Don’t Mess with Mother Nature, Part 1: The Blizzard of 1978

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Today we’d call it a snowpocalypse, or maybe snowmageddon. Those terms weren’t yet coined when the blizzard of 1978 hit, but they would have been appropriate. First, let’s define the term “blizzard” and then we’ll look at particulars.

“Perhaps the best way to describe a “blizzard” is to say that it is a snowstorm gone wild.  [To be considered a blizzard, certain criteria must be met]:  “Winds of at least 35 mph (frequent gusts are generally considered to qualify) and visibility reduced by falling and/or blowing snow to less than ¼ mile.  The strict application is for the wind and visibility criteria to be met for at least three consecutive hours.”” (American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology as quoted in Mogil, p. 55)

The January 25-27 storm that ravaged the Midwest met this definition in spades. “The storm set records still in place to this day, including the most snow in one month at Indianapolis, 30.6 inches, and the most snow on the ground at Indianapolis, 20 inches. …  Winds would approach 50 mph or more by midnight and continue through the 27th. Temperatures would plummet to a low of zero during the storm, with wind chills approaching -50 on the old wind chill scale. Snowfall rates of nearly one half to as much as one inch per hour were not in and of themselves remarkable, but the duration of the heavy snow was. Significant snowfall lasted about 31 hours at Indianapolis and would be followed by continued cold and high winds. This hampered recovery and relief efforts, leaving much of Indiana crippled for days. In all 15.5 inches of snow would fall at Indianapolis, which combined with the snow already on the ground, would bury the city under 20 inches of snow. In other areas, up to 3 feet of snow fell. The howling winds would push drifts up to as much as 20-25 feet. Visibilities would remain at or below one quarter mile for 25 hours.” Conditions in Ohio were even worse, with 100 mph winds creating enormous drifts of snow.

People were trapped at home/work/in their cars. Then governor Otis Bowen authorized the Indiana National Guard to rescue motorists; the Guard used tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy equipment.

By the afternoon of the 26th, all roads were closed. Several National Weather Service employees in Indianapolis were trapped in the office for 74 hours. Visibility at the Indianapolis airport was at one time as low as 1/8 of a mile. “If you wanted to make a phone call, you were out of luck! Indiana Bell halted all phone traffic except emergency calls.” (pre-cell phone days) Purdue University cancelled classes for only the 3rd time since 1950, and the University of Notre Dame did the same for the first time in its history. In Franklin, IN, the newspaper was printed on pink paper so subscribers could find it (nothing was said about the poor delivery people)!

How would you like to dig your house out of a massive drift like this one in New Whiteland, Indiana?

Little boy digging out snow from the front of his house, 1978. Source:

Little boy digging out snow from the front of his house, 1978. Source:

In Evansville, officers from the sheriff’s department picked up blood supplies from Ohio Valley Blood Services Inc. (then at 123 SE 2nd Street) …

mss 034-2008

Sheriff’s department officer delivering blood from the Ohio Valley Blood Service, Inc. during the blizzard of 1978 in Evansville, Indiana. Source: Gregory Smith collection, MSS 034-2008.

… and delivered it to a train for further transport.

Sheriff's department officer delivering blood during the blizzard of 1978 in Evansville, Indiana. Source: Gregory Smith collection, MSS 034-2029.

Sheriff’s department officer delivering blood during the blizzard of 1978 in Evansville, Indiana. Source: Gregory Smith collection, MSS 034-2029.

“Bev (Weyer) Schulthise, who has spent more than four decades at the Ferdinand Town Office, was a town utility clerk living with her parents in Ferdinand and taking night classes at the University of Southern Indiana [then ISUE] at the time of the blizzard.  In those days, she says, people did not stay glued to the TV watching radar. She took off for school in Evansville that Wednesday only to arrive to find classes canceled.  “Nobody knew exactly what was going on with the weather back then, I don’t think,” Bev says. “You didn’t have the kind of communication you have now.” … Bev’s boyfriend and future husband, the late Gary Schulthise, was working as a commercial artist in Evansville. She made it to his apartment and was stranded there for a couple of days until roads reopened.”

When it was all over, more than 70 people lost their lives in the storm, including 11 in Indiana, 5 in Kentucky, and 51 in Ohio.  Here’s hoping the winter of 2019 will NOT repeat that of 1978!

Resources Consulted:

Evans, Chad.  “Remembering the Blizzard of ’78.”  Channel 44 weather blog, January 26, 2016.

Fowler, Ashley. “9 Frosty Facts About the Blizzard of 1978.”  WIBC BLOG, January 26, 2017.

Mitchell, Dawn. “RetroIndy: Blizzard of 1978.”  Indianapolis Star online, January 25, 2016.

Mogil, H. Michael.  Extreme Weather: Understanding the Science of Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Floods, Heat Waves, Snow Storms, Global Warming and Other Atmospheric Disturbances.  New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2007.  (General Collection QC981 .M645 2007)

MSS 034 The Gregory T. Smith Collection (digital collection available here)

Powell, Bill. “Blizzard of ’78 memories vivid 40 years later.” Dubois County Herald, January 25, 2018.

National Weather Service: Blizzard of 1978 (Indiana)


This entry was posted in American history, Evansville, Indiana, Indiana history, weather. Bookmark the permalink.

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