Anniversary of the 1991 Halloween megastorm

At 11 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 4, 1991, Duluth residents continued to dig out from the storm on East Seventh Street. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

NOTE: This post was compiled in 2011…
This week is the 20th anniversary of the Halloween megastorm, which ranks among the most severe – if not the most severe – winter storms to strike Minnesota and the Northland.

It certainly sits atop the snowfall record books for Duluth, having dumped nearly 37 inches of snow – 36.9 inches to be exact. That shattered the previous single-storm record by nearly a foot.

Copied below are two articles that ran in the News Tribune in October 2001, looking back at the storm on its 10th anniversary – one a chronological account of the storm’s sweep across the region, and the other a look at the meteorology of the blizzard. And there are more photos that ran in the News Tribune as the storm raged two decades ago; I apologize for the marks on the photos; they had to be photographed off microfilm because the original glossy prints have gone missing.

You can share your storm memories by posting a comment (click the “voice bubble” at the top right of this post). And if you have any storm photos to share, send them to akrueger(at)duluthnews.com.

Traffic is sparse and pedestrians few on Superior Street in downtown Duluth as heavy snow falls on the morning of November 1, 1991. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

A BLIZZARD OF MEGASTORM MEMORIES

By Chuck Frederick, News-Tribune staff writer, October 2001

A little snow on the pumpkin — no biggie.

And that’s all it was.

At first.

Before it ended, though, the storm that hit Minnesota and then the Northland 10 years ago today would be the stuff of legend. It would even get its own nickname: the Halloween megastorm.

Decades-old records fell during the three-day winter blast. Duluth alone received more than a yard of snow. Across the state, blinding whiteouts hampered travel, cars slid into ditches, forecasters issued blizzard warnings, power outages darkened homes, principals closed more than 400 schools and owners shut down more than 500 businesses.

An estimated 190 million cubic feet of snow had to be plowed, shoveled and blown away by crews in Duluth.

Everyone was left with a story.

Cars lost under snowbanks. Kids sledding down suddenly deserted hillside avenues. Workers stranded. Snowmobilers in full glory. Weddings called off. Births that couldn’t be. And trick-or-treating. Did anyone make it to more than just a few houses that night?

The storm wound up clouding Duluth’s mayoral election, with supporters of one candidate charging that supporters of the other candidate were plowed out while they were forced to wait.

Who could ever forget it? Who’d ever want to? Here’s a look back at the largest snowstorm in Duluth history.

A group of current and former UMD students didn’t let the heavy snow deter them from enjoying an afternoon in a hot tub at a home on Second Street on Nov. 1, 1991. Clockwise from far right are Kris Simon, Mike Erickson, Brenda Berglund, Cal Matten, Dennis Karp, Jay Lyle, Becky Sunnarberg, Aaron Stoskopf and Eric Rajala.  (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

THURSDAY, OCT. 31, 1991

7 a.m. — Railroad worker Tom Johnston of Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood wades into the Brule River in Northwestern Wisconsin. “The fish were literally jumping on the banks,” he reports. “I don’t know how many I caught, but it was a ton.”

1:30 p.m. — A light, fluffy, postcard-quality snow swirls across Duluth and parts of the Northland.

2 p.m. — With the snow just beginning and with winter weather advisories posted, Duluth’s Judy Rogers remembers an order of 120 tulip bulbs she received weeks earlier from a mail-order catalog. She hurries home from work at a travel agency, slips a snowsuit over her good clothes, and then sets out digging six-inch holes, one for each bulb. Motorists honk in support of her earnestness. “Better hurry up,” one of them shouts from East Superior Street.

3 p.m. — Snow begins to accumulate on the edges of roads, then in grassy areas. The storm strengthens.

4 p.m. — The Walter J. McCarthy, a 1,000-foot coal carrier that makes weekly trips from Superior to Michigan, sails toward Duluth. Unable to see the Aerial Lift Bridge through what is now a whiteout, the boat’s captain joins several others in deciding to anchor off-shore.

4:15 p.m. — Duluth angler Tom Johnston leaves the Brule River after a huge day of fishing. He trudges through the deepening snow and climbs into his truck. For several hours, he tries but fails to climb a hill that leads from the remote parking area back to the sleepy country road above. “I didn’t think I was going to make it home at all,” he said. “I thought I’d spend the night in my truck. It was scary.”

4:30 p.m. — Like other kids across the Northland, Bobbi Pirkola’s children bundle winter clothing under their Halloween costumes in Esko and prepare to set out for trick-or-treating.

4:45 p.m. — With the storm raging, the Pirkola children abandon their plans. Instead, they join Mom in shoveling the driveway. “I’m sure we made quite a picture,” Bobbi Pirkola said. “An ugly witch, an old bum and Rambo all out shoveling snow. It was one of the best Halloweens ever.”

5 p.m. — Emily Meyer, 3, sets out for trick-or-treating in her Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood, the long green fin of her Little Mermaid costume leaving a wake in the fresh snow behind her.

7:30 p.m. — Back along the shores of the Brule River, snowbound angler Tom Johnston perks up. Headlights. A 4-by-4 truck pulls into the parking lot where he’s been stuck for hours. “He broke trail for me,” Johnston said. “He crawled up that hill and I followed. I tried two or three times and finally, thankfully, I made it, too. Nowadays when it snows, I head home real quick.”

Rachel Armstrong of Duluth tries to dig her car out of deep snow on Nov. 1, 1991, during the worst of the Halloween megastorm. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

FRIDAY, NOV. 1, 1991

2 a.m. — Furniture topples and cabinets pour open aboard the 1,000-foot Walter J. McCarthy Jr. The boat rolls wildly in the storm, reports watchman John Clark of Duluth. The captain decides to pull up anchor and head for Thunder Bay, where he hopes there are calmer waters. “It was waist deep on the deck,” Clark said. “Sailors just aren’t used to moving around in that. It was awful.”

8 a.m. — Don Johnson steps into his Lakeside home’s attached garage and presses the garage door opener. A floor-to-ceiling wall of white fills the garage’s opening. “A snowblower would be useless,” he said. “Where would a person put the snow?”

8:15 a.m. — After weeks of praying for snow, Dorothy Carlson’s granddaughter is delighted as she makes her way to the breakfast table in Two Harbors. The eighth-grader is visiting from the Philippines, where her parents serve in the Navy. She had never seen snow. “Tina, you didn’t have to pray so hard,” her grandmother teasingly scolds.

8:30 a.m. — In Ely, Vermilion Community College student and football player Tim Myles fights through the storm to pick up a marriage license. He realizes there’s no way he and his fiancee will make it to the courthouse in Virginia for the ceremony.

11 a.m. — The phone rings in Marcella Von Goertz’s Hunters Park home. “How are you doing over there?” a voice comes from across the street. “Just fine,” Von Goertz answers, “as long as I have electricity, heat and telephone. Only I can’t get out of the house.” The front door is drifted shut.

11:15 a.m. — Betty Plaunt, the owner of the voice across the street, crawls over the snow piles with shovel in hand. She pokes holes in the snow like an ice angler. Then, an inch of snow at a time, she frees Von Goertz’s door from its tomb.

Noon — Gusts up to 60 mph whip the fresh snow. Nearly 4 1/2 additional inches fall during the morning, pushing the storm total past 13 inches, with no sign of letting up.

12:15 p.m. — With license in hand but no way to get to the courthouse in Virginia, Tim Myles calls churches around Ely. On the third call, he finds a pastor who agrees to perform the ceremony.

1 p.m. — Marti Switzer calls an ambulance to her Lincoln Park/West End home. Her 19-month old daughter Carleigh is lethargic and running a fever, likely a reaction to immunization shots the day before. But an ambulance can’t get through the snow. A pair of snowmobilers happen by and offer help. They go to the house and carry Switzer and her daughter back to the main road, where emergency personnel await. “I never did get to thank them,” Switzer said. “They may have saved my daughter’s life.”

3 p.m. — The best man and maid of honor both snowbound, Ely’s Tim Myles corrals two teammates from his college football team. The vows are exchanged — with a free safety as best man and a linebacker as maid of honor. The happy couple celebrates with Hot Pockets at the Holiday gas station, about the only business open. Theirs is one of only a few Northland weddings to go on despite the storm.

5:30 p.m. — With no stores open, restaurants operating with skeleton crews, and 300 guests in town for a tourist-railroad convention, Leo McDonnell of Duluth’s railroad museum finally makes arrangements for a family-style meal at the Chinese Lantern. His group sets out en masse from the Radisson Hotel a block away. But three women, all from Mississippi, refuse to go. “They were afraid,” McDonnell said. “They were afraid they’d fall into the snow and drown.”

6 p.m. — Storm in full gale with continuing high winds and more than 9 inches of fresh powder falling during the afternoon alone. Thunder crackles overhead and lightning flashes.

8:30 p.m. — With the storm whipping into a fury, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials scramble to choose a message for the flashing warning signs they have along Interstate 35. “How about I-35 parking lot,” plow driver Brad Miller jokes. “But that’s what it was,” said the department’s Wendy Frederickson, also on duty that night. “You looked out and it was this sea of white and then all these abandoned cars that looked like they just parked there.”

11:59 p.m. — An additional 5 1/2 inches of snow fall during the evening, stranding workers downtown and residents in their homes. Only four-wheel-drive vehicles move. And only on main roads as snowplow crews can only hope to keep main arteries open.

The front page of the Saturday, Nov. 2, 1991, Duluth News-Tribune, with coverage of the Halloween megastorm. My apologies for the creases – this copy had been folded and stored in a drawer for years. Click on the image for a larger view in which you can read the stories (you can click on most photos in Attic posts to enlarge them).

SATURDAY, NOV. 2, 1991

4 a.m. — Back in Duluth’s Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood, the mother of “Little Mermaid” trick-or-treater Emily Meyer, Barb Meyer, awakens with a wave of sheet-ripping pain. The family’s expected baby decides it doesn’t want to miss the storm.

4:30 a.m. — With emergency lights flashing, a police 4-by-4 arrives at the Meyers’ home. A fire truck follows, then a snowplow, sanding truck and finally an ambulance. “Boy, they’ll do anything to get their road snowplowed,” a neighbor jokes.

5:30 a.m. — After more than a half hour of white-knuckle, siren-wailing driving, the ambulance with Barb Meyer and her soon-to-be-born baby arrives at St. Luke’s Hospital. The family realizes quickly theirs will be one of many storm-baby stories. The maternity ward is jammed with mothers about to give birth and with new mothers unable to be discharged because of the snow.

6 a.m. — Northland residents wake up and can’t believe their eyes. Nearly 4 more inches fall overnight as strong winds continue. Drifts reach the tops of grocery stores. Snowbound and abandoned cars make plowing difficult.

10 a.m. – Unable to drive in the deep snow, Dr. Niles Bartdorf arrives at St. Luke’s Hospital on cross-country skis to help deliver Barb and Ron Meyer’s new baby.

Noon — Two more inches of fresh snow fall during the morning hours. Residents emerge to shovel or to walk to stores for junk food.

12:15 p.m. — Fran Tollefson’s eyes fill with tears in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood. Her husband, Dave, who had fallen off a paint ladder over the summer and suffered a life-threatening brain injury, is out blowing snow with his son. In that moment, she realizes for the first time he’ll be OK. “I hurried for my camera,” she said. “It was hard to see through the lens because my eyes were filled with tears.”

1:13 p.m. — Amy Meyer is born to Lincoln Park/West End couple Ron and Barb Meyer. The little girl is quickly nicknamed “Amy Storm” or simply “Stormy.”

6 p.m. — Nearly 2 1/2 inches of fresh snow fall during the afternoon.

11:59 p.m. — High winds continue, but the snow begins to taper. Less than half an inch of new snow falls during the evening.

There was a lot of digging out to do at Catlin Courts in Superior on Nov. 3, 1991, as the Halloween megastorm wound down. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

SUNDAY, NOV. 3, 1991

6 a.m. — Barely a trace of new snow falls overnight, marking an end to the Halloween megastorm and the beginning of the cleanup. Most streets are still impassable. Hundreds of snowbound cars are still buried.

1 p.m. — After three frustrating days of scrapped-and-updated forecasts, TV weatherman Collin Ventrella pays a group of college students a case of beer to dig his car out of a snowdrift. “Probably the best deal I’ve ever made,” he said.

Liz Howard’s coat bears a silent plea as she shovels out the front entrance of the Archer Building in Duluth’s Canal Park on Nov. 3, 1991. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

SIX MONTHS LATER

Barb Meyer wraps “Amy Storm” into her stroller and heads out on a spring walk along Lincoln Park Drive. A city of Duluth street-cleaning truck pulls up alongside her. “Was that the baby born during the megastorm?” the driver asks. “Yes,” Barb Meyer says. The driver beams. “I was the one driving the snowplow that night.”

NINE MONTHS LATER

The Birthplace at St. Mary’s Medical Center is very, very busy, reports nurse Holly Calantoc.

-end-

Don Syring fixes the snowmobile he used to get from his Woodland home to IGA Foods on East Superior Street during the winter storm on Nov. 2, 1991. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune) 

THE MAKINGS OF A MEGASTORM

News-Tribune, October 2001

The Halloween megastorm wasn’t done after it dumped record amounts of snow on Duluth and the Twin Cities.

The 1991 storm was one of three that headed to the East Coast and produced the now-famous “perfect storm,” the one written about by Sebastian Junger and later turned into a feature film starring George Clooney.

Around here, it snowed like crazy because of a high pressure ridge across the eastern Great Lakes that held the storm in place for the better part of three days.

According to the National Weather Service, a low-pressure system roared north from Texas that week on a jet stream pointed straight at Minnesota. The weather system carried humidity, and tons of it, from the Gulf of Mexico.

When it reached Minnesota and then Duluth, the low-pressure system met a cold air mass moving south from the Canadian plains. Snow developed. It fell and just kept on falling, because the high-pressure ridge over the eastern Great Lakes was stubborn about letting it shake free.

With a Halloween pumpkin grinning behind him, Ben Bjoralt, 11, of Duluth, used a shovel to make a snow fort at a friend’s 21st Avenue East home on Saturday, Nov. 2, 1991. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

At least two feet of snow fell from a line just west of Mankato, through the Twin Cities to Duluth and finally to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Southeastern Minnesota was hit with a deadly ice storm. The Twin Cities got 28 inches of snow, topping the single-storm record there by eight inches.

Duluth also set records. With 36.9 inches of snow, the city easily topped the suddenly wimpy former single-storm mark of 25.4 inches. That one had been set in December 1950.

For the month, Duluth wound up receiving 50.1 inches. That easily iced the old snowiest November mark of 37.7 inches set in 1983.

- end -

————-

Click here for some additional interesting information about the Halloween megastorm from the National Weather Service in Duluth.

And, as mentioned up top, share your Halloween megastorm memories by posting a comment.

10 thoughts on “Anniversary of the 1991 Halloween megastorm

  1. I remember this storm like it was yesterday. There was nothing to do. So I walked down to where I worked, Original Coney Island. I shoveled out a path at the front door. Took both signs and climbed up the snow banks and stuck them at the top. Letting all who were brave enough to come out. Knowing we were open for business. I took in a little over $200.00 that day. People were coming by snowmobiles, skies, sleds and by some vehicles. I’m pretty sure they were 4 wheel drive. It was a blast and a once in a lifetime experience. Love the storms that we do get here in Duluth, MN. As long as everyone stays safe.

  2. I had just moved to Atlanta, Georgia in August of ’91 to attend Emory University. I had dressed as Edward Scissorhands for a Halloween party in Atlanta and called my UMD friends, Jill and Kelly in Duluth. They were snowed in with a case of beer, 20 pounds of potatoes and Kelly’s boyrfriend (now husband), Brad. I laughed and laughed when they told me about the snow. I thought they were kidding. They were not. I ended up passing out and spent the next two days trying to contact Duluth with no luck. I finally reached them and found out how awful the storm had been. I felt guilty then, for moving south, but not too guilty. Not guilty enough. Now Jill lives in California; I’m moving to Texas and Kelly lives in Wisconsin. Go Kelly!!!
    You take the snow for all of us.

  3. that arctic cat got a lot of use after that storm.we lived in woodland and did,t plowed out for a few day,s. dad used it to go to work. i used it to get food for my sister and her kid,s . i put a sled on the back and gave some kid,s a rid down town. dad,s past away now. but i still have that old arctic cat in my garage.ready for the next mega storm.

  4. Halloween Storm Cat
    It was Halloween night 1991. Trick or treating was brief, just a quick trip to see Grandma and Grandpa and a few houses close by, as our son Matt had just turned two and our daughter Toni was not even one yet. So we were quite content to spend the rest of the evening passing out candy as a light snow continued to fall.
    Not all of us were in for the evening though. Cinder, our five year old New England Coon Cat was still out and about celebrating Halloween night. Our brave little cat would always return by nightfall except for a couple of overnight outings. He had a habit of returning to our old house on London Road where we just moved from a month earlier. Several times we found him sitting on a rock overlooking Lake Superior. That night Cinder did not come home, as the snow began to really pile up. The next day it continued to snow and the whole city began to become snowed in.
    Still no Cinder. After three days and nights of snow the storm ended and the city began to dig out. A front end loader came down our street at night, and the driveway we had been shoveling (no snow blower then) was nearly complete. But still no Cinder. We began to give up hope. It was just than as we were finishing up the final shoveling, with banks almost too high to throw the snow over; here came Cinder covered in snow and ice, with a gash in his leg. After warming him up and giving him some food and water we took him to the Vet. They sewed him up, gave him some medicine, and fitted him with a plastic hood. For the entire winter that cat had little interest in going outdoors until spring had sprung. I guess we’ll just never know how many of his nine lives our cat used up during that infamous storm know as the Mega Storm.
    By John and Diane Michelizzi

  5. Oct 31 1991 was my Dad’s 55th Birthday and his retirement day from the United States Postal Service in Superior after being a letter carrier for 35 years. I guess that’s good timing on his retirement.

  6. I still have the pictures of the two foot drift hanging off my roof coming within inches of the five foot drift on my deck blocking my patio door. For three days I watched the snow fall so heavy that I couldn’t see my neighbors houses. My husband was stranded out of town on business. I was home alone with my toddler. We listened to 610 radio as they relayed messages over the air as the storm progressed. The phone system was so busy that I didn’t have a dial tone.
    When it was over I bundled up and waded through the hip deep snow to have a neighbor watch my child while I spent the next 6 hours snow blowing my driveway.

  7. I was 12 living in West Duluth. My mom worked at the telephone company and was at work when it started. My brothers were picked up by my dad and stayed the night at his house. My mom couldnt get home that night. She spent the night at work, and I alone. I cooked, and watched the tv. I remember going out to shovel and hearing thunder. It was kinda scary. Mom came home the next day, but the cab could only get her to the bottom of our block-Grand Ave. and she had to walk the rest of the way up-uphill! (she left her car at work).

  8. I was in Cleveland, where I had just finished two weeks’ temporary duty at the 9th Coast Guard District Headquarters. I rode a train to the airport, wearing the uniform equivalent of a suit. The weather was mild. I expected to be in Duluth in the late evening.

    From the airport, I called my parents, who were staying with my teenage boys. As I started to tell my mother that my flight out of Cleveland was having mechanical difficulties, she said, “Yes, I know you’re snowbound. We’ve heard the news that Minneapolis is shutting down.” She went on to tell the volume of snow that had fallen. She said, “Your father couldn’t get out of the back door to shovel, so he crawled through the kitchen window.” When I asked if the drop to the sidewalk hurt him, she said, “It wasn’t much of a drop!”

    My delayed flight did get into Minneapolis, and then the airport shut down. I immediately went to the Minnesota Armed Forces Service Center (http://www.mnafsc.org/) and signed up for a bed. In the men’s bedroom, I found trains of double bunks pushed head to foot with aisles between the rows. I hung my cardboard name tag to mark my choice. I returned to the main room, where rows of big recliners face a wide screen TV. Sandwiches and fresh fruit were available free.

    At bedtime, I carefully hung my service uniform on a coat hanger attached to the upper bunk. During the night, I awakened to use the bathroom. It meant going out into the airport passenger area. I slid into my trousers, uniform shirt, and shoes. As I stepped away from the bunk, the man in the bunk across the aisle said, “Chief, you’re not going out like that are you?” His hanging uniform jacket was that of an Army Lieutenant Colonel.

    I whispered, “No, Colonel, I’m not.” I put on my tie and jacket to go to the bathroom. The TV room was full of sleepers in recliners. As I walked into the airport terminal, I saw a vision of recent disaster. The airlines or airport authority had distributed wooden pallets covered with carpeting. Sleepers were sprawled on those pallets, as if something had mowed them down. No one was awake.

    On Saturday morning, the airport remained closed. The volunteers at the Armed Forces Service Center told us again about the free sandwiches and fruit, but they said no one could get in to replenish them. I noticed most of my fellow travelers were in the three lowest military pay grades. I was a Chief Petty Officer with $1200 travel pay in $50 traveler’s checks. I decided to eat at restaurants and leave the sandwiches for the younger troops.

    I went into a fast food restaurant and ordered breakfast with a small coffee. The counter attendant said, “We’re only using our big cups today.” I decided to only use my big bills today and paid him with a $50. Throughout Saturday and Sunday morning, I scheduled flights to Duluth, only to hear them cancelled. Throughout the day and next morning, I bought four more meals, each with a big cup, and each from a $50. Thinking about the inconvenience to the restaurant, I was blinded to other people’s inconvenience if the restaurant ran out of change.

    After a second night of sleeping in the Armed Forces Service Center and putting on a tie and jacket to walk to the bathroom, I caught a flight to Duluth. My father met me at the airport. As he drove me home, my father explained that my avenue was still snowbound, except for the block from my house to the main street a block away. One block of clogged avenue prevented my father’s reaching the airport – until a neighbor needed an ambulance. The ambulance had come up my avenue and turned onto my street preceded by a snowplow. That had allowed my father’s leaving for the airport. As we arrived at my avenue and turned off of the major street, I saw that beyond my house, the avenue remained snowbound.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>