Friday, February 18, 2022

Before the memory fades: Long-time Windham residents remember the crippling blizzard of 1952, seventy years ago

Orange Walter Truck: A 1931 Walter Snow-Fighter truck
used in Windham and surrounding communities from 1943
through the 1950s is shown. Equipped with a high V-plow
and 12-foot wing, this powerful machine busted through tall,
hard-packed snow drifts. The distinctive chug-lug-lug sound of
its engine signaled snow-bound residents that their roads
were about to be cleared out. The truck was owned and
restored by Windham's Don Rogers.
By Walter Lunt

It was starting to snow as Windham Center resident Lloyd Gilman, 19, pulled out of his driveway in the late afternoon of Saturday, February 16, 1952. Despite the threat of a storm, Gilman was determined not to miss the movie playing at the Star Theater on Main Street in Westbrook.

By the time he emerged from the theater later that evening, the storm had picked up immensely. “It was coming down hard and blowing a gale. I had my father’s big, heavy Buick with summer treads. There were cars (that had slid) off the road. I just kept hoping the cars ahead of me didn’t spin out on the hills. I knew I’d be okay if I could just keep rolling.”

Gilman made it home, only to discover a very high snowdrift had formed across the end of his driveway. “I (backed up and) half buried the car right into the drift…and went to bed.” He shoveled it out the next day.

A savage nor’easter, working its way through New England, delivered blinding snow and turbulent winds to Southern Maine on that Saturday, seventy years ago this week. Weather forecasting was less sophisticated then – most people expected snow, but the severity was a surprise.

In what became known as the great Blizzard of 1952, the storm turned out to be two days of blistering cold, howling non-stop winds, and blinding snow. The Weather Bureau, as it was known then, later estimated it had dropped 25.4 inches of snow, bolstered by 45 mph sustained winds and gusts to 65 mph. Drifting snow mounted to 15 feet, higher in some spots. Up to that time, it was estimated to be the third worst snow event in greater Portland history. “It was a doozy,” said one resident.

Whole communities were marooned for up to 48 hours following the storm. Photos show drifts that climbed up the side of houses to the roofs, and children sledding out of second-story bedroom windows. One South Portland resident reported he couldn’t push his front door outward against thickly packed snow and had to exit a second-floor window onto a porch. After jumping into a snowbank, he observed his driveway was completely clear of snow. It was not uncommon to see tunnels, rather than shoveled paths that led from front doors to a driveway. Newspapers’ banner headlines announced most roads were impassable and filled in again almost as soon as they were plowed. All activity, except shoveling, was restricted for two days for most citizens.

Teams of shovelers helped to open up town squares so that snowbound residents could reach essential services like grocery, fuel and pharmacies. Carrol McDonald, 97, lived at Baker’s Corner (Binga’s) at the time. “All the roads were blocked. You couldn’t go anywhere (and) everything came to a halt; you couldn’t even get to South Windham.” But, he added, there was plenty of coal in the basement to keep the fires going, and plenty of canned preserves from the garden.

Statewide, the Portland Press Herald/Evening Express reported there were an estimated 1000 travelers stranded along roadways; main streets appeared as “ghost towns;” hand-drawn signs that read “Careful, this is a car” were posted atop snowdrifts that concealed vehicles within; mail in some isolated hamlets was delivered on horseback, milk from farm to dairy was delivered by horse-drawn sleds; an expectant mother gave successful birth after being drawn on a toboggan several miles to a hospital and 200 travelers crowded into Union Station in Portland after being rescued from their stranded vehicles on Route 1 near Biddeford by a Boston & Maine railroad train.

At sea, in what is regarded as one of the most daring rescues of the U.S. Coast Guard, 32 crew members of the storm-stricken tanker Pendelton, which broke in two off Cape Cod, were rescued. Eight, however, were lost.

Longtime Windham resident and businessman Don Rich remembers two heroes of the great storm, both non-human: the bulldozer and the Walter truck. Both possessed unmatched plow power through high, wind-packed drifts, and were used on roadways to literally clear the way for conventional snowplows.

The Walter, manufactured in New York by Walter Motor Truck Co., was known chiefly for snow removal equipment. Called the Walter Snow-Fighter, it was a heavy-duty, all-wheel drive truck with a specially designed chassis. In winter it was equipped with a giant V-plow and a 12-foot-long wing. Built mainly from 1929 to 1980, it was well-known and appreciated by public works personnel, private contractors and the general public.

Rich was a volunteer firefighter at the time of the great storm, and recalls just as the storm had subsided, the siren at the North Windham fire barn screamed out the unthinkable: a house fire while the roads were still clogged with drifts. Living on Route 302, Rich waited to hear the familiar chug-a-lug-lug of the Walter advancing slowly toward his house, pushing aside the great drifts, a (tank pumper) fire truck right behind it. He boarded the fire truck and learned the fire was located near the sharp turn on Highland Cliff Road, the Kneeland House. Rich knew the family and feared they would arrive too late. Unfortunately, he was right. As the slow-moving Walter and fire apparatus rounded the corner on Highland Cliff, “…the (complex) was half burned down – we could see there was no hope of saving it.” The Westbrook American newspaper reported “Besides the house, a shed, garage and a barn with 50 tons of hay were lost.” The total loss was estimated at $10,000. All the occupants got out safely. Few possessions were saved.

In Raymond, however, there was tragedy. Equipment from Windham was being used to clear Egypt Road. According to Rich, a Walter truck, operated by private contractor Joseph Gerdis, was attached and being pushed by a bulldozer. Gerdis, it seems, sensed a problem, opened the driver’s door, and leaned out of the truck to look back. He slipped, fell out and was killed.

Longtime and well-known Windham resident Norma (Kimball) Rogers said she remembers the great blizzard. “I was just out of high school, and I lived with my family on Albion Road. I missed a few days of work at Blue-Cross in Portland because of (the storm). I also remember my brothers building (snow) forts out in the yard. We were snowed in for days.”

Norma later married Don Rogers of Windham who worked at his father’s trucking and excavation business at Windham Center. While his future wife was snowed-in on the Albion Road farm, Don was working the storm in his 1931 Walter truck. He told a reporter in 2012 (covering the storm’s 60th anniversary), “I plowed all night and all the next day – the worst one we ever saw here.”

Perhaps Roger’s favorite story of the blizzard concerned the “freeing” of Windham Hill residents. As he opened the road at the top of the hill, he was greeted with hoots, hollers and clapping by a crowd of citizens on snowshoes who had heard the chugging strain of his Walter’s engine coming up the steep grade.

Don Rogers passed away in 2020.

These are just a few of the memories of the storm many were happy to forget. But all had to admit, it really was a doozy. <

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