Those of us who have lived on the mountain for half a century or more still hesitate to wish anyone a “White Christmas.” With apologies to Bing Crosby, I can’t stand the song. It brings back memories of 1967 when Arizona was hit with an unlikely blizzard that dumped more than 100 inches of snow in parts of the White Mountains.
The Blizzard of 1967 wasn’t entirely unexpected. The National Weather Service forecasted a blizzard for the mountains of northern Arizona as early as Dec. 7. CBS News reported that a large storm was moving in from the Pacific but was expected to last only a day and a half. As the front began its progress eastward, forecasters predicted one to two feet of snow for elevations above 6,000 feet across northern Arizona. Winds of 30 mph, gusting to 50 mph would make driving dangerous, and divers were advised to stay home if possible.
For mountain people, this was not unusual for December. Most of us stocked up on staples and canned goods for ourselves and our animals, checked our wood supply, and gassed up our cars. It was going to be great for skiing and sledding. Kids looked forward to schools being closed.
What was not expected was a second winter storm closing in quickly on the first. It began to snow on Dec. 12. By now, snow was forecast at 5,000 feet across northern Arizona, western New Mexico and southern Colorado. (In the end, snow fell as far south as the Mexican border). The two storm systems in tandem produced the fiercest winter storm in the recorded history of Arizona. It snowed for nine days straight, closed roads and highways, shut off power, stranded motorists, caved in roofs, killed at least 51 people and countless domestic animals and took a huge toll of wildlife.
The Navajo Nation was especially hard hit because there were few tribal roads. Normally self-sufficient families in isolated hogans were trapped, unable to get food for themselves and their livestock. One Navajo herdsmen froze to death trying to walk to a trading post or chapter house. At least eight others died of exposure trying to save their sheep. Few Navajo people had electricity, but some had radios. They were advised to use ashes from their stoves to write messages on the snow that could be seen by aircraft.
After a week of incessant snowfall, the situation was desperate. New Mexico Gov. David Cargo ordered an Air National Guard airlift to drop supplies and medicine by helicopter to Navajo and Hopi families. On Dec.18 the U.S. Air Force began helicopter rescues of Navajo and Hopi people.
Navajo Chairman Raymond Nakai appealed to the federal government on Dec. 19 for men and equipment to clear roads and truck in supplies. The Wyoming Air National Guard shipped 15 vehicles donated by Ski Doo of Boulder, Colo., onto a transport plane and sent it to Gallup, N.M., to help stranded Navajo people.
White Mountain Apache stockmen were in less danger than the Navajo. Most of them had moved their cattle to ranges below 5,000 feet in the fall, and wildlife had migrated to lower country where they were able to uncover grass. There was nowhere for Navajo people and their herds to go.
Ranchers in the White Mountains lost thousands of cattle. Bill Elkins said ranchers rounded up all the heavy equipment they could muster to open trails through deep snow to take feed to their cattle, but in many cases it was too late. Cattleman Tom Reed had just purchased 1,500 yearlings for his Rocking Chair Ranch west of Snowflake.
Elkins said, “Spud Stratton cut trails with a bulldozer, and Tom bought a big snowmobile to haul feed to where the cattle had bunched up. They were able to get feed to some of the cattle, but lost over 600 head.”
Most people burned wood or propane, or both, and had enough fuel to last out the storm. From Flagstaff, across the Mogollon Rim country and in the White Mountains, people in outlying areas conserved fuel and did without electricity until roads could be opened by heavy equipment.
Roofs caved in on summer cabins at Hawley Lake and other resorts where no one was available to shovel snow off roofs or open roads.
If people died during the storm the family had to postpone burial in local cemeteries until the ground thawed out.
Wilbur’s Market in Pinetop was hard hit. The few shoppers that braved the snow to get needed supplies watched as the front windows popped out into the street and ran as the roof caved in. People had lost the only department store in the small community.
Almost immediately, friends and neighbors poured in to salvage supplies from the shelves. Some looting took place, but no lives were lost, and the store eventually reopened.
Main highways were opened as soon as possible. Bulldozers and snowplows, back loaders, graders and every kind of heavy equipment was in use day and night. Operators stopped long enough to grab a meal and sleep a few hours.
Snow was piled in a huge berm in the middle of streets with cuts for traffic turns every so often. According to one story, a dozer operator in Show Low plowed up a parked Volkswagen Beetle that was completely covered with snow and dumped it on the berm.
Electric lines were down across the spectrum. Darryl Kent Rhoton worked for Navopache Electric Cooperative, which operated into New Mexico. Rhoton said their first challenge was getting to their equipment so they could repair lines.
They asked logger Carl Webb for his bulldozer so they could clear the yard. They worked on lines wherever they could, but it was several days before they could get help from the Arizona National Guard.
Rhoton rode with a helicopter pilot to find breaks in the main transmission lines to New Mexico. When trouble spots were identified, they ferried crews in by helicopter. The helicopters were based at Show Low airport.
One day when they had landed, Rhoton looked up to see his younger brother, Tim, who had just arrived on leave from Vietnam.
Their Christmas family reunion was devastated by news of the death of their brother-in-law, Pete Reidhead of Shumway. Reidhead had tried to take feed to his cattle. The front-end loader he was driving skidded off the road into Love Lake, killing him.
Not all news was tragic. Some was heartwarming, even though temperatures dropped below zero Dec. 21. A blast of arctic air had moved in, freezing all the lakes solid. Ducks and geese, unable to dive for feed in Rainbow Lake, turned to their human friends and landed by the hundreds in the Safeway parking lot. True to the spirit of the mountain, shoppers bought extra loaves of bread and fed them until they could swim again.
As the snow melted down below the eaves of Charlie Clark’s Steak House, the owners faced a quandary. Two dogs had chased a cat up on the roof and couldn’t get down. The dogs were rescued; the cat got away.
We lived on the hill across from the old Pinetop cemetery. My kids sledded all the way down to the Country Store for groceries and pulled them back up the hill. They flew down the hill above our house on a toboggan and knocked the rear view mirror off our car that was buried in snow.
We took turns walking on our one pair of snowshoes. And — now it can be told — my kids and I climbed over the fence at Fred’s Lake and ice skated without getting caught.
We had survived the “Storm of the Century.”