The Blizzard of '96 amazed the entire East Coast. Here, a Bug tries to navigate the streets of suburban Boston.

Today's young people will be telling their grandchildren about the Blizzard of 1996 the same way today's old timers remember grandparents talking to them about the Blizzard of 1888.

It was the snowstorm of the century, bound to be compared to winters into the next millennium, just as the Blizzard of '88 was the New Jersey standard for severity through the 20th century.

Two feet of snow was blasted into Greater Trenton by 50 mph winds that created giant drifts, paralyzing the region and the rest of the Northeast for a week, One writer called it the most “sadistic” storm of our century.

The Blizzard of '96 stranded hundreds of people at Trenton's train station; left thousands without electricity and heat for days; closed most schools and government offices for a week; cut off an estimated $1 billion in Jersey commerce; forced the National Guard into service rescuing state troopers from snowbound police cruisers; and created strife between officials and residents demanding the plowing of their little streets.

In the second week of January of 1996, it can be said, many locales across the region looked like they did in the old pictures taken of them during the infamous Blizzard of '88: Houses drifted under; snowed-in main streets that looked like ghost towns; no cars or people on the streets.

Just as predicted by the weathermen, the storm started with light flakes on the Sunday afternoon of Jan. 7. By evening, stores had been cleared of milk, bread, eggs and other staples and the wind had started howling. Firing straight into the face of anyone who would brave them, the snowflakes got fatter.

Kids knew they'd have off from school Monday and Jersey's 70,000 state workers knew they wouldn't be going in even before Gov. Christie Whitman declared a state of emergency banning all but essential roadway traffic. And going to work wasn't necessarily essential.

Drifting snow stalled New Jersey Transit and SEPTA trains, which, even on a Sunday night, stranded more than 200 people at the Trenton station. With the station restaurant closed, the travelers fumed that they couldn't get a cup of coffee, let alone something for their growling stomachs.

"There's no place to eat, no place to sit — it's ridiculous," said stranded Renee Harrielal. A train announcer, Mike Alfano, counseled patience: "It doesn't look like it'll get better any time soon. There's not much you can do besides wait."

The region had been ready for the storm, but it didn't matter. The blizzard continued overnight and through Monday, 37 hours in all, which kept most plowing equipment off even major highways until the next day.

Snow fell at a rate of 2 inches an hour, and anyone who scraped off the car before Monday night ended up having to do it again.

Before Sunday was over, the storm was being blamed for eight deaths across the Northeast.
Cops, firemen an hospital workers were the only people told to report to work. For the next few days, many of the policemen and firemen were on duty shuttling the hospital workers between work and home.

Through the day Monday, the storm actually stalled over Greater Trenton, giving some places in the region the highest snowfall recordings in local history.

More than 24 inches was recorded in Bordentown, 27 fell at McGuire Air Force Base and Titusville got 21. Trenton's 16 was plenty enough, as officials would learn in the following days.

By the end, 37 hours later on Tuesday, almost 100 deaths between Kentucky and Connecticut had been blamed on the snow, ice and bitter winds. In New Jersey, three people suffered heart attacks while shoveling snow and a fourth died in an auto accident.

By the end, 37 hours later on Tuesday, almost 100 deaths between Kentucky and Connecticut had been blamed on the snow, ice and bitter winds. In New Jersey, three people suffered heart attacks while shoveling snow and a fourth died in an auto accident.

On Tuesday, Trenton and its suburbs started digging out, the part that future grandparents will get angry about when they tell their grandchildren.

Plowing interstates, other highways and secondary roads was the top priority of state, county and local officials, and these byways got attention first. On many of them were stranded cars, however, and they had to be towed away first, which slowed the process.

So people cooped up back home accepted the delay for a day or so. When no plow had come through by Wednesday morning, however, many suburbanites and Trentonians started howling.

Trenton had 50 vehicles at work, including 23 dump trucks hauling away snow to drop into the Delaware River. But the equipment and the seven crews of men manning it weren't moving fast enough for people on the 350 little streets in Trenton's neighborhoods of tightly packed rowhouses. In Villa Park and Chambersburg, hundreds complained that they shoveled out of snow piled by plows.

“This city just doesn’t care,” Mike Errickson fumed as he shoveled out his car again. "You have to work to pay taxes, but I can’t get to work." 

And the cleanup was costing a bundle in taxes. Trenton had $125,000 put aside for snow removal, and it wasn't near enough. The city hired on 21 independent contractors to help with snow removal.

Through that week, Mayor Doug Palmer was so besieged by calls his line was busy almost constantly, which only added to the anger of those trying to get through to him to demand a plowing.

Knowing streets with kidney dialysis patients were getting priority plowing, one woman frustrated with "cabin fever" called 911 saying she had to get to a hospital appointment — just to get out of the house — which forced police to start verifying appointments with doctors.

In the ’Burg, a digger chased a plow truck down the street, trying to smack it with his shovel, after the rig passed by and packed more snow around his
just-freed car.

Palmer pleaded with residents to remain patient and criticized Gov. Whitman for calling back state workers before the city was prepared to handle the traffic. Whitman asked President Clinton for millions of dollars in emergency aid to help pay for the cleanup.

Greater Trenton was only about peeping its collective head out from under the snow on Friday when weathermen said the region could get hit with up to five more inches of snow. But the snowfall turned out to be light, and by Sunday church pews that had been empty the week before held worshipers.

And lots of children were destined to remember spending the week building snowmen, carving out igloos, sledding down embankments, shoveling walkways and experiencing all the awe and chaos and struggle and fun of a blizzard.

They’ll be old codgers someday, telling their children that nothing they’ve ever seen can top the Blizzard of ’96.

  By LAUREN M. BLACK and PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
1996: The Biggest Blizzard
1900s    1910s    1920s    1930s    1940s    1950s    1960s    1970s    1980s    1990s