52 Ancestors: Weathering the Storms of 1979

Posted by: Eileen A. Souza

Buried in the snow near Fargo, N. Dakota 1979. Photo courtesy of Eileen Souza

Buried in the snow near Fargo, N. Dakota 1979. Photo courtesy of Eileen Souza

Why did my car end up buried in the snow? Read on to find out.

I had always wanted to see a solar eclipse at totality, live and in person, but the Mid-Atlantic weather conditions tended to make this unlikely. After some persuasion, I talked several friends from work into making a trip with me to Winnipeg, Canada, listed as the nearest place to us that guaranteed visible totality on February 26, 1979. The temperatures in Winnipeg were hovering around 0° F. and would drop significantly during totality.

The next month was a flurry of activity stocking up on gear and supplies. We hit the Army/Navy stores and outlets to acquire Arctic-rated clothing, snowshoes, sleeping bags, boots, etc. I rented a small U-Haul trailer to hold camp stoves, tent, camera equipment, dried foods and other emergency supplies.

In Maryland, we were having a bad winter. On February 18 and 19 in 1979 an epic winter storm took the Mid-Atlantic by surprise. It became known as the President’s Day Storm of 1979. Much of the country suffered heavy winter storms that year. Historically, the 1979 blizzard on January 13-14 was Chicago’s second-worst storm. During that winter, 89.7 inches of snow blanketed the city.

A little less than a week after the President’s Day storm in Maryland, on February 24, we set out on our great expedition.  Our route took us through Chicago. Chicago was still recovering from its blizzard. Their snow remained until the 6th of March. We had seen in the news the problem Chicago was having clearing their streets because there was no place to put the huge volumes of snow. Driving through Chicago was like driving through a tunnel with walls 15 to 20 feet high of plowed snow. Although the route we took through Chicago was at least two lanes, maybe four, the view was comparable to this image

Our remaining drive to Winnipeg was uneventful. It was the 26th of February 1979, and the four of us were standing in a field (or should I say ‘on a field’ since we were wearing snowshoes) in Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada. We were outfitted in full Arctic gear, setting up our camera equipment, in anticipation of the sun being blocked out by the moon.

As soon as the eclipse was over, we packed up the car and trailer for our return trip, since we had to be back at work. But fate had other designs.  Immediately after we turned left at Fargo, North Dakota to continue east, we ran into a severe ice storm that blew my car off the highway and plopped it down on three feet of snow in the middle of a field.

We were congratulating ourselves on the wisdom of hauling all the emergency supplies when a huge tractor trailer pulled up on the side of the highway. The driver offered to help. We had a mountain climbing rope that he used to attempt to pull us out, but it immediately snapped in two. We ended up riding back in his truck to the nearest town to spend the night until the car could be towed, getting back to work a day late, delighted that we weathered all these storms. What a great adventure!!!


The 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, initiated by Amy Johnson Crow, is a series of weekly prompts to get you to think about an ancestor and share something about them. These prompts take care of the guesswork of “who should I write about.” This week’s theme is Storms.

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