Amid the snow drought, memories of the Circus Blizzard

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Snow has rarely been a significant problem in Isle of Wight and Surry, though Surry is a bit to the west, a tad colder and thus more prone to the white stuff than Isle of Wight.

Nevertheless, there was a time not many years ago when we could almost bet on several inches of the white stuff at some point each winter.

To be honest, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about snow. Even as a child, it was nice to play in snow and have a couple of days out of school, but snow or no snow, there were hogs to feed, a cow to milk and water to be drawn from an outside faucet that all too often was frozen stiff. That, of course, was more a factor of cold temperatures than snow, but memory tends to link the two.

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Then, as an adult working for the local newspaper, snow became a scheduling concern. We didn’t mind a snow unless it came on a Tuesday and thus threatened delivery of that week’s paper. It’s one of the concerns that I have happily passed off to Steve Stewart, who can now watch the weekly forecast and calculate the odds of trouble.

I was recalling those feelings recently while watching the evening weather forecast and being told that it’s been two years since a measurable snow in Hampton Roads. 

Though there are exceptions, the winters here have indeed become milder. There were a few times not that many years ago when snow and ice brought our two counties to a standstill. Those storms make nice tales to be retold in our old age, but weren’t a lot of fun when they occurred.

And our worst weather, including snows, often comes at the end of seasons, so we shouldn’t look for spring too soon. Probably the most dramatic winter event — though not the most costly — occurred in early March 1980. It was quickly dubbed, and is now remembered, as the Great March Blizzard. And, according to meteorologists, it did qualify as a blizzard, the only one that I recall.

Isle of Wight generally gets snow when low pressure systems move up the coast and bump into cold air. On Saturday, March 1, 1980, that occurred in spades. A series of low pressure systems marched up the coast and hit a ridge of arctic air that had settled over us. Snow began falling on Saturday, continued through Sunday and left 18 inches of powdery snow in Isle of Wight and Surry. 

High winds piled the snow into drifts, especially along country roads. Some drifts were so deep that conventional snowplows couldn’t push through them, and the state brought in snowplows generally seen only in heavy snow regions.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles were rarer back then, and anyone who owned one found they were needed to haul groceries to stranded people as well as people to destinations. Union Camp set up a four-wheel-drive system to get employees to and from its papermill.

Fires were a major concern and local firefighters — all-volunteer back then — stayed at their stations around the clock to respond to emergencies. The Surry department was called to a house fire in the county. Trucks responding became stuck in snow within sight of the house and were unable to reach it. The house was destroyed.

(It was that storm that’s more widely known today as the Circus Blizzard of 1980, because Ringling Brothers had set up in Scope and attendees, including some from Isle of Wight, were snowbound in the building overnight.)

This being Tidewater, though, the cold air quickly receded, the snow melted, and what had been a four-day crisis became a memory to tell the grandchildren. By the following week, local attention turned to other matters, including the quickly melting ice in the James River that had blocked watermen trying to reach shad nets.

I mentioned that the big blizzard was not our most costly winter event. That would be the ice storms that struck the two counties several times, taking out power and telephone lines, dropping trees on houses and generally playing havoc. They too were generally short-lived, but boy, could they do some damage.

One fact about the March blizzard that bears remembering, though, is that it occurred as March arrived. We’re not there yet, so, warmer winters or not, it would be folly to discount Mother Nature’s potential for another month.


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