Reflections on an epic March snowstorm

Published 6:24 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2022

As snow began accumulating Saturday for what would be only a light dusting, an old high school classmate called to jog my memory about a March snow that wasn’t nearly so gentle.

Forty-two years ago this week, it was. A series of low-pressure systems ran head-on into cold arctic air as they moved north into Hampton Roads. The clash was nothing short of cataclysmic. Snow began falling on Saturday, March 6, 1980. By the time it ended, a foot-and-a-half of snow had brought Isle of Wight and Surry to a total standstill. Little could move in either county.

Primary and secondary roads in both counties were closed to traffic for two to three days. The dry snow, driven by high winds, created drifts as deep as 6 feet in some areas. Among the hardest sections was Morgart’s Beach, where residents were stranded until paths could be cut through some of the area’s deepest drifts.

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The Virginia Department of Transportation employees sought help from farmers with front end loaders and anything else that would move snow. Large snow-busting plows, normally reserved for areas with much higher annual snowfall, were brought in to open some of the most heavily clogged roads.

Volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members were kept on standby at their stations throughout the storm. Smithfield firefighters made it to a house fire on Purvis Road, according to Randolph Barlow (my caller this weekend), and extinguished a potentially fatal chimney fire.

In Surry, firefighters weren’t so lucky. They got within sight of a house fire only to become stuck in drifts and watch as the house burned.

It had already been a rough winter, with more than normal snowfall in the area, but cold temperatures and high tides also combined to release ice flows upriver. As the ice swept down through the lower James River, it took shad nets and poles that had already been set for the spring shad run. Watermen were stranded in Rescue, unable to get into the river to salvage fishing gear that was being swept away.

Smithfield’s two packing plants, ITT Gwaltney and Smithfield Packing, were shut down for a day because hogs couldn’t be shipped into town.

Hampton Roads cities were pummeled as well. Norfolk received 14 inches of snow in what would become known as the Circus Blizzard of 1980. Ringling Brothers had set up shop in Scope for a weekend of performances and the show went on, but so did the snow. While 1,500 circus goers watched acrobats and elephants perform, snow continued piling up Sunday morning. Then, another wave of spectators arrived, and the crowd grew to an estimated 2,300, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

At 5:30 p.m., the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake imposed a curfew, banning all traffic, the paper reported. All 2,300 circus-goers were stuck. The crowd was moved across the plaza to Chrysler Hall and the National Guard brought in blankets to keep people warm through the night.

By Monday morning, the circus had packed up and was ready to move on to Richmond, where it was next scheduled to perform. Circus animals walked several miles in the snow to waiting trains, offering once-in-a-lifetime images for those with cameras to record it.

Within a few days, March again turned tamely toward spring. Snow melted quickly, traffic resumed on all local roads and school was back in session. It was, nevertheless, a snow to be remembered, as we have done here.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is