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How a surprise snowstorm almost spoiled Kennedy's inauguration 60 years ago

A member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Inaugural Snow Removal Force prepares to move a car abandoned in the snowstorm on the eve of Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.

U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS

By KEVIN AMBROSE AND JASON SAMENOW | The Washington Post | Published: January 19, 2021

Since presidential inaugurations moved from March to January in 1937, none have stirred up as much weather drama as John F. Kennedy's in 1961, when a surprise snowstorm the day before brought Washington to a standstill.

With a little more than 24 hours until the inaugural ceremony, the forecast on Jan. 19, 1961, called for a mix of rain and snow and little accumulation. By late the same night, 8 inches of wind-whipped snow had paralyzed the metropolitan area.

The snow began gently that afternoon but rapidly increased in intensity. Federal workers were sent home early and area roadways became clogged.

The mass exodus from the city and increasing snowfall led to "the most crippling traffic jam (for its time)," according to a historical summary from the National Weather Service. "Hundreds of cars were marooned and thousands of cars were abandoned."

At the height of the storm, National Airport, which shut down due to the snow, reported zero visibility - a total whiteout.

"Had the mercury been two degrees higher, the result would have been slush," reported The Washington Post on Jan. 21, 1961. "Had it been five degrees lower, it would have been dry and relatively harmless. As it was, the area's roadsides yesterday looked like a child's play yard with toy autos scattered about."

In what police called "a fantastic snarl," 288 vehicles were stranded on the George Washington Parkway between Alexandria, Va. and the Memorial Bridge, and 200 cars were abandoned on Rock Creek Parkway. On Pennsylvania Avenue, more than 100 cars were stuck in the snow.

"The traffic jam was general and truly monumental," The Washington Post wrote Jan. 20, 1961.

"Even President-elect Kennedy tasted the transportation firsthand," it added. "The car in which he and former President Harry S. Truman rode from a Governors' reception to the Kennedy's Georgetown home skidded several times and at one point had to be rerouted because of a grade the car couldn't negotiate."

That evening, Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, dashed in and out of inaugural events amid the swirling snowflakes.

"In a struggle to keep other commitments, [Kennedy] is reported to have had only 4 hours of sleep," the Weather Service's summary stated. "Former President Herbert Hoover was unable to fly into Washington National Airport due to the weather and he had to miss the swearing-in ceremony."

Snow removal teams from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faced the daunting task of clearing the freshly fallen snow and moving the abandoned cars, which "taxed local and federal resources to the maximum," according to their own historical account.

"The Engineers teamed up with more than 1,000 District of Columbia employees to clear the inaugural parade route," the U.S. Army Corps wrote. "Luckily much equipment and some men had been pre-positioned and were ready to go. In the end the task force employed hundreds of dump trucks, front-end loaders, sanders, plows, rotaries, and flamethrowers to clear the way."

By late morning on Jan. 20, Pennsylvania Avenue was snow-packed but otherwise clear and in excellent shape.

At noon, Kennedy took the oath of office and gave his historic address in 22-degree temperatures. "The wind was blowing from the northwest at 19 mph making it feel like the temperature was 7°F above zero," the Weather Service wrote.

As the sun's glare reflected off the fresh blanket of snow, it proved too bright for Robert Frost to read a ceremonial poem.

"Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to block the sun with his hat, but Frost abandoned the effort altogether and began reciting 'The Gift Outright' from memory," Biography.com recalls.

The 1961 inauguration still holds the record for "most snow on the ground" among all January ceremonies.

Despite the chill, a large crowd lined Pennsylvania Avenue for the parade that followed.

The responsible nor'easter formed like many past significant Washington snowstorms. It began as a minor system over the Tennessee Valley before reforming into a powerhouse storm near the North Carolina Outer Banks. An Arctic air mass over eastern Canada supplied cold air.

As the snow began on the afternoon of the 19th, temperatures fell sharply, from 34 to 28 degrees between 3 and 4 p.m.

The snow intensified as the storm developed off the North Carolina coast, tapping abundant moisture from the Atlantic Ocean. According to Weather Service records, visibility in snow at National Airport was a half-mile or less between 3 and 9 p.m.

Snow continued overnight as the storm moved up the Mid-Atlantic coast. The snow became lighter and more intermittent, but temperatures plunged through the 20s and winds increased to 20 to 25 mph. By sunrise on Inauguration Day, skies were clearing.

The Kennedy inaugural nor'easter ushered in a prolonged period of harsh winter weather. The temperature did not rise above 40 degrees until Feb. 9, 20 days later. During that time, three more snowstorms dropped an additional 20.6 inches of snow on Washington, and the temperature fell to 15 degrees or lower 11 times, with single-digit temperatures recorded five times.