DETROIT – Most Michiganders hope that April showers will end the season’s snow until next winter - but in Michigan, it’s never a sure thing.
Take April 1886 for example: On Tuesday, April 6, 1886, Detroit was hit with the largest snowstorm on record, dumping more than 24 inches of snow.
Just before the 1886 storm, farmers were getting ready for spring.
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 worst snow storm in American history happened in March 1888 - a storm that dumped more than 55 inches of snow on the east coast, killing more than 400 people.