Thursday, August 11, 2022

Blizzard of 1934

Silent home movie documenting the blizzard of 1934 in what was originally thought to be Bridgeport, but now looks to be in neighboring Fairfield. While the original film maker is unknown, the film features not only edited clips, but opens with a title card that reads “Member Amateur Cinema League.” It includes the ACL logo before jumping into the film itself.

The film begins with footage of two different Christmas trees in a home bedecked with tinsel, along with a set table in advance of a feast. This footage was likely taken prior to the blizzard.

From there the film moves on to depict the snow as it was coming down, illustrating the high winds that were responsible for massive drifts. Following that, the bulk of the footage shows the film maker’s family playing in the snow, shoveling it, waving to family members inside the house, and even getting their car out and showing how tall the snow banks are in comparison to the car itself.

From the 6:21-7:22 time stamp, the footage shifts and focuses instead on street scenes. The large snow bank at 6:36 that is piled under the sign of Bonney Electric Co. suggests that the street footage shows downtown Fairfield. Bonney Electric Co. resided at 733 Post Road. Upon careful review, the building shown at 6:20 may be the Chase Bank that now resides at 1401 Post Road in Fairfield. The more easily identifiable Randall’s Drugs resided at the historical address of 644 Post Road, which likewise seems to be in the modern 1410 area. The Bridgeport History Center is trying to determine the occupants and exact address of what is likely now the Chase Bank. The train tracks at 6:40 also look similar to Fairfield’s train station in the present. Actual trains can be seen at 6:50-7:00.

This film was preserved through a grant given by the National Film Preservation Foundation and thanks to the work of ColorLab.

This is the only known film of the blizzard in Fairfield county, making this reel of black and white 16 mm film a rarity. The Bridgeport Post’s headline blared ““CITY PARALYZED BY BLIZZARD: 28 inch snow, deepest since ’88. Drifts 6 feet.” on Tuesday, February 20, 1934. The headline “2,500 at work clearing streets” came the day after. This snowstorm of truly epic proportions impacted not only Bridgeport, Connecticut, but the entire New England region, making it one of the biggest and most remembered storms for decades to come.

The film, in addition to the Bridgeport History Center’s extensive clipping file and photograph collection, makes it clear how chaotic it was to live through the storm. residents were largely snowbound in their own homes, with early automobiles, buses, trains, and street cars all stuck in the 28 inches of snow that fell on the city. In 1934, there were no modern snow plows and digging out of the stuff was far, far more demanding for the City workers. Mayor McLevy asked for the public’s help in cleaning up the snow off their own stoops so that the city could focus on the roads and civic properties. McLevy made a point of following his own advice, and in the end, some 2,500 workers were reported as working in the region in order to clear all of the snow. With no other place to put it, the vast majority of the material was deposited into the Long Island Sound.

Major food shortages were reported as well. Places like bakeries and dairies operated with skeleton staffs and some delivery routes were serviced by sleds. Operators for the telephone system were scarce due to the commuting gridlock. Scheduled surgeries stopped. The city banks struggled to stay open. The snow was coupled with 35 mile an hour winds, and the combination of those winds and the weight of snow lead to some breathtaking photos, including that of a theater marquee entirely collapsed onto the ground.

There was one event reported in the Bridgeport newspapers that would not occur in the modern city: goats getting stuck in the snow. Apparently, some Bridgeport residents still kept goats, and the height of the snow led the animals to become stuck. Doubtlessly in the age of Instagram, there’d be photographs and video of this unfortunate and striking occurrence.

The experiences of those who lived through the storm helped vault the 1934 blizzard into a place of prominence in Bridgeport’s mythology. The storm hit about four months into the first term of socialist mayor Jasper McLevy. The quote “God put the snow there, let him take it away” was likely said by the head of Public Works, Peter Brewster, not in 1934 but in 1939, but it’s attribution to McLevy gives a sense of how the mayor was perceived by the public: a bit of a penny pincher, even though he had helped removed private contracts for city services such as snow removal itself. This was one of the many things accomplished during McLevy’s twenty four years as mayor of the city, others include improving and to a certain extent automating the Offices of Taxes and of Controller, creating the city’s civil service system, and proving to be an extremely honest politician. But the snow’s arrival and slow removal at such an early stage of his tenure as mayor meant that the falsely attributed quotation has since been identified with him into the 21st century. The expectations of Mayor McLevy with regards to snow removal are also very familiar to contemporary city dwellers – if snow removal is not immediately done according to public expectations, the outcry in cities such as New York can be a public relations nightmare.

In an article for the Bridgeport Sunday Post published on February 25, 1934, there is a brief discussion about how living in the machine age seems to have made things worse when dealing with massive snowstorms, rather than better. Comparing the 1934 storm to the last big storm in living memory, 1888, the article dwells on how automobiles, buses, and streetcars all stalled and helped bring the city to a stop – whereas in 1888, there were sleds and horses to get people through deep snow and ensure that civic life could continue on-wards. There are photographs that show Bridgeport residents doing just that – as well as relying on sled dogs to get through the worst of it. But there is some irony in the article too, as street cars began to decline in use around this time.