SUB-FREEZING WEATHER COMES IN WITH SNOW screamed the headline in the Pasadena Star News on January 11, 1949. Traffic snarled, kids whooped for joy, and every local camera shop ran short on film. It was – and still remains -- the heaviest snowfall in Southern California history.
For a city that had built its reputation on January days filled with sunshine and flowers, Pasadena on New Year’s Day 1949 was slightly less picturesque than usual. Gloomy, overcast skies hovered over the parade route. “Murky” was how the Los Angeles Times described both the Rose Bowl weather and the atmosphere surrounding the Cal Bears’ locker room after the underdog Northwestern Wildcats pulled off a 20-14 upset over the Pac 10 champs.
A scant 10 days later, the Pasadena Independent ran a photo of the iconic football field covered in white. Rechristening our landmark the “Froze Bowl,” the newspaper stated, “The East scored another victory in the Rose Bowl yesterday – a victory over the legend that Southern California could never be covered by snow.”
Truthfully, this was not the first time Pasadenans had come face to face with the white stuff. J.W. Wood’s history of the region published in 1917 noted: “Snow has been known to fall and remain on the ground an hour or more twice since the founding of Pasadena, although it frequently has fallen low down on the mountain ranges and at their feet occasionally. On June 13, 1884, the heaviest snowstorm known in Pasadena brought hail, snow and lightning for an hour.” Yes, you read that correctly – it snowed in June!
Another encounter with snowflakes in these regions in 1932 created a bit of a stir. But the intensity of the 1949 storm eclipsed past history and affected much of Southern California. Three consecutive nights of snowfall left up to a foot on the ground in some areas. Traffic along the Arroyo Seco Parkway and Cahuenga Pass, principal commuter arterials, crawled and skidded in the slush and ice. A farmer in Chino reportedly had to use snowshoes to reach his isolated barn, while in Compton police nabbed a bandit minutes after a robbery – by tracking his footprints in the snow. South Pasadena police, who used antifreeze in their prowl cars for the first time ever, arrested three girls who were dropping large snowballs onto cars from the Fair Oaks Avenue bridge over the Arroyo Parkway.
Mail-carrying helicopters were unable to land at the L.A. Civic Center because of blinding snow. In Altadena a County road grader was used as a snowplow on Lake Avenue to clear the foot of snow that had accumulated. One of the worst traffic snarls was near Redlands, where an estimated 500 cars jammed up when a truck skidded and jack-knifed across the highway. Newspapers described the plight of Girl Scouts who were marooned for two days in a mountain cabin near San Diego. Meanwhile, the local economy took a blow with damage to citrus crops estimated in the millions of dollars and production on outdoor sets suspended in Hollywood. Goose-pimpled lifeguards at snow-covered beaches devoid of tourists huddled around bonfires.
Local residents took the unexpected conditions in stride, indeed, as cause for celebration. For youngsters it was one big snow party – until school bells called them to classes (schools remained in session). “Snowmen were a dime a dozen. In fact it might even be said that they were as plentiful as oranges,” reported The Altadenan. Hardy golfers, undaunted by weather, hit white balls onto the white greens of Brookside Golf Course, where dispatchers deemed the course playable by 10:00 am. And seemingly everyone headed to Altadena’s Christmas Tree Lane. The major objective of every newspaper, professional and amateur photographer was to capture the magnificent deodars in a scene simulating their natural habitat, while skiers and sledders found in steep-rising Santa Rosa Avenue a perfect snowy run.
“Save these pictures – you’ll probably never see such sights again,” noted the Pasadena Independent in its coverage of the record-breaking snowfall. A prophetic statement -- we’re still awaiting our next “snow day.”
- Jeannette Bovard
This article was originally published in The Quarterly Magazine, Winter 2009 issue.