Cornellians brave the fully-fledged blizzard which deposited a foot and a half of snow.

Roger W. Archibald / Sun File Photo

Cornellians brave the fully-fledged blizzard which deposited a foot and a half of snow.

December 5, 2019

Solar Flashback: Snow Storms

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Cornellians are no strangers to snow. Whether sledding down the slope and finding fun in the flakes or trekking through treacherous paths and ignoring “No Winter Maintenance” signs, students and others acclimate to the wintry weather. The University cancelled classes and closed the campus on Monday due to the latest seasonal storm, and although past shutdowns have been rare, snow storms have affected campus in various ways over the decades.

Solar Flashbacks is a special project connecting The Sun’s — and Cornell’s — past to the present to understand how this rich history has shaped the campus today. Flashbacks appear periodically throughout the semester. #ThrowbackThursday

[Check out the previous Solar Flashback on Greek Life]

Transportation Troubles

This weekend’s storm triggered additional trouble due to the scores of students trying to travel back to campus from Thanksgiving Break, who were slapped with significant delays. A similar situation occurred in December 1958, when “students returning to Ithaca from Thanksgiving vacation found their trip delayed by snow, cold and ice and the remains of a 7 ½ inch snowfall in the Ithaca area.”

“A wake of violent squalls had turned northern New York highways into ice-covered traps, barely negotiable in place,” and “the temperature plummeted to 7 above zero and wind gusts hit 50 miles an hour,” The Sun reported. Conditions were quite perilous, and “a five-car accident involving University students was reported on Route 79, in which no one was injured.”

Ironically, The Sun published an article titled “The Great Snow Famine” just a few weeks earlier on November 19, 1958, stating, “We have had no snow yet, and it is almost Thanksgiving.”

“The Tompkins County Snow Removal Squad must be perplexed and frustrated by the lack of snow this year,” the article read. “It has been almost seven months since it last had a chance to pilot its tremendous plows through the white drifts. The squad has acquired some new equipment for snow removal and it is probably holding its breath for a chance to dig into the snow-removal fund and get busy. We do not share the Snow Removal squad’s eager anticipation of the first snow.”

A Cornellian trudges from Collegetown to a largely deserted campus.

Roger W. Archibald / Sun File Photo

A Cornellian trudges from Collegetown to a largely deserted campus.

The travel troubles brought on by blustery, brumal storms and massive snowfalls have often affected Cornellians attempting to reach isolated Ithaca. In essence, things can snowball out of control.

On a chilly February weekend in 1960, “violent blizzards in recent years paralyzed almost all transportation in and out of Ithaca and obstructed power and telephone service.” Because of a fuse blowout at the East Ithaca substation of the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, the University lost power for an hour and a half on that Friday. Furthermore, “no planes had left or entered Ithaca since Thursday” and “only one bus arrived in Ithaca Saturday.”

Transportation was stalled again the next year, and in February 1961, “the heavy snowfall which blanketed Ithaca over the weekend clogged many streets, making them one-way. They were then made nearly impassable by the parked cars of students.”

Going back over a hundred years, in an article titled “STILL MORE SNOW PROMISED ITHACA” from February 1914, “Snow and more snow is the prediction of the local weather prophets.” While the local trains continued their normal service, the trolleys that used to run were “restricted to a few cars up Eddy street and down Stewart avenue.”

“Unless the present snow continues the demoralization of traffic conditions, the prospects are that deliveries, mail, express and other traffic will be about normal again by this evening,” The Sun reported.

While most Cornellians were away enjoying Thanksgiving break, the season’s first snowfall in 1958 hindered many students on their return to campus.

Gayle Shomer / Sun File Photo

While most Cornellians were away enjoying Thanksgiving break, the season’s first snowfall in 1958 hindered many students on their return to campus.

The aftermath of clearing up snowstorms hasn’t been cheap, either. In March 1914, “A bill of $225 for clearing walks and paths will have to be paid by the University on account of Monday’s blizzard” and the “Street Railway Company will be out anywhere from $1,000 up, not counting all the business lost.”

Classes Canceled!

Though Cornellians have previously prided themselves on their hearty handling of hiemal weather, recent years have seen a softening of the snow day threshold. The Class of 2020 has been treated to at least one day of weather-related class cancelation in three of their years at Cornell.

However, before 2016, the University only called off classes a few notable times. The apparent first snow day was in March 1971, when “Mother Nature was not above proving that she could still dump 18 inches of snow in 24 hours on unsuspecting Ithaca and close Cornell University due to a blizzard for the first time in its history.”

The Sun reported then: “In the dorms, the mood was holiday. ‘No school! It’s a snow day,’ students shouted to the uninformed. Some answered cynically, ‘Don’t you know that Cornell University never closes?’”

“Snowball fights abounded, from trifle skirmishes to all-out wars. A snowfort built on the Arts Quad became a white dragon and Collegetown was graced by a ten-foot totem pole. Students trampled zigzag pathways in the snow and slithered. flailing, down stairways.”

However, “After the first excitement was past, a few practical types began to ask questions like ‘How are we going to eat?’” While the cafeterias at Willard Straight and Noyes were able to remain open, with the help of janitors, only one kitchen employee had been able to make it to the Risley Dining Hall.

The next year, in February 1972, the campus saw another bout of snow, but courses went on as planned. “All regular full-time Cornell employe[e]s who worked Monday in spite of the snow will be given compensatory time off. and those who did not work will be paid,” The Sun reported.

In December 1972, the University announced two changes to snow day policies, with the first to “permit classes to go on as scheduled while the rest of the University remains closed and the second to “establish a plan to open the University ‘gradually’ during a day when heavy snow restricts travel and parking on and around the campus.”

Since then, Cornell has rarely seen snow days. Thirty inches of snow prompted a University closure on a March day in 1993, for example, and The University also shut down once in 1999. Administrators decided on Valentine’s Day in 2007 to call off afternoon courses.

Some Cornellians have advocated policy progress in response to inundations of the powdery flakes. After Winter Storm Stella covered the campus in snow and forced a closure in March 2017, faculty and staff expressed dismay at the late notice, with the Employee Assembly debating revisions to snow day decision policy.

Cornellians venture out for a night of tobogganing on Libe Slope in celebration of Cornell's first ever snow day in March 1971.

Sun File Photo

Cornellians venture out for a night of tobogganing on Libe Slope in celebration of Cornell’s first ever snow day in March 1971.

Last February, another wintry condition, marked by low wind chills, provoked debate on the University’s inclement weather stance. The policy was last updated in 2017.

Sports Shutdown

Spring did not kick off with a home run in April 1935, as the first home baseball game was cancelled due to prolonged hours of snowfall.

“The snow yesterday came down In clouds. It covered the infield and lay like a shroud over the outfield; lt blanketed the dugouts and covered the bleak grandstand with row on row of slush; lt covered the press coop, and then gleefully smothered the calendar,” The Sun reported.

Snow impeded sports the year before as well, and in 1934, interfraternity touch football games were cancelled because “in addition to snow, the sun’s reticence soon made the light so poor that the pigskin became Invisible.”

Skiers in January 1950 faced an opposite problem: too little snow, and The Sun reported that “foul weather, at least in a skiiers’ perspective, has forced the cancellation of all Cornell skiing engagements to date. The Big Red Skiers have been forced to drop two meets.”

Furthermore, “The Cornell varsity and freshmen skiers [were] scheduled to play host to the Penn State squad this weekend, but if no snow comes before then, it will have to be cancelled.”

In February 1953, “The weatherman has predicted colder temperatures, cloudy skies, and possible snow for the rest of the weekend, which has already seen the tray races and ice sculpture contests cancelled due the weather.”

The weather also resulted in the cancellation of a skating party due to warm weather making the thick ice “soft.”

Facing the feet of snow that fall on the frozen city of Ithaca is no small feat for Cornell students, faculty and staff, and this powdery precipitation has played an integral role in the history of the University.