On February 27th, 1967, thousands of parents and children from in and around Fort Myers, Florida, participated in a massive, unplanned snowball fight, using snow from the worst storm to ever hit Chicagoland. Supposedly, it all started with a letter from 13-year-old Terri Hodson of Fort Myers to William J. Quinn, president of the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroads…
I was born here in Florida, and have never seen snow. If you have an empty car coming this way, could you please send me some?
~Letter from Terri Hodson to W.J. Quinn, 1967
Quinn received the letter and shared it with the press, promising to grant the girl’s request. Workers piled the special delivery into a refrigerated railcar and sent it straight to Ms. Hodson’s hometown. Press agencies in the Midwest then the national caught wind of the story and named the anticipated load ‘Terri’s Car.’ The fervor culminated in the chilly load’s arrival on the 27th after 1500 miles of travel. Thousands waited to see it. Florida had every right to be excited; in the last two centuries, there is only one documented occurrence of snow flurries in southern Florida (that was in 1977)
The dirty tons of Chicagoland snow, loaded into the cars by the Windy City’s massive front-end loaders, melted in the Florida heat, causing a chilly fog to shroud the train. The doors were thrown open and Terri Hodson stepped forward, smiling, shovel in hand. Reporters snapped photos of Terri scooping some out. Scraping it out would be more appropriate a description. The long trip in the cold car had frozen the Chicago powder into a hard, icy mound, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.
I had expected it to be soft and powdery. You know, like, dripping snowflakes and it would just come pouring out of the car. Unfortunately after a week’s ride in a refrigerator car it was no longer soft powdery snow. It was quite icy.
~ Terri Hodson-Bell in a 2016 episode of Curious City
Then the children rushed forward, grabbing handfuls of the cold slush. The snowball fight broke out. For an hour, Florida children compacted the snow into balls and pummeled each other in the rail yard. It turned into a free-for-all, with some of the adults joining in. These were not experienced snowball-makers, but they made up for the slush balls with delirious enthusiasm.
For Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, which spent over three weeks digging itself out of the freezing dunes that had pummeled the region on January 26th, that snowball fight bookmarked the end of the ’67 Chicago Blizzard (a tepid title if there ever was one). The blizzard would become forever known to millions in the Midwest as THE BIG SNOW.
The regional press presented the Florida delivery and snowball fight as a kind gesture from a wealthy industrialist to a curious child, but that wasn’t quite true. Quinn had been ready to send it anyway, whether requested or not. Immediately after the Big Snow, Chicagoland had a real problem. From Rockford to South Bend, urban and industrial areas could not get rid of snow.
Crews and volunteers attacked the piles of snow for three weeks. Volumes varied, from parking lot plateaus two feet deep to drifts as high as a second-story window. With hand shovels or tractor buckets, crews and citizens tossed snow to the edges of streets and yards to clear narrow lanes for vehicles. Finally, Chicagoland had a pulse again. This didn’t solve the main issue: the damn snow wasn’t going anywhere.
It is very tempting to frame this bit of regional history as a demonstration of communities coming together in adverse circumstances, or as a kindness from a railroad industrialist. Those are about 20% true.
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