Chicago’s Snow Memories Haunted By Ice Dams From Hell
Chicagoans lamenting about the “Blizzard of 2021” burying our streets, alleys and yards should turn the clock back to their childhoods, when the white stuff was considered a gift from the gods.
In the 1950s and early 1960s on Halsted Street in Old Town, a big January snow was a chance to build a snow fort crowned with a roof of recently discarded Christmas trees. My fort was made from rectangular snow blocks cast from wooden orange crates. The fort even had a window.
If the snow was wet and heavy, it was considered “good packing,” which meant it was easy to make great snowballs. Once enough snowballs were stockpiled in the fort, battles could last for days. If you ran out of ammo, the victors rubbed your face in the white stuff.
Halsted Street brats also would volley snowballs from their sunken front yards into the open doors of the "Red Devil” electric street cars that rumbled down that busy street. Occasionally, the conductor would jump off the streetcar, cuss at us, and throw a snowball back.
As a young teenager, “skitching” was considered a great urban sport, especially when side streets were ankle-deep in unplowed snow.
Teen boys would hide behind parked cars on Dayton Street and when a car skidded to a stop at Willow Street, two or three lads would stay low and grab a handful of auto bumper and go for a ride without skis that sometimes lasted a half block.
Snow pranks included tying a home-made cloth dummy to a street-light pole and swinging it out into the snow bound street in front of a slowly moving car. Those nasty pranksters probably grew up to be cops, corporate executives, or newspaper writers.
Fast forward to 2021, when Chicago is reeling from more than 40 inches of snow over the past few weeks. After nine consecutive days of snowfall, the city came within a snowflake of beating the 78-year record established in 1943. And more snow is on the way, forecasters say.
2021 may not match the Great Snow of 1967, when cars and buses were frozen in time for days on the Outer Drive. Nor 1979, when Mayor Michael Bilandic’s snow crews fell asleep at the wheel. That snow-job debacle led to the election of Mayor Jane Byrne in 1980.
Today, our problems include no U.S. Postal Service mail delivery for up to 10 days, or the controversial issue of “Dibs,”—ownership of a parking space personally dug out by a snow warrior.
And where do we dump the snow when parkways and corner intersections are filled? In 1979, the city dumped the excessive snow in the Chicago River. Today, some of it is headed to the parking lots around Sox Park—now known as Guaranteed Rate Field.
The iceman cometh
Then, there is the dreaded threat of “Gutter Ice Dams and Killer Icicles.” A diligent Old-Town renter called her landlord to report water dripping from the roof into the third-floor hallway. An hour later the handyman reported: “Mr. Don, You have big icicles hanging from your gutter.”
About 20 years ago, a giant 9-foot-long icicle fell off the corner of the same building. It was launched like a torpedo, penetrating the old porch decking and continuing on through the roof of a storage room on the basement level. Result: a $9,000 insurance claim.
The new monster icicles of 2021 are only about seven-feet long, but they nearly blocked rear access doors.
The brave handyman knocked down the icicles, opened the roof hatch and shoveled snow off the edge. Then, he poured ice melt crystals into the gutter and onto the edge of the roof.
The next day, this landlord received cell-phone photos from his firefighter neighbor on yet another building. This North Side rental property was plagued with the same ice dam problem, only worse.
The gutter ice dams flowing down the side of the back porch looked like the Tower Fall Waterfall at Yellowstone National Park. They were 30 feet long, and two feet wide. Ice cascading down the corner gutter had frozen the porch door closed. If there was a fire, the exit would have been inaccessible.
Again, the handyman went up on the roof and shoveled snow away from the gutters, chiseled
off the hanging ice, and put ice melt on the roof and in the gutters.
Hopefully, Chicagoans will survive the “Blizzard of 2021.” The big melt down should start next week when temperatures hit 39 degrees, and the Arctic Vortex retreats. But this writer still wishes he had reservations in Cabo.