50 YEARS AGO TODAY The Verde Valley woke up to the biggest snow storm in Arizona history
Photos courtesy of Paul Handverger and Verde Historical Society/Clemenceau Museum
Fifty years ago, the absolute silence in Clarkdale on the morning of December 13, 1967, woke me up. The outside stillness brought back childhood memories of winters in Massachusetts when a heavy snowfall that had started during the night would muffle the outside world under a white blanket. With that thought, I rose and opened the window shade; I could barely see the houses across Main Street through the gently falling-large snow flakes that were smothering our town. It was snowing!
I immediately woke up my family. Excitedly, we put on multiple layers of our light-weight Arizona clothes to go play outside before the snowfall stopped. After living in Clarkdale through four winters, we knew that we had to get out fast to make snowmen and throw snowballs because the white crystals could be expected to quickly change to rain drops and that would be the end of our annual chance to enjoy winter fun in our yard. Once outside, the laughter and joy of our nine-year-old son, seven-year-old daughter and even our somewhat bewildered one-year-old daughter were replicated up and down Main Street. By mid-morning, the snow was deep enough for snow huts and tunnels that sprouted up wherever children lived. During this first day, the possibility never entered anybody’s mind that this was the beginning of an historic weather event that would become the severest snowstorm in Arizona statehood history. It would occupy me and my wife with community responsibilities managing disaster relief efforts for the upper Verde Valley under a mutual aid organization that had been officially created only a few months earlier.
Over the previous decades, Jerome, Clarkdale, and Cottonwood had a history of separateness, especially in political matters, with the one exception being the formation of the Mingus Union High School district. The three police forces totaled only about a half-dozen officers and the three small volunteer fire departments informally helped each other without the legal authority of the individual governments, particularly in regard to providing insurance for emergency services personnel. In December 1964, Clarkdale’s Mayor Dan Bright appointed me to be the town’s Civil Defense Director because of my vision to establish a formal mutual aid agreement between the three communities for the volunteer fire services. On January 12, 1965, as the first director of an informal civil defense association, a draft of a proposed mutual aid agreement between Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Jerome and Yavapai County was presented to the respective governments. This agreement would formalize mutual aid between the four political entities by creating an upper Verde Valley civil defense organization that would provide legality, insurability, and operational procedures for emergency workers. After two years of meetings, the agreement was signed in February 1967 by Mayor Dan Bright of Clarkdale, Mayor Don MacDonald of Cottonwood, Mayor Joe Pecharich of Jerome and Yavapai County Supervisor Bert Owens.
Later that spring, the Arizona Industrial Commission approved the Verde Valley Mutual aid agreement which provided State industrial insurance coverage to all emergency service personnel performing official duties anyplace within the jurisdiction’s areas. The duties of the Verde Valley Civil Defense Association were to plan for disaster relief by establishing command and operational procedures, train personnel, and to obtain necessary logistical supplies for a natural or man-made disaster in the upper Verde Valley. Plans were prepared for floods, fires, nuclear events: and even earthquakes, however, snow disaster planning was neither accomplished nor even contemplated. The organization was barely starting to come together when nature acted!
STORM EVENTS IN COTTONWOOD AND CLARKDALE
It was most fortunate that during this one-week storm, the telephone remained in service. There was no central dispatch at that time for the emergency services. A Cottonwood business, the Sexton Insurance Agency, volunteered to be the upper Verde Valley emergency communication center with their employees able to simultaneously answer multiple storm-related calls using their office phone system. This freed my wife from handling the continual phone calls on our single house line. The Cottonwood radio station was the principal source used for transmitting information to the citizenry from governmental, police, fire, utility, medical and civil defense officials. Individuals throughout the community not only took care of themselves, but many went out in the storm to help neighbors, especially the elderly and infirmed, making sure they were safe and had necessities such as food, medicines, heat and human contact during the period of the isolating storm. The Mingus Union High School students gave their time and energy to shovel the heavy wet snow off roofs as well as clearing paths for those needing help. The Verde Valley citizens became a unified, caring, compassionate community.
Arizona and Yavapai County Emergency Management officials informed me on the second day of the storm that the Verde Valley was on its own. There would be no outside county, state or federal support. I asked for some air reconnaissance from the National Guard, but all their resources were tied up supporting the Indian nations.
There were structure fires that resulted in the total loss of buildings because most of the secondary streets were not open to passage of fire equipment during the first days of the snowfall. No snow plows were available in the Verde Valley. A county road grader was used to clear the principal streets of Cottonwood and Clarkdale. The large rubber-tired Cement Plant loader, using its bucket as a blade, cleared community streets and kept the Clarkdale-Jerome highway open.
During the storm, transportation was generally restricted to four-wheel drive vehicles. This was the era when CB radio communicating was a popular hobby. A group of off-the-road CB-equipped vehicle owners had formed a local REACT club that became a most valuable resource during this emergency. Members volunteered to respond at a moment’s notice to carry food and medical supplies to people confined to their home, and to transport ill people to the hospital. They also moved critical occupation personnel to work. Many of the medical staff remained at the hospital on full-time duty staying in available empty patient’s rooms. Donald Hahn reports that the hospital did lose electricity at times and went on a generator. Some REACT volunteers were on call for the expectant mothers; however, it worked out that the new babies delayed their arrival until the storm was over. Dr Dan Bright used his 1931 Ford to bring his Clarkdale neighbors, Dr. Owen Cranmer and Dr. Charles Bill to the hospital every day. The dependable old vehicle built for crude roads made its way daily through the deep snows with no problem.
One day, I hauled a National Park Service family with an ill baby out of Tuzigoot National Monument in my four-wheeler by plowing through the 28 inches of snow. There was no official ambulance service in the upper Verde Valley communities at this time.
With my aviator’s background, disaster plans included the use of aircraft for reconnaissance, monitoring, and transportation of people and resources. But this snowstorm had its own plans on the use of aircraft. Just a few hours after the Cottonwood-Clemenceau Airport runway was cleared of snow by the county grader on the third day of the storm, the World War II Quonset hut hanger at the airport collapsed under the weight of the heavy wet snow. In the space of a few moments, all the aircraft were seriously damaged or destroyed. A wooden propeller from a Stinson airplane destroyed in the hanger collapse remains today a memento in my home.
Some of the buildings damaged or destroyed by the deep and weighty snow during the first days of the storm were: Vance Garage, The Photo Lab and other downtown Cottonwood buildings, Cottonwood-Clamenceau airport hanger and 11 aircraft, Cottonwood VFW hall, Willard School, Cottonwood Pool Hall, Cottonwood Lumber Yard structures, a barn in east Cottonwood, a fairground structure, and a trailer in Bridgeport. Destructive fires occurred at the Osborne’s home, the UV change house and a Mingus Union H. S. structure.
The principal grocery store was Fairway Foods in Clarkdale with a smaller grocery store in Cottonwood. There was a buying rush on food. Radio messages were broadcast asking people to buy only needed food supplies. That was the only selfishness that occurred during the storm and exceedingly large amounts of foods were stripped from both stores. A plea was made that only families with children buy the limited milk supplies. It met mixed support.
As the snow began to let up on about the fifth day, a state snowplow led a milk truck and a mail truck from Prescott via Cordes Junction into Cottonwood. The relatively new I-17 Black Canyon Highway did have one-lane traffic on Monday, the sixth day of the storm. The Interstate was not fully opened for all traffic until a couple of days after the snowfall ended. For most of the one-week storm, the Verde Valley was totally isolated from the outside world. People, like my parents who were coming to visit for Christmas, were stuck in Phoenix until the roads opened.
STORM EVENTS IN JEROME
The Town of Jerome was blanketed under about four feet of snow with the wind-blown snow blocking every street and huge drifts almost burying some houses. Most of the hundred-plus citizens were retired mine employees, their widowed spouses, and others who had stayed in the community following the closure of the United Verde Mine in 1953. A house fire burned unchecked because the fire equipment could not get through the snow-blocked streets to the inferno. Roofs of houses and businesses caved in under the snow’s weight. Some of these collapsed structures were: Earl Bell’s office in the UVX mine area, a large Verde Exploration mine storage building and part of the mine office, a Phelps Dodge garage and a house.
At the end of the fifth day of the storm, December 17th, Clarkdale and Cottonwood were in satisfactory condition following two days of light snowfall. However, Jerome during a personal examination was still in bad shape. Only one lane was open on the main street and the community was on only three-quarters electricity. Some people needed food. The Jerome Civil Defense Director, Milo Stoney, came down with pneumonia and I took over the direct responsibility of Jerome’s relief needs. The Phoenix Cement Company agreed to clear roads in Jerome the next day.
The Town of Jerome contracted with Blevins Earthmovers out of Camp Verde, where the slightly warmer temperatures made the snowfall depths less a problem. The bulldozer opened parts of Highway 279 between Camp Verde and Cottonwood and then pushed open sections of Highway 89A between Clarkdale and Jerome. The deep snows of Jerome stopped the bulldozer and a front-end loader that was also contracted to support the bulldozer finally cleared most of the streets of the snow-paralyzed town.
Volunteers brought food and medicines to Jerome residents trapped and isolated in their homes by the deep snow. One of the colorful personalities living in Jerome since the nineteen-twenties was 89-year-old Clarence J. Beale, who had worked as a bookkeeper for James “Rawhide” Douglas of the UVX and in 1967 was the long-time agent for its successor company, Verde Exploration Ltd. which was my employer at the time. He was one of the active citizens that preserved Jerome from abandonment through the lean economic years following the closure of the United Verde mine in 1953. Mr. Beale had been elected to the Mingus Union H.S. board for decades and his name was given to the Clarkdale athletic field back when it was MUHS’s football field. He lived in one of the company homes just above the UVX mine yard next to the Miner’s Hotel at the end of UVX road.
During the storm, I called Mr. Beale and asked him how he was doing and did he need anything. His answer caught me off guard as I expected him to list some foods or other necessities since he was isolated and trapped by the snow. All he requested was a large bag of seed for the birds around his home and a bottle of bourbon for him to enjoy while watching the birds feed. I foolishly argued with him that I should bring food, but gave that up after only for a few seconds. Interrupting me, he let me know in his strong voice and salty language that the bird seed and the bourbon were all that he wanted. So during the failing light at the end of the day, I strapped on a pair of borrowed snowshoes from Arizona Public Service who was letting local emergency personnel borrow their company’s snowshoes during the night hours because their corporate safety policy was not to send their employees out in the snow after sunset. That Saturday evening found me parking my four-wheel drive out at 89A and snowshoeing down the UVX Mine Road with a large bag of bird seed and a bottle of bourbon over snow drifts as deep as 12 feet to Mr. Beale’s home. He, like most Verde Valley residents did have adequate food in his pantry.
VERDE VALLEY RANCHES
In 1967, working cattle ranches were scattered throughout the entire Verde Valley. As the County’s designated Emergency Services coordinator in the Upper Verde Valley, I was concerned about these people, some of whom did not have phone service. In reality, except for worrying, nothing could be done because the deep drifting snows blocked access to the widely dispersed ranch families. The lack of air support to check on these folks was a serious concern. However, CB radio reports trickled in that indicated the ranchers were fine and had all the necessities of life. After the storm ended, it was obvious that worrying about the ranching families was wasted energy as they were safe and comfortable through this great storm living in the tradition of their self-sufficient ancestors who had originally settled this valley. However, the storm killed many of their cattle.
The 60 to 90 antelope that lived in the Verde Valley suffered deaths from which the herd never fully recovered. The mule deer on Mingus Mountain also incurred substantial losses. The widespread fruit orchards throughout the Verde Valley were severely damaged or destroyed by the storm.
The Yavapai-Apache Native Americans in the Clarkdale area safely went through the storm with their neighbors. The Cement Plant front-end loader cleared the streets of the Clarkdale Reservation. However, the Navajo and Hopi Indian Reservations of northeastern Arizona were buried under two to three feet of snow that inflicted life threatening hardships on the people. The record snowfall and the low temperatures threatened whole communities. The livestock were in distress. The blizzard winds created snow drifts twenty feet high blocking all roads. The Reservations were totally isolated. Radio stations around the Indian nations instructed people requiring emergency help to use the ash from their stoves and fireplaces to write SOS on the snow large enough to be seen from the National Guard aircraft whenever the weather conditions permitted flights. In spite of rescue efforts, eight Navajo people died of exposure during the storm. The Arizona National Guard concentrated their resources on aiding the Indian nations throughout the state. They used their vehicles and aircraft to rescue people in distress, bring and drop food to families and to airdrop feed to livestock under the name “Operation Haylift.”
Two slow moving winter weather systems resulted in creating Arizona meteorological history. The Verde Valley daytime temperature for the two days preceding the storms was above 50 degrees. The residents of the Verde Valley and Arizona were totally unsuspecting of the impending record-making snowfall.
As with any storm system, the moisture varied throughout the Verde Valley. Jerome at 5,200 feet was buried under 41 inches of snow officially; however, five-foot drifts were everywhere and there were many drifts more than double that height. Sedona, surprisingly, received only 1.16 inches of water with a snow depth of 23.8 inches. Historical records indicate the last major snowfall in the Verde Valley had occurred in 1915, but it was lesser in magnitude than this 1967 storm. The official U. S. Weather Bureau temperatures and snowfall and water content measured in inches as rainfall equivalent for the upper Verde Valley were:
The snow totals in Northern Arizona include the State record of 102.7 inches at Hawley Lake. Other totals are 99 inches at Greer, 91.5 inches at the Heber Ranger Station, 87.3 inches at Crown King, 86 inches at Flagstaff, 77 inches at Payson, 46 inches at Prescott, 40 inches at Winslow and 31 inches at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The Arizona one-day snowfall record of 38 inches was established during this storm at the Heber Ranger Station on December 14, 1967. Phoenix set a December rainfall record of 3.98 inches during this tempest.
Snow even fell throughout southern Arizona with Tucson’s Mt. Lemon receiving 84 inches and Tucson itself became white with almost 2 inches of snow. In southeastern Arizona, Willcox received about 18 inches, Safford 11 inches, and Douglas 4 inches. In southwestern Arizona, Ajo reported 3 inches of the state’s ubiquitous white blanket. Even Gila Bend had a 2 inch snowfall. Globe-Miami had over 2 feet and Wickenburg reported 5 inches.
In the desert elevations of southwestern Arizona, the moisture fell principally as torrential rains mixed with minor snow that created floodwaters everywhere. Many of the Indians living on the Papago Indian reservation had to be rescued from raging floodwaters. Over 3 inches of rainfall occurred in Tucson and the surrounding region. The floodwaters increased throughout the storm with the maximum flooding occurring on December 20th at the end of the powerful storm. This was a statewide natural disaster.
POST STORM TALES
Beginning on the final days of the storm and lasting through Christmas, the slope down to Bitter Creek behind the houses along upper Main Street and First North in Clarkdale became a snow resort playground. The hillside was covered with children and adults of all ages swishing, sliding, plummeting, and piling up amid the sounds of excited bilingual voices, laughter and screams. People came to the slopes with a variety of sleds such as sheets of cardboard, plastic garbage can covers, tire inner tubes, two old Flexible Flyer sleds, two sets of wooden skis and one toboggan. Adults brought six packs and some of these imbibers soon ended up sliding down the hill without any sled. Others brought food and had a picnic with the sound of popular songs blasting out from the tape recorders up and down the Bitter Creek valley. The slope was a combined Norman Rockwell painting and a Currier and Ives print of a winter scene in rural America.
One of the winter wonderland results was the deep snow on the ridges between Jerome and Clarkdale paralleling 89A. This became an undeveloped, but perfect ski slope. Two days after the storm, my Montana born neighbor, Adolph Peterson, a Cottonwood schoolteacher on snow day holiday from the closed schools, and I were driven up to the switchback below the former Jerome High School building. There, we unloaded our skis, strapped them on and skied down to the Cement Plant Road to be met and picked up and brought back up the mountain again. We made run after run with only one stop on the way down required to step over the top wire of a fence that broke through the deep snow’s surface. All the other fence lines were buried under the snow. We soon had the flank of the mountain covered with graceful ski tracks. However, all the post storm events were not just fun.
Two days after the snow stopped falling, the foreman of Roca Roja Ranch in Rimrock, left on horseback to check on the ranch’s cattle and horses that had been last seen before the storm in the Mud Tanks area. After riding twelve of the sixteen miles to the location, his horse, either from slipping in the deep snow or from fatigue, threw off the foreman painfully injuring his hip and shoulder. The tough cowboy left his horse, and gritting his teeth due to the painful injuries, plowed on through the snow the final four miles to the Mud Tanks, where there was a cabin. On the way, he spotted the ranch’s horses, but not the cattle. The cowboy holed up for 48 hours in the cabin. When his wife reported him as missing, a local cat skinner volunteered to locate him and mounted his trusty bulldozer to go to the Mud Tanks, but he ran out of gas on the way. Getting on shank’s mare, he walked the rest of the way through the deep snow to the cabin where he located the foreman. The cowboy, though injured, found a horse for the bulldozer operator to ride back to get help. Arizona Public Service had a leased helicopter in the county that they authorized be sent out to rescue the injured, frostbitten, but hardy Verde Valley cowboy who recovered in due time.
An unusual storm related event occurred in Oak Creek Canyon on December 27th, nine days after the snow stopped falling. Just after midnight a man was driving his Volkswagen Beatle on snow packed 89A returning towards his home in Flagstaff. About 12 miles up the canyon, his headlights were filled with a large five-point bull elk walking between the high snow banks that lined the highway. Another car coming down the canyon was moving slowly behind the elk. As the elk and Beatle approached each other, the bull elk felt threatened and attacked the tiny VW. The animal’s antlers pierced the door on the driver’s side and impaled into the driver’s chest. The elk removed his antler, gave a shake of the head, declared himself the winner and then continued his walk down the highway. The driver, who was partially thrown out of the car, was picked up by the couple in the other vehicle, who, in horror, had observed the attack. The victim was transported to the Cottonwood hospital to recover from the unfair battle between an Arizona bull elk and a German VW Beatle.
The final snowstorm related event occurred a month after the storm when Arizona Governor Jack Williams sent out a pen and ink drawing in cartoon format that hangs on my wall today. It shows a flying machine of doubtful aerodynamics flown by a pilot clad in an Eskimo parka and snapping a whip while another parka clad man is straddling the fuselage and throwing off hay bales. It is labeled “St. Bernard’s Express” and signed by Governor Williams: “With appreciation for a job well done.” It was an award to all the citizens of the Verde Valley who, with frontier spirit, determination and positive attitudes performed an outstanding relief effort with no deaths and only minor injuries.
The snow covered roofs of the Verde Valley soon shed their white loads. The piles of snow along the center line of many community streets melted or were carted away in a couple of weeks with the larger snow piles lasting more than a month. Snow remained for many weeks on the north side of Verde Valley homes. Mingus Mountain retained its white blanket even longer resembling a displaced Colorado mountain. Schools that had been closed by the storm had the long Christmas vacation to get prepared to open on schedule the first week of January. Children excitedly talked about their vacation of snow activities. Finally, in the spring, the Verde River swelled up with melt water carrying away the last evidence of the great snowstorm of 1967 -- except for the memories.
Sources of material from P. Handverger notes, Donald Hahn notes, Internet sites including http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/psr/general/history, “Verde Independent” historical files