On Saturday, Jan. 11, 1975, Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was topping the charts, on “All in the Family,” a tearful Edith said goodbye to her neighbor, Louise Jefferson as “The Jeffersons” moved on up to their own sitcom and “Scramblin Fran” Tarkenton was a day away from leading the Purple People Eaters to their third Super Bowl appearance.
While many Minnesotans could certainly listen to Elton John on their 8-track tape players and watch the Bunkers on their TV, many would be unable to watch their beloved Vikings in that weekend’s Super Bowl, thanks to one of the most severe and unusual weather events in the history of the Midwest.
“It was truly, in the last 100 years, one of the worst blizzard, snow events, and it’s often times called ‘The Storm of the Century,’” said Daryl Ritchison, the director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network at North Dakota State University and former meteorologist for WDAY-TV.
Ritchison has done a number of speaking engagements about the blizzard of ‘75 where he shows TV news clips featuring longtime anchor Marv Bossart.
The storm originated in the Pacific Northwest around Jan. 8, 1975. By the next day, it had crossed the Rocky Mountains and was moving to the southern United States. Before it was done, the storm had produced a record-breaking 45 tornadoes, killing 12 people. By Jan. 10, it came barreling toward the Midwest and by Jan. 11 the worst of it was pummeling areas from Omaha, Neb., through Sioux Falls, S.D., southwest Minnesota, Alexandria, Brainerd and up to International Falls. Before it was over, 58 people in the Midwest died, and some regions received between one to two feet of snow.
Ritchison says Fargo-Moorhead only got about five inches of snow, and it never got terribly cold. But the wind was a big problem.
“In Fargo, at the airport we had zero visibility for 20 straight hours, and we had wind in gusts over 50 most of that time,” he said.
As people in the heaviest snow regions were left stranded and housebound, people in parts of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota had a different problem, one that makes this storm pretty unusual — snirt.
Snirt is snow mixed with dirt. North Dakota had a mild November and December with no snow on the ground, so when the blizzard hit, the high winds whipped up the topsoil, with the falling snow becoming an ugly gray on the ground — something we might be used to seeing on the roads at the end of winter, not falling freshly from the sky.
“Everything was just absolutely dirty,” said Ritichison. “You were blowing out brown from the snowblowers.”
The story in The Forum that day called it a “gee whiz” blizzard and compared the snow-covered ground to a lunar landscape.
“The snirt clung to windows and house siding, sifted through keyholes and under doors. It made tracings like melted chocolate on old ice cream and spoiled the usual after-blizzard ice palace effect that Valley residents discover on emerging,” wrote Forum staff writer Jim Baccus.
Baccus also noted that some residents, in typical Midwestern stoicism, felt like they deserved what they were getting.
“More than one Fargo-Moorhead resident intoned Sunday that ‘we had it comin’ to make up for that beautiful fall and mild December,” Baccus wrote.
Cleanup was a challenge throughout the region. Some dealt with the dusty, dirty snirt, others had to dig their cars out of massive snowbanks, and others lost power. And on this weekend, that meant no Super Bowl.
Ritchison, who was a kid at the time in southern Minnesota, was able to see the game, but some of his friends weren’t that lucky.
“When I went back to school, I was amazed by how many kids did not get to watch the Super Bowl and hearing stories of them surrounding their fireplace because they had no electricity, no heat during that storm. I remember as a kid thinking it was like Laura Ingalls Wilder,” he said.
But perhaps those who missed the game were the lucky ones. The Vikes would go on to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 16 to 6 — the third of their four Super Bowl losses. The storm would come to be known as the Super Bowl Blizzard by some in the hardest hit regions and “The Snirt Storm” by those of us left in the dust. Either way, for Vikings fans 45 years ago, it was a Super Bowl Sunday of insult added to injury.