Blizzards are not a new phenomenon in Minnesota. The Minnesota Historical Society houses photos showing trains crawling through 20-ft. snow tunnels back in the late 1800s. And surely, the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 was one of the deadliest. But the blizzard that most people remember today is the Halloween Blizzard of 1991, a three-day event that broke weather records, put a halt to unfinished roadwork and gave trick-or-treaters something to talk about for many years.
It was 65 degrees on Oct. 29, more than 10 degrees above normal. The following day the high was a mere 32 degrees. According to the Minnesota State Climatology Office, seasoned veterans at the National Weather Service knew a large storm was coming. Most forecasts for Thursday, Oct. 31 called for a cold rain by afternoon.
Mother Nature had other ideas.
The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch at 4 a.m. on the 31st and warned of the possibility of a foot of snow. By 11:30 a.m., the rain had changed to snow, and the white stuff began piling up at an alarming rate.
Mary Brady was teaching at Pillsbury. She wrote on the I Love NE Facebook page, “I recall parents coming to pick up their kids. The day before had been very warm and most kids came wearing summer-like clothes that morning!”
By rush hour, traffic was stalled throughout the Twin Cities as parents tried desperately to get home to take their kids out for trick-or-treating. I was one of them, inching along the Crosstown Freeway, letting the clutch in and out of my 1982 Ford Escort and never getting out of first gear.
Back in Northeast, my daughter was busy dressing as the Little Mermaid (the Disney movie was hot that year), putting on long underwear beneath her costume and donning her snowboots before pinning a plush Sebastian the crab to her shoulder. She and her father headed out into the storm. She was one of many Northeast kids who went trick-or-treating that night and came home pink-cheeked and sopping wet, with a better than average haul.
Char Zach remembers pushing stuck cars as her kids made the rounds. “People [were] tossing candy to the kids because they couldn’t make it to the door,” she wrote. “I thought it was fun!”
“I was seven and I was surprised how many people still participated,” chimed in Tina Marie Blexrud. But Cindy Nelson was disappointed. “It was my first year in a duplex rather than an apartment and [I] was so excited to hand out candy. Six kids only. Dads were pulling them on sleds.”
Mary Ostapenko Anstett recalled, “It was my son’s very first Halloween. I put him in a fuzzy bear costume and we attempted to visit family and friends in the car. [The] car got stuck on 17th, he fell asleep in his car seat with a sucker stuck between the furry head cover and cheek. It was miserable!”
Kids weren’t the only ones plowing through the snow. Brenda Beaulieu said, “I was seven months pregnant. I put a trick or treat sign on my belly pointing to my belly and went trick or treating. We got a few kids at the door as well.”
People who owned snowmobiles fired them up and rode through otherwise impassable city streets and alleys. The whine of the engines broke the silence of the storm.
By midnight the weather service had recorded 8.2 inches of snow at the airport, and the storm intensified. The snow continued to salt down as daylight broke Nov. 1. Schools and businesses – including 3M and Dayton’s department store – closed for the day as plowing crews got down to the serious business of finding a place to put the snow. The Nov. 13, 1991 issue of the Northeaster described their efforts.
“Snow plows took to the streets in Minneapolis, Columbia Heights and St. Anthony as soon as things looked serious,” wrote reporter Gail Fillmore (Olson). She quoted Brian Lokkesmoe, Minneapolis public works director, “Everybody was out by 9 p.m. Thursday. We’ve been working around the clock ever since.” Three hundred people and 100 plows were set to the task of clearing the city’s 3,200 “lane miles.” Lokkesmoe said crews found Northeast difficult to clear because of its tall hills. “They have to get down to the bare pavement in the residential areas before it’s safe to drive on those hills. That takes some work.”
Columbia Heights City Manager Stuart Anderson said his much smaller city was the first in the metro area to get completely plowed out.
In St. Anthony, plow crews went out at 3 a.m. Friday and finished by 10:30 or 11 a.m. They plowed again on Saturday. “We plowed a total of three times,” said St. Anthony’s Public Works Director Larry Hamer.
As often happens after a blizzard, the temperature dropped below zero. The two suburbs soon had other problems associated with the storm. In Columbia Heights, four water mains broke in six days because of see-sawing temperatures. In St. Anthony, a semi truck ran into a fire hydrant at 35th Avenue and Harding Street. Olson quoted Hamer, “He tore the hydrant right out of the ground. It took three guys 16 hours to reset a new hydrant. Water was going all over the place, and we had to cut off approximately two blocks of residents’ water service overnight.”
Although she was not affected by broken water mains, Deborah Persell recalled roughing it in her own home: “Got snowed in for three days in the Stinson Triangle. No power and no heat. Two young girls. Couldn’t get out to get to work. Stoked up the fireplace and brought out the sleeping bags. Lit one on fire one night from the sparks. Not able to cook, so took the sled down to Red Owl [in the St. Anthony shopping center], it was a skating rink. Walked to the liquor store and got a case of beer. Stopped at the hardware store and bought heater coils for the roof, went to the grocery store and got food that didn’t have to be cooked. Worst was no coffee, no heat and no stove. Kids thought it was the ultimate adventure. We survived.”
All told, the Twin Cities received a record 28.4 inches of snow between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, 1991. It’s too early to forecast the weather for this Halloween. Let’s hope it’s dry.
Below: File photo from the Northeaster, November 13, 1991 edition.