But this isn’t a story just about that blizzard; it’s also about how the media talks about its aftermath. It’s been nearly 50 years since the largest single snowfall in Chicago history, and not only are local news outlets still publishing retrospectives, they’re also still hung up on a single, microcosmic detail — written in a sentence or two or in a quote like this one, usually below the fold:
“Some of the snow from 1967, there was so much of it, they didn’t know what to do with it,” said Peter Alter, resident historian at the Chicago History Museum. “They put it on train cars, and they shipped it to Florida for kids who had never seen snow.” –DNAinfo, January 9, 2015
It was a tidbit like this that inspired a question that came all the way from a classroom of fourth and fifth graders in High Point, North Carolina. They had learned about the ‘67 blizzard and, being school kids themselves, they were particularly enamored with the Chicago-to-Florida snow train delivery. So, they asked us for help filling in the blanks:
Was there really a trainful of snow surplus shipped from Chicago to Florida school kids? How did that even happen?
I’ll tell you right now: It happened, all right, and the story’s details are worth revisiting. Because when you retrace the making of this Chicago mini-legend, you can see click-bait journalism being written across the front pages of mainstream newspapers — 40 years before its time.
Not all snow trains lead to Florida
The story of the Chicago Blizzard of 1967 starts on January 26, when it snowed for 29 hours straight. Having been 65 degrees just two days before, the storm took many people off guard. More than two feet of snow covered the region, with reports of drifts up to 10 feet high. Cars were discarded like cigarette butts over expressways. There was no public transportation, no access to grocery stores, no way to get to work. Twenty-three people died in the Chicago area, mostly from heart attacks while shoveling snow.
It took three weeks for the Department of Streets and Sanitation to plow the city streets. Desperate for places to put the stuff, they dumped it in any vacant lot they could find: Park District land, neighborhood lots, even the Chicago River.
Some Chicago rail yards came up with their own solution for snow that built up in their depots. It’s kind of bizarre in its simplicity: Shove it on freight trains already heading south. The warmer weather would do the job, melting the stuff in transit.
“They sent it because they wanted to get rid of it,” A.W. Pirtle, supervisor of the Illinois Central Railroad’s Memphis depot told the Associated Press (probably rolling his eyes). And in Chicago, the ordeal made front-page news:
Tribune story with photos
Dozens of train lines followed suit, and this solution — extolled in headlines such as this — grew into a national story. It was picked up by the Associated Press, and photographs of trains carrying heaps of sooty, Chicago snow from the blizzard appeared in papers around the country as the rail cars made their way to Tennessee, Alabama and Texas.
A 1,300-mile regift, remembered
The story was even picked up by national television, and eventually reached the ears and eyes of a 13-year-old girl in the town of Fort Myers Beach, Florida.
We found that girl through the White Pages. Her name is Terri Bell (last name Hodson at the time), and, at age 61, she still lives in Fort Myers Beach.
She says after hearing the broadcast about trainloads of Chicago snow heading south, she wrote a letter to William Quinn, the president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, asking him to send her some snow because, as a Floridian, she had never seen any.
And he did.
It’s just that 13-year-old Terri Hodson hadn’t realized that all of the other southbound snow was shipped in uninsulated cars — the whole point being to melt. But Quinn, possibly sensing a brilliant PR stunt but possibly out of the goodness of his heart, had the snow shipped to Florida in refrigerator cars.
Hear Terri tell her own story of getting Chicago shipped 1,300 miles to Florida