Palo Alto History. Org

Palo Alto's Snow Day: January 21st, 1962

California kids act a little funny when it gets cold --- at least in the eyes of those of us from back East.  It’s odd how they are so aware of snow, even though many have never seen it.  That’s because characters in children’s books never seem to live in warm climates.  Bedroom bookshelves are stacked with stories that take place in winter wonderlands full of perfect sledding hills, snowmen with corn cob pipes, and glistening white pine trees.  And Christmas itself is a virtual celebration of snow. From Santa’s North Pole toy factory to Bing Crosby’s dreams of a White Christmas, a nice warm California holiday season seems virtually obscene.

So naturally kids around these parts long for just a few falling flakes.  In their bones they seem to know they’re missing out on something --- some rite of passage that has been stolen away from them by the geographical happenstance of their birth.  On the coldest of Palo Alto days, children here go wild with excitement.  Watch them on a cold morning at the school playground and you’ll see them transform meager icy patches on the blacktop into little skating rinks.  They put together tiny clumps of accumulated frost and lump them into the most lamentable of snowballs.  They see a bit of frozen water hanging off a railing and announce to anyone in shouting distance that they’ve found an icicle.  It’s all a bit sad, really.

But back in the sixties there was a day in which Palo Alto children really were able to join in on all the fun.  On Sunday, January 21st, 1962, the children of Palo Alto awoke to a dazzling site.  It had snowed --- and not just a few ice crystals on the grass --- it had really snowed.  While there had been dustings here and there over the years, this was Palo Alto’s version of a blizzard --- an inch and a half was reported at Rinconada Park and close to 9 inches up in the mountains on Skyline Drive.  

After an extremely warm and dry winter that year, the storm was part of a cold spell caused by wayward Canadian winds that settled over the Western United States.  In Palo Alto that early Sunday morning, the temperature dropped to 26 degrees and by 4AM, the falling rain began to turn to snow.  As it turned out, it would keep on falling for the next three and a half  hours and by the time breakfast was on the table, most
youngsters were already outside having a once-in-a-childhood experience.

Soon, the whole city was a giant white playground.  Snowmen were being built all over town, snowball fights broke out everywhere, the 10th hole fairway at Los Altos Country Club became a makeshift ski resort and Palo Alto stores ran out of film.  So many families took rides north to the mountains that Page Mill Road became bogged down in traffic.  Other cars never started at all.  One Palo Alto gas station owner reported that he sold 150 gallons of antifreeze by noon, three times the usual amount for an entire year. And so many locals were on the telephone giving amateur weather reports that the lines were completely jammed by 6:30 in the morning.  One thing no one seemed to be doing was going to church.  Local ministers reported that 40% of their usual congregations were conspicuously absent --- apparently out admiring God’s work personally.

Years later, many still remember that single snowy day of their youth.  In 1976, Palo Alto again had snow, a 100-year event occurring twice in less than two decades.  On that day, a whole other generation of kids experienced the wonder of waking up to find that the whole world had gone white.  Since 1976 there have been no more snowmen in Palo Alto, but this year as the temperature drops and winter approaches --- well hey, you never know… []

 Our Reader's Memories:

“Our phone rang at 6 o’clock in the morning and it was Dick calling and saying, "Look out the window."  And we all saw the snow and of course, my kids were dressed and outdoors waking up all the neighbors and telling them it was snowing in Palo Alto.  The kids had the best time, but they could only build very small snowmen.”

"I was around during the 1976 snow day. Living on Indian Drive off Oregon Expressway, I remember my brother and sisters and I throwing snow balls at cars driving down the street...not something I'm proud of, but sure was fun at the time! It's certainly something I will never forget!"

"I was living on Loma Verde street in Palo Alto with my parents and family. I was the youngest daughter and the first to wake up. I was downstairs, and as I walked past the window, I said, 'Snow!' I was 6 years old. I ran through the house screaming: 'There is snow outside, its snowing!' But it was about 6:00 am and no one believed me! All were in bed, but my constant screaming finally got all up with surprise. No one had snow gear, so we all went out with our hands layered with Dads socks. One big happy memory!"

"During the snow of 1962 I was still in the hospital, having given birth to my first child 1+ days earlier. 1/19/2012 he would have been 50 years old. Unfortunately he died a few years ago; for sure this year would have been a bash of a party. Ironically, I ended up working for the same hospital he was born in (VMC), semi-retiring 2 years ago."

-Bonnie Ochoa

Send Us Your Memory!

Snow on Embarcadero Road looking toward City Hall (now the Art Center) in 1962. (PAHA)

Snow in Los Altos Hills in 1976. (PAHA)

Main Street in Mayfield (now South Palo Alto) after a snowstorm in 1887. (PAHA)