CHICAGO (CBS) — We could see flurries Thursday night, but we should perhaps count our blessings.
On this day 43 years ago – as well as the night before and the morning after – 18.8 inches of snow fell on the ground on top of 7 to 10 inches that were already on the ground from a snowstorm the previous New Year’s Eve.
The Blizzard of 1979, and the city’s response to it, ended up being the catalyst for the ouster of Mayor Michael Bilandic a few months later.
The snow began to fall with a vengeance on the night of Friday, Jan. 12, 1979, and it kept piling up until 2 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 14.
Motorists found themselves snowed in, and transportation was rendered impossible. Chicagoans fought over parking spaces, and so many pieces of furniture were put out to reserve freshly-dug spots that resale merchants began prowling the streets for them.
The snow also damaged brakes and motors on CTA ‘L’ trains, leaving many train cars disabled as otherwise-stranded Chicagoans crammed into the ones that were left. Transportation came to a standstill all around the city.
The snowstorm was even powerful enough to cause serious damage to buildings. As Sports Illustrated noted in an article the following year, the Lakeshore Racquet Club on Fullerton Avenue near DePaul University saw snow pile up on the roof and collapse on the tennis courts in the center of the building. The health club had to be remodeled from scratch to become what is today known as Lakeshore Sport & Fitness.
The piles of snow the blizzard left behind also posed a problem for emergency vehicles. Days after the blizzard on Jan. 18 as CBS 2 went live in East Lakeview, one woman named Sue complained to CBS 2’s Bob Wallace that there had been a fire on Briar Place and fire equipment had trouble getting down the unplowed side street.
Fire Commissioner Richard Albrecht told CBS 2 at the time that said one person died and 20 people were injured in the Briar Place fire, and more than 100 people were rescued.
But it was the aftermath that angered Chicagoans most. Snow wasn’t being cleared, garbage was piling up, and days after the snowstorm, transportation remained anemic. Some people’s cars were stuck in the snow for the rest of the winter.
As frustration mounted, Chicagoans placed the blame squarely on Mayor Bilandic’s administration. Chicagoans from every part of the city charged him with failing to keep the streets plowed. In particular, the Chicago Sun-Times recalled, African-American leaders were infuriated that express ‘L’ trains were bypassing West Side neighborhoods as they headed from downtown to the western suburbs during the snowstorm.
Columnist Mike Royko, then with the Sun-Times, remarked that city crews didn’t have a clue about dealing with snow, because their skills revolved around cranking out votes on Election Day.
As the criticism swelled, Bilandic was contrite.
“We all learn from our mistakes. I’ve made them, and I freely admit it,” he said in a 1979 news conference.
But that wasn’t enough.
In the mayoral primary the following month, challenger Jane Byrne focused on the snowstorm as she campaigned against Bilandic. She even taped a commercial with snowflakes falling around her, the Tribune recalled.
Byrne went on to win the 1979 primary in a landslide, and won the general election in April. She served one term before being ousted by Harold Washington in 1983.