Ross Street looking west in the 1960s. (Photo contributed)

Michael Dawe: Yes, it’s been cold, but not as chilly as it was in 1969

Central Alberta seems to have been struck by one of the colder Januarys in some time.

Temperatures have plunged to as low as -40 C. Conditions have been even worse when the windchill factor is included.

However, although the cold blast has been severe, it is nowhere near as bad (at least not yet) as the record-breaking cold snap of the winter of 1969.

The first hint of the harsh weather came at Christmastime. Temperatures plunged to the -30s for the holiday season. New Year’s Eve was reported to be one of the quietest ones ever. With the deep cold, many people stayed indoors.

In early January, there was a brief warm spell. While it initially brought relief, it soon brought new hardships. It ended with a two-hour rain shower that left up to five centimetres of glare ice on roads and sidewalks.

The treacherous conditions soon brought tragedy. Over the one weekend, there were more than a half dozen fatalities on central Alberta highways.

A sharp cold spell followed. Temperatures soon plunged to -40 C. With the deep cold and still conditions, the air soon began to fill with a combination of ice fogs, car exhausts and steam from furnaces.

Construction workers dealt with the cold as best they could. The extension that was being built onto the Alberta Government Telephones building was sheathed with enormous scaffolding and tarps against the cold.

Inside, large heaters were used to bring the temperatures up to a more tolerable level.

After a couple of weeks, things seemed to moderate slightly. Temperatures crept up to a less severe -25 C.

The areas in front of the local schools blossomed with some highly creative ice sculptures made by the students.

The annual Snowball Festival was staged at the Exhibition Grounds. There was the traditional bonfire of the Christmas trees that had been collected around the community.

Perhaps because of the somewhat improved temperatures, a surprisingly good crowd of nearly 2,000 people turned out for the festivities.

Unfortunately, as soon as the Snowball Festival was over, the temperatures again plunged to the -40 level.

The intense ice fogs became even worse. The city took on a ghost-town-like appearance as many people huddled indoors as much as they could.

With the plunging temperatures, people’s natural gas and electrical bills began to soar.

Few people seemed to be out shopping anyway, but any disposable cash that they might still have had after Christmas, now seemed to be gobbled up by the incredible utility bills.

The local authorities began to warn people to keep a close watch on their chimneys and flues. Driving the point home, a downtown business block had a major carbon monoxide incident. Four people were hospitalized as a result.

As the cold weather persisted, more and more people found their cars didn’t work anymore. Consequently, the city transit system reported a significant spike in ridership. Those who did get their cars going were plagued with such annoyances as square tires.

Conditions seemed to keep getting worse. Soon, the old cold spell record, set back in 1936, was surpassed. Temperatures seemed to be stuck at the -40 level.

With a continuing cold spell, people’s moods became dark and a sense of deep frustration set in. Local travel agents reported a huge surge in business from people desperate to get away from the cold.

Finally, in the first week of February, the extreme cold finally lifted. While the temperatures were still pretty stiff, people seemed almost giddy at the relief.

One young woman was photographed going down Ross Street in her mini skirt in celebration.

According to the official count, the brutal cold snap had lasted a record 26 days. To add insult to injury, the weather office reported it had generally been at least five degrees colder for the entire spell in central Alberta than it had been in either Calgary or Edmonton.

Nevertheless, when spring finally arrived, the Edmonton Journal published a certificate on its front page that people could fill out. It proudly proclaimed “I Was There” during the record cold snap of January 1969.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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