In N.H., storm weaker, but still packed a wallop: The Blizzard of 1978

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by Sean Murphy
Foster’s Daily Democrat, February 2nd, 2003

Cars along Ocean Boulevard in Hampton are seen where they came to rest after the blizzard of ’78.

It was immediately infamous, regarded at the time as the worst storm in over 100 years.

Inches upon inches of snow, driven by howling winds and bitter cold, fit for neither man nor beast. But while stories and experiences that come right out of a disaster movie filled the minds of people in Massachusetts, folks in New Hampshire and Maine fared a little better.

But not much.

Now, with the 25th anniversary of the dreaded Blizzard of ’78 coming up this week, people who were here, who dug, plodded, and even paddled their way through Mother Nature’s fury, recall the storm with the nostalgic chuckle of war veterans.

The storm struck on Monday, Feb. 6, 1978. Weather reports from Foster’s Daily Democrat on the Friday and Saturday before predicted a sunny but cold weekend. Monday’s forecast on the front page read, “Heavy snow tonight, lows in the teens. Highs tomorrow in the 20s.”

Inside, on that same morning, the weather page read “Snow becoming heavy at times tonight, tapering off Tuesday.”

The next day, on the 7th, the headlines screamed, “Strangler Storm, Coast to Coast,” and “Dover, Rochester, Somersworth buried.”

And buried they were. Inch totals don’t necessarily tell the story. New Durham reported a mere 16 to 18 inches of snow, and north and west of Laconia accumulations were under a foot.

But the real impact was the drifts, deposited by hurricane-force winds that buried vehicles, paralyzed roads, and gave the term “snowed-in” a whole new meaning.

Frederick Booth remembers. He was a New Hampshire State Trooper assigned to communications at the time. As the snow began to fall, he left a fellow trooper’s funeral in Henniker to spend his day off visiting a friend in Westwood, Mass.

The trip should have taken two hours. Instead, he said, it took five, and he was lucky. Had he not had his 1975 Chevrolet four-wheel-drive truck, and stuck to some back roads, “I would have been stuck up there,” he said, referring to Route 128 in Massachusetts.

As it was, he made it to his friend’s house, just a mile from the ordinarily busy highway.

“I remember going down to 128 and there were all these humps in the snow,” he said.

Those humps, he learned, were actually cars that had been abandoned.

Booth is now an executive major with the State Police. His colleague, Capt. Ray Burke, was also a trooper back then.

Burke called the blizzard “the baddest snowstorm you can imagine.”

He was on duty as the snow fell, and was assigned to patrol Interstate 93. Unlike highways in and around Boston, where thousands of motorists were stranded and rescued by the National Guard, there was little traffic on the highways in New Hampshire.

And, also unlike Massachusetts, it was possible to make progress along the interstate, but there was one rule: “Get behind a plow truck and stay there. Wherever they went, you would follow,” he said.

Bruce Cheney remembers driving in the storm, too. Now working at the state Department of Safety’s 911 division, he was chief of police in Laconia back then.

Cheney said his memories were less of actual incidents, and more of bits and pieces, like “what seemed like days of needing chains on the cruiser, which you never had to do.”

Most of the work he and his officers took care of as the snow fell had little to do with law enforcement. Instead, there were mercy runs, helping people who needed food, medicine, a warm place to stay, and other necessities.

Unlike some areas, motorists in Laconia could maneuver the main streets, if they dared. “You could, but it was not an easy time to get around,” Cheney said.

And side streets? Forget it, the former chief said.

“I remember driving by the secondary roads, and you couldn’t tell where the curb was,” he recalled.

On the coast, it wasn’t snow that was the problem. It was water. Lots of it, crashing against the shore and anything else in its way, like the popular amusement pier in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, which was three times as long as it is now before the storm hit. Or the York Beach Chamber of Commerce building. Seas were so violent they tore the building loose and threw it against the Goldenrod Restaurant.

Virginia Spiller, then co-owner of Spiller’s Restaurant across the street, remembered when it happened, and eerily recalled that the chamber building “disappeared” after that.

Spiller said the beach office was never rebuilt, and her restaurant took a blow then, too. The entire first floor had at least a foot of flood waters in it, later forcing the family to rewire the entire building.

And the room that contained heavy equipment — walk-in refrigerators, compressors, and other essentials — was on a lower level than the first floor, leaving much of the expensive machinery “under water,” she recalled.

Spiller said she and her family had battened down the hatches before the storm hit, knowing that big storms bring big waves.

“When you’re on the waterfront, it’s always water, because the tide’s so high,” she said.

William Wrenn knows about that, too. Today, Wrenn, 51, is chief of police in Hampton, but back then he was a 27-year-old detective.

Hampton was one of the hardest-hit areas in the Granite State. Wrenn said the seas were so high it was difficult to tell when it was high tide and when it was low.

“Low tide here was actually higher than high tide would be,” he said.

Wrenn’s job was to take pictures of the damage done by the storm. The only way to get around was in 5,000-pound trucks driven by the New Hampshire National Guard.

Through the water, sand and debris, Wrenn said nothing else could possibly get anywhere, and even the trucks didn’t have an easy time.

The beach and shore, Wrenn said, were “devastated.” Roadways were littered with piles of gravel as much as five feet deep, and basketball-sized boulders had been tossed onto land.

“If anyone’d ever gotten hit by one, they’d have been killed instantly,” he said.

Structures were ravaged. Many buildings, he said, had holes in them, or were even broken in half, with one half missing. Summer cottages were in the middle of the road, and a little up the coast, in North Hampton, fishing shacks, known to locals as “the fish houses,” had been deposited on the pavement up and down Ocean Boulevard.

According to an article in Foster’s Daily Democrat from Feb. 8, 1978, two days after the storm, then-Hampton Deputy Police Chief Robert Mark put it best:

“Every 12 hours, with each new tide, we face a new battle, and more damage,” he said. “There is nothing we can do but try to keep people from getting killed and wait.”

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