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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The other 80%? Chicagoland needed to get rid of that snow in the worst way. Simply plowing and piling and dumping wasn’t moving the volume needed. The lingering low temperatures prevented the blanket of snow from melting. Any light breeze would drift the snow again, blocking roads. Mini mounds marked the residents’ entombed vehicles — as soon as plows tore a drivable swath through a street, curbed cars were buried even deeper.
Snow disposal wasn’t an issue at the fringes of Chicagoland, in both Illinois and Indiana. These suburban and rural areas had plenty of open spaces to pile the hundreds of thousands of tons of dumped snow. This was not the case in the urban and industrial areas in Chicago and along Lake Michigan. There just wasn’t that kind of room to spare.
The city’s efforts to haul away snow crawled along. Workers used massive front-end loaders to fill dump trucks, which rolled carefully down the snow channels cut through the city streets. These trucks made their way to the Chicago River or, in some cases, the waterways of Lake Michigan. For the sake of caution, some trucks drove for miles at only a few miles per hour. These behemoths backed up to icy river’s edge, dumped the load of snow, and then returned into the belly of the city for more.
Although the efforts of those workers bordered on superhuman, this process sloughed along like the world’s slowest relay race. By then, the city had been buried for a week or two and the citizenry of Chicagoland had grown past impatient. Another solution was desperately needed, and the railroads provided the answer.
Chicago is a city born from rails. Thousands of miles of track criss-cross Chicagoland, winding in and out of the city and starfishing out in every direction across North America. The industry and wealth of the Windy City depended on these railroads, and in 1967, these rails offered an easy way to shake off the snow. Since the railroads accessed almost every inch of the city, workers could quickly hop back and forth and load empty railcars, each of which held about 100 tons worth of snow.
The loaded trains were almost always southbound. As the cars sped along, the temperature increased, and the snow melted. Clouds of steam and rivulets of icy water leaked and then poured from these trains, marking them to pedestrians as snow cars.
At first the runs ended only a few hundred miles to the south, some of them no further than the southern tip of Illinois. Those nearby stations complained of the dirty slush plopping into their rail yards. The trains had to go even further south, where the warm weather and bright sunlight transform the snow into nothing more than a memory. When Terri Hodson’s letter came along, it helped the rail companies put a generous face on their efforts. If nothing else, this story allowed Chicagoland to hang a happy memory on the tragedy of ’67.