When snow is as scarce as it’s been for the past 20 months, long-time Hill residents begin to pine for those old-time storms, “when we had real snow here.” Never mind that Idyllwild has never had enough snow to support even a minimal ski resort.
And there have been recurring droughts throughout history, such as the one in the 1860s that killed a thriving cattle industry in Southern California. Or in my teenage years, when a creek had to substitute for a shower.
When it comes to snow memories, what I’ve heard about most often is the so-called “March Miracle” of 1991. It came during another dry spell.
Idyllwild had seen only half its average precipitation by late February. Then a foot of rain flowed from the sky in four days, soon followed by a series of colder, weekly three-day storms. First 4 inches, then 14 and finally 29 inches of snow fell before the end of March.
Snow berms up to 20 feet tall towered over central village intersections. Idyllwild School closed for two days. The Idyllwild Fire Department desperately enlisted volunteers to find and dig out hydrants. With only three snowplows, Caltrans struggled to clear 138 miles of roadway.
But only two auto collisions were reported as tourists took advantage of spring breaks to mob the Hill. Kids loved the snow, and just four days after the snow stopped falling, the younger ones had the easiest Easter egg hunt ever.
Another memorable storm hit in 1949. Snow began to fall around midnight Saturday, Jan. 8, and continued with only a brief interruption through the following Friday. Something like 4 feet of snow fell and it was cold. The snow level started at 1,000 feet, even dusting downtown Los Angeles.
Hunter McConnell, next door to what’s now the Idyllwild Area Historical Society museum, built an ice igloo, then saw it disappear under the rising snow pack to become a spooky cave.
But the light powder collapsed no roofs. Firewood ran low, but nobody ran out. Photographers busied themselves taking shots for 1950 Christmas cards. Fern Valley Lodge kept the public library on its grounds open and warm, to supply fireside reading at home. Circle Drive became a thoroughfare for skis and sleds.
Idyllwild Ice and Fuel struggled mightily to keep the village supplied with propane and fuel oil, but did withdraw the phrase “no road too tough” from its newspaper ad. Mail was delayed, but only because of a traffic jam at Box Springs near Riverside. Cars still got up and down the mountain, overrunning the village with tourists.
To put the record-breaking 48-inch storm in perspective, it delivered about 4 inches of moisture. That’s about how much rain we got at the beginning of December. And only five years ago, in 2009, a December storm cycle matched the March Miracle’s 12-inch rain.
Current weather is indeed different from that of the good old days. But the trend isn’t necessarily drier. It’s just getting warmer.
Bob Smith is a researcher and archivist with the Idyllwild Area Historical Society. He welcomes comments, questions, corrections and suggested topics for this column at [email protected].