Blizzard of ’36 Kills 2 in the Berkshires

The blizzard of 1936 began with light flurries on the morning of Friday, January 17. Over the next 72 hours, it would dump around 20 inches on Berkshire County, with high winds producing vast drifts that crippled travel and left two locals dead.

January 18, 1936- Berkshire Eagle

The 3-4 inches that fell in the first 24 hours was full of promise for local ski slopes, and trains brought hundreds of skiers from New York and Springfield. Record-setting crowds of over a 1100 utilized Bousquet’s (still quite new) rope tow on Sunday.

Snow crews had been diligently attending to the gradual snowfall, amounting to a few inches over the course of Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday evening, though, the precipitation increased more rapidly than expected, dumping 12-14 more inches across the region, with high winds piling drifts several feet high in some places. North County travel in particular became impossible for many, and some who had been at social events that ran late Sunday evening found themselves unable to get their parked cars out. County Commissioner Fred Purches and about 50 other people spent the night taking shelter in a car barn in Adams after attending a banquet. By Monday, the tally of cars that had been abandoned in high drifts numbered in the hundreds.

The blow was blinding. In Pittsfield, fifteen plow trucks worked city streets while the state cleared highways, both augmented by a literal army of workers from Roosevelt’s social programs of the era. Every available worker from the Works Project Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and the federal farm-to-market project were dispatched by the hundreds. Statewide, some 50,000 WPA workers worked the storm. In the town of Adams alone, 500 workers turned up to the town garages from Sunday to Monday. Everything that could be used as a shovel or plow was brought to bear on roads, sidewalks, and railroad tracks over-taxed by the extra runs set up to transport skiers to the Berkshires.

20 people died in the storm across New England, most from auto collisions, and a few roof collapses. The two local casualties were of a more grisly nature.

In the complete white-out, 63 year old Ned Persip of the Pittsfield Coal Gas company never saw or heard the oncoming train as he worked valiantly to clear a switch on the spur line there, and they never saw him. The top of his head was said to have been sheared clean off.

In Adams, 13 year old Walter Kondel perished while walking with his brothers in the snow drifts at the Valley street sand bank. Walter was buried under several feet of heavy snow when the embankment collapsed. He suffocated as his two frantic brothers attempted to dig him out. It was over thirty minutes before they and other rescuers were able to free the child’s body.

The storm front, considered the worst since 1916, swept much of the northern United States, with the final weather-related death toll over the weekend rising over 150 people. Heavy snow that winter would be a precursor of more trouble to come. Two months later, snow melt and pouring rains would slam the eastern U.S.- including western Massachusetts- with some of the worst flooding in its recorded history.

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Author: Joe Durwin

Berkshire-based writer Joe Durwin's "These Mysterious Hills" has run on a semi-regular basis for over than a decade, first in the former Advocate Weekly (2004-2009) and iBerkshires.com (2010-2015), along with his local history column Sagas of the Shire. His work on lore and mysteries of the region has also been featured in Fate Magazine, Haunted Times, the North Adams Transcript, as well as William Shatner’s “Weird or What” on the SyFy Channel, Jeff Belanger's "New England Legends," MSG Films’ “Bennington Triangle,” and numerous other programs for public television and radio.

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