DETROIT – One of the most memorable snow events is the Great Lakes blizzard of 1999, which dumped nearly a foot of snow on the Detroit area.
The storm began on January 1, 1999, and moved through the Midwest, leaving many areas with more than 15 inches of snow. A shortage of snow plows, combined with a stretch of very cold weather left streets blocked for more than a week.
The storm that tops the list is the April Super Snowstorm of 1886, which clocks in with more than 24 inches of snow.
The biggest snowstorm ever to strike Michigan occurred on Tuesday, April 6, 1886. The days preceding the storm, however, were more in keeping with spring weather rather than winter. Spring activities were already underway with many believing that winter was a distant memory. Only four days prior to the storm, The Rochester Era reported:
"We hail this charming month, for it brings with it freshness, the sweet breath of the springtime and the gentle rains that herald the advent of the early flowers, and the starting grass upon our lawns and meadows…Farm stock, glad to leave the confines of the barn and yard, are straying hither and yon, through field and woodland seeking the tender blades of grass and early vegetation."
On April 3, strong and persistent winds blew throughout the state and lasted until the storm struck. On April 5, the temperature was a chilly 38 degrees. Light snow began to fall shortly after midnight on April 6 and it got progressively heavier during the pre-dawn hours. At 7:00 a.m. the snowfall measured 4.6." At 3:00 p.m., snowfall was at 17.1." When the snow finally stopped falling around 9:00 p.m., there was about 24.5" of snow on the ground. In order to be classified as a blizzard, the snowstorm had to be accompanied by winds of at least 32 mph, low temperatures (temperatures held at 20 to 30 degrees throughout the storm), and visibility of less than 500 feet.
The April 6 storm met all criteria. Twelve-foot high drifts and snow in the street that totaled 10" to 40" were common throughout southeastern Michigan. In Rochester, sidewalks were rendered impassible with "drifts in many places being as high as the fence, or higher…business was virtually suspended." Newspaper, milk, and coal delivery were halted. Stories of people using crowbars and ice picks to clear the snow and underlying ice from streets in order to travel were common.
Railroad cars were abandoned or "thrown" from the tracks. The Air Line Railroad between Rochester and Pontiac was completely blockaded; even two days after the storm, assistance from Romeo was sent for "to enable the hands to clear the track." According to The Rochester Era, "during the day it was impossible to see more than half a block distant by reason of the blinding snow which was filled with fine, sharp particles, cutting the face of the luckless pedestrian and rendering life a burden." Snowplows proved inoperable so each person had to shovel snow from in front of their door or "wait for the sun to do it for him, many doing the latter.
The second worst storm on record was in 1974, which left more than 19 inches of snow in Detroit. The storm came over Thanksgiving weekend, which caused many problems for those traveling.
Here is a list of the top 10 heaviest Detroit snow falls on record, from the National Weather Service.