Six snow storms battered Fergus, Elora in winter of 1947

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

So far we have been lucky this winter: there have been no major blizzards.

Such was not the case with the worst winter on record, that of 1947. That year, seven blizzards in a nine-week period played havoc with transportation and communications.

The last of these storms, and the most severe, took place in the first week of March, 1947.

Over the years, anecdotes of the big 1947 storm have been told, retold, and published. As far as I am aware, no one has ever reconstructed the whole story of the most severe winter ever experienced in this area.

The blizzard of March 1947 had such a great impact due to the weather experienced over the previous two months. The winter of 1946-47 began uneventfully, with a few moderate snowfalls. Problems began on Dec. 27, 1946.

The temperature was mild that day, and in late afternoon freezing rain began to fall, and continued all night. By morning everything was coated with more than a half inch of ice. Wind, coupled with the weight of the ice, took a fearful toll on trees, particularly maples and elms. Crashing limbs and trees took down hydro lines and telephone wires.

Fergus and Elora suffered only brief cuts in power, but some rural areas were still in the dark five days later. A snowfall of over six inches exacerbated the problems on Jan. 2. Bell Telephone crews were overwhelmed.

There were no underground cables in 1947; virtually all circuits were on individual wires, with some poles carrying four cross arms. Long distance service to Fergus and Elora was out for almost two weeks, and the company estimated it would take three months to restore service completely.

The weather turned mild for a few days in mid January. Rain melted the ice and some of the snow, but the remaining drifts froze into hard blocks when the weather turned cold.

A blizzard blew up on Jan. 21, blocking all roads in the area. Snow plows could not keep up, and their work was hindered by abandoned cars. North of Fergus, drifts were more than 10 feet high.

Motorists prevailed on farmers for overnight shelter, and high school students had to stay with friends in town when the afternoon busses were unable to run. John Campbell of Fergus suffered severe leg injuries when he was hit by a car. He had been pushing another vehicle out of a drift just north of Guelph.

No sooner did work crews have the mess cleaned up when another blizzard dumped more than a foot of wet, heavy snow on the area on Jan. 28. An east wind created a new set of drifts, and the events of a week before were repeated.

Snow banks along the roads that had been plowed towered more than 10 feet high in places. Yet another blizzard, on Feb. 4 and 5, proved to be too much for the snow plows. The Department of Highways brought in a rotary plow, capable of blowing the snow 300 feet. It took this machine six hours to clear a single lane from Arthur to Fergus. By now, there were drifts more than 20 feet high.

Bell Telephone was still struggling to restore lines from the ice storm of Dec. 27, and had more lines down with each storm. The company brought in a large Bombardier snowmobile to move crews along unplowed roads.

In Fergus, Canadian National derailed a snow plow on the crosstown siding on St. Patrick Street. It was tilted precariously toward Reeve Milligan’s house, but the crew managed to get it back on the track.

The fifth blizzard of the winter lasted three days, from Feb. 8 to 10. A Fergus tow truck pushed a plow on Highway 6 to give more power through the drifts, before abandoning the effort. Roads into Fergus and Elora were closed for two days. The railways remained open, but trains ran at least an hour late, invariably preceded by plows.

Conditions in north Wellington were even worse. A group of 36 students were at a hockey game in Palmerston when the storm came up. They tried to drive home, but were caught in drifts and had to spend the night in an unheated barn. They managed to get to Arthur the next day, and spent the night there.

Arthur seems to have suffered the worst conditions. Dozens of motorists were stranded there for two nights. A CPR snow plow and two locomotives derailed just out of town, closing the line from Feb. 5 to 7.

The winter was far from over, and already old-timers were comparing it with the worst one in memory, back in 1907-08.

Yet another blizzard, the sixth of the winter, began on Feb. 22 and lasted a week. By Feb. 27 the roads were all blocked again. The railways ran plow trains every few hours, but still had to close some of the lines north of Palmerston for brief periods. Highway crews managed to get one lane open between Fergus and Arthur – there was simply no room to push the snow. The OPP ran the highway with one-way traffic, using 90-minute intervals in each direction.

There were many accidents related to the weather, and several injuries. Fergus lawyer Allan Wilson suffered a heart attack after pushing a car out of a drift, and Jim Leybourne was hit by a car south of Elora while investigating another accident.

London lawyer Sam Lerner exhibited the most determined effort to beat the weather. Stranded at Muir’s service station in Cumnock for two days, he called a ski plane to pick him up and take him home so that he could keep some important appointments.

Fergus town crews were hard-pressed to keep the streets open. For the first time, they cleared St. Andrew Street of snow using a power shovel and dump trucks.

Previous to the winter of 1947, Elora had rarely plowed any streets. This time, the village hired plows when they were available. The Pilkington grader cleared the main streets, and private contractors hauled the snow away, dumping it in the river.

After the succession of blizzards, roads and railways had become narrow alleys. The province’s rotary plow was able to blow the snow well away from the road shoulders, but there was so much snow that the wings of the plows could neither push the snow any higher or back any farther.

The railways were able to push the snow banks back in open country, but in cuttings the snow could not be pushed back –there was simply no room. Any more snow would create a major problem.

The problem was not long in coming. On March 3 another blizzard blew into the area, the seventh of the winter.

It would prove to be the worst of all, and the one that earned 1947 its place in local lore.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on March 12, 1997.

Thorning Revisited