitation to warm up from one of the stalled cars he passed. He lingered just long enough to take off the chill before resuming his bone-chilling hike.
It was 11 o’clock that night, when Hearon at last saw the lights of Glenrio. Exhausted, snow-blind in one eye and nearly delirious, he collapsed 200 yards from his destination.
The only thing John Hearon could think to do was to whistle. Off in the distance, someone heard his distress call and within minutes his ordeal was over.
Three “Land of Enchantment” highway patrol cars followed a road grader to the stranded bus. The anxious passengers were cold and very hungry after their 21-hour wait, but they were alive thanks to their dedicated driver.
After the blizzard finally blew itself out, radio stations instructed isolated farmers and ranchers “to stamp signals in the snow” for what they needed – “X” for fuel, “F” for food and “D” for doctor. Military aircraft from bases in the region began dropping the requested items in bulk along with hay for livestock that had gone five days without eating.
The official death count was put at 23. In addition to the toll in human lives, thousands of cattle froze to death.
Thirteen months later, the Texas Panhandle and South Plains braced for another blitz by Old Man Winter. But to everyone’s relief, the snow storm of Mar. 22-25, 1957 paled in comparison to the Blizzard of 1956.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.