If you live in Billings and think the recent run of heavy snowfall was bad, you should have been here in 1955.
We’ve seen use of the terms “snowpocalypse” and “snowtravaganza” to describe the recent storms, but these hardly begin to compare with the storms of early April 1955.
And fortunately for anyone with an interest in Billings history, that whole record-breaking storm was caught on film by a local chiropractor, the late Allan Downs.
He must have had great faith in the weather forecasts, because Downs started filming the storm in its early stages, then stuck with it until the snow finally stopped falling three days later.
The 14-minute color film, complete with narration by Downs and a musical score that is alternately ominous and dramatic, is an artistic and historical treasure.
In it he refers to “what was to be the worst snowstorm in recorded weather history in Billings.” Fifty-nine years later, it still holds that title.
Newspaper accounts at the time said the storm dropped 42½ inches of snow on Billings between April 2 and April 5, 1955. Tom Humphrey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings, said the figure is very nearly accurate.
According to weather service records, he said, the total was actually 42.3 inches, and 39.1 inches fell in just two days, April 3 and 4.
Asked if that was a record snowfall for Billings, Humphrey said, “Oh, yes, yes. That’s going to be very hard to dethrone.”
The recent storms in Billings lasted twice as long as the ’55 storms, from Feb. 22 to March 1, and dropped a total of 26.4 inches of snow. Even more telling is the water content of the 1955 storms. In four days, Humphrey said, the 1955 storms dumped 4.15 inches of water on the city. The recent snowfalls, by contrast, contained just 1.39 inches of water.
All that wet, heavy snow in 1955 virtually shut down the city and collapsed the roofs on three downtown businesses.
There are contemporary echoes in the documentary filmed by Downs. Early in the storm, he narrates, “A few optimists like myself even cleared their walks, expecting the snowfall to end.” And “parking without chains usually meant abandoning the car right on the spot.”
He also tells how “walls of snow and ice divided lanes of traffic in the business district.” This winter, for the first time in decades, the city of Billings is once again plowing snow to the center line on many streets, then picking up the snow at a later date. The documentary also refers to the “slow and immense task of removing snow from the metropolitan area.”
The film contains many recognizable locations, including the Babcock Theatre and Northern Hotel, familiar houses on North 32nd Street and a shot looking up North 30th Street, which was then bisected by a park-like median.
All that snow, however, didn’t stick around long. Then as now, Billings was subject to thawing chinooks and rapid temperature swings. As the Billings Gazette reported on April 5, the last day of the storm, the weather service had warned that “if warming occurs as expected during the next couple of days, rapid runoff is likely to produce a flooding problem.”
Downs says at the end of the documentary, however, that the ground had thawed sufficiently to absorb the melting snow, and there was no local flooding.
So, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Sure it was snowier in 1955, but this winter has been hideously cold, too.”
OK, but consider the winter of 1936. This February was unusually cold in Billings, Humphrey said, with an average daily temperature of 18.7 degrees. In February 1936, the average temperature was 2.7 degrees — 27.7 degrees below the normal average.
If you still feel inclined to complain, maybe all you have to do is wait. We could still set records. Three of the worst storms in our history, in 1917, 1941 and 1955, all came in April.
Allan Downs was an enthusiastic amateur filmmaker who also recorded memorable days of music at the Skyline Club and the Elmo Club. Those films, plus a film about Christmas 1956 in Billings and Downs’ account of the 1955 storm, were donated to the Western Heritage Center by his friend, Steve Hovis.
All four films were put on a DVD, which can be purchased from the Western Heritage Center. Call 256-6809 for more information.