Driving in the Storm of the Century, October 31, 1991
Maria Baysinger interviewing her father
February 12, 2004
Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin
Listen to the narrative (MP3) approximately 16 minutes
MB: So Dad, when did your little weather thing happen?
Well as I recall it was October 31, 1991. What happened that day, of course, it was Halloween.
MB: So what job were you? What were you working for?
OK. I was driving truck for the grocery company called Gateway Foods. That was the day of the storm of the century. Now when I left to work that morning, about 4 o'clock in the morning, I don't recall if it was snowing then or not. But you know, this is where we live and it does snow quite regularly. But, ah, so if it was snowing it didn't really stand out in my mind that early in the morning. But I will say that by the time I got to the grocery store in Danbury—I'd gone and gotten my truck, of course, in Superior and drove down to Danbury—by then, in Danbury, it had been snowing for a while.
MB: And what time would you say that was?
6 o'clock in the morning. And when I got down there the snow was already a little bit more than a foot deep. We'll just say about a foot deep. And it was a wet heavy snow because it was an early snow, and usually your early snows are wet and heavy. The ground is still warm so underneath is still warm and that's kind of melting snow and all that kind of stuff.
Well anyway, I drove into the parking lot and because I had good momentum I was able to drive through the parking lot and make my kind of half circle to line up my back door of my trailer with their door on their store. Well, by that time I'm probably 75 feet to 100 feet away from the store cause I need to make this half circle to get a straight line to back into their door. Well I did that fine because, like I say, I had good momentum to make it through that parking lot. But because of the heavy wet snow, when I put it into reverse and tried to back up, I couldn't move very well. So I was actually stuck at my first store.
MB: So they hadn't been plowing?
Correct. But, the owner of the store, the manager of the store, just happened to have his plow on his pickup truck, his personal pick up. And normally he wouldn't plow the store but because we were stuck and he had the plow, of course he plowed it open. So anyway I made the delivery there. I had, let's see, I had two more stores to deliver after that. I had Webster and then I had Luck. Well by the time I got done with my store in Danbury, the telephone was ringing in the back room. Well, it was my dispatcher telling me not to go to Minneapolis for my backhaul, which normally I would do after I got done with Luck. Luck, Wisconsin. OK, so anyway, and the funny thing of it was, I was gonna call him maybe later in the day to let him know I didn't know how this thing was gonna go. It was quite a storm. By that time it had been blowing quite a bit and snowing real hard.
MB: So was there like hard driving conditions? Could you see clearly?
Up to that point, it was snowing good and hard, but up to that point I was OK to drive. But the snow was really coming down, and by the time I got done with Luck, I was glad to be thinking about going home. So, but when I left there I went up to Siren, Wisconsin which is where at that point I was thinking, 'Now, do I continue on WI 35, which is a small two-lane road, or should I cross over into Minnesota and use the big interstate 35 to take home?' And I thought probably that would be a better idea. So I left Siren, Wisconsin to head west over into Minnesota through Grantsburg and out that way. Well, that might have been a mistake because when I was driving westerly, when I got out into this open kind of farm country the wind was coming out of the south so hard, the snow was more going sideways across my windshield than it was coming straight down. There was a point where I was stopped where I could barely see. I mean, I just stopped the truck. But in front of me it was drifting so bad because of the big farm field.
No trees around that there was a row of traffic in front of me, and every one had stopped wondering what to do to get through this drift. And this drifting was—well, you couldn't see where it ended. And at that point there was only one lane of traffic and there was traffic coming our way and every so often a car would leave and you would just cross your fingers hoping that they made it to the other end.
Well at this point too I had a concern because a truck without any weight on it will get stuck easier. When you're loaded you have extra traction. You tires will claw through and did into, down into the pavement even through there's a lot of snow. Well I didn't have that advantage any more now. I was empty. And that wind was blowing so bad that my trailer was leaning. I could feel that inside the cab, shaking the cab. I pretty much made up my mind, 'Well, this is gonna be it. I'm probably gonna sleep here and two or three days from now we'll get this all figured out.' Because I could remember a storm back in late 70s when I was out east in Ohio and there was a man that slept in his truck for six days before they discovered him.
MB: Wow. That's a lot.
So I was thinking, 'History's gonna repeat itself and I'm gonna be the man in the truck.' Well anyway, as time went on it did so happen that people were making it through, one at a time, through this, as I say, heavy drifting.
MB: How deep do you think the drift was?
Oh, probably at least as deep as a stove. I don't know--three and a half feet maybe.
MB: Then how would anybody drive through it?
Well with some speed. You kind of plow through and you make a path. And like I say, that pathway at this point was down to one lane. So when you took off you were hoping nobody was coming your way.
And lo and behold, I made it through. And ah, I did finally make it over across to Minnesota and get on the Interstate 35. Well, the interesting thing of it is, is that once I got on that freeway, even there, we weren't driving too fast. I did find other vehicles still trying to travel. There were other trucks. I had my CB radio on and I was talking with these other drivers. And before I got back up to the Duluth-Superior area, it had gotten dark.
MB: And do you remember the reactions of any of the other drivers as you talked to them?
We were all in the same predicament. We were all, we knew that as long as we could see and as long as we could move, we were all of a mindset we were gonna try to get home. So it's kind of basically what where we were out. Well I made it up to Duluth. And it's Hwy 2 that dome across. That's that newer bridge, not the Bong Bridge. Yea, the Bong Bridge. The Highway 2 Bridge. When I got to that bridge I could see either the drifting was so bad I don't remember actually at this point, but it was blocked. We couldn't get on to the on ramp to go which would be eastbound on Hwy 2. To get on to the approach to the bridge. Well we're talking on the CB back and forth and I said to one fellow, 'You know, I'm gonna keep going north. Maybe I'll go across the High Bridge or let's take a look behind us as we go. Maybe the on ramp from the south bound side will be open.'
As it happened, we're driving by—and I mean we're driving 15, 20 miles an hour. I mean, we're really moving slow. When we look back over our shoulder we could see the on ramp was open on the southbound side. So we went up to 27th Avenue, got off on the exit thinking that we'll just cross over to the other side of the freeway and head back. Well there was two of us together doing that. Well we were kind of hoping and we were telling each other, 'I hope we don't have to stop. I hope we don't meet any traffic' cause like I say, if you've got some momentum, a lot of time you can, you can kind of keep going through some deep snow. But if you have to stop, you end up having problems. Well, he made it through. And I'm trying to hold back so that I'll still have momentum too. Well when I got there I met traffic so I had to stop. And I was stuck. And I was kind of a little bit upset cause I'm thinking, 'You know, I have been driving all day long since 5 o'clock in the morning and here I am just three miles from the warehouse and I'm not gonna be able to get home.' And while I'm thinking that thought here comes a driver in a plow truck and I don't know if I flashed my lights at him or what. I think I probably did and he stopped and came up to me and he said, 'Hey, how bout we get some sand underneath your wheel tracks? You can back up. We'll back you up on to some sand and then we'll throw more sand in front of you.' So that 's what we did. We took shovel fulls of his sand, threw it underneath the wheel tracks. I backed up onto that. Then he took his dump truck, backed up to me and threw that spreader on, when they spread sand. And I was able to get out of that on ramp, off ramp, whatever, and get up onto the bridge, turn around and go the other way. Make a long story short, got out of that one! Get down to the warehouse and there's a road down there called Susquehanna Avenue after it's a Belknap Street is kind of the main drag in Superior. Susquehanna is all closed up. And there was several of us trucks waiting now, trying to get back into the warehouse. Well the one guy had a great big machine called a front-end loader. It's what they load dump trucks with. He was out there lifting up the snow and throwing it off in the ditch. It took a little while to get the road cleared a little bit like that and he had to pull one guy with a chain through, but once we had one guy through Susquehanna Avenue on a chain pulled by this great big loader, then the rest of us could follow through into the parking lot.
Yea. So that was pretty amazing. Normally a day where I had those three stores—if I had those three stores, if all I was doing was those three stores and coming back to the warehouse, normally I could do that in anywhere from 8 to 10 hours. Well it had been about 16 hours by then.
MB: That would be tiring.
Yeah. Yeah. I guess it was. Well that wasn't really the end of the story. Then I had to drive home.
MB: Yeah, I was gonna say, 'How did you get home? Weren't you driving a car?'
I had a pick up truck and I had it loaded with those tubes of sand. And so I was able to drive home but very very slow. Visibility by that time was really bad. And in fact, the wind was blowing so bad, you know where 2 and 53 split and you're coming down 53 to come back home, there I was down to almost a crawl and just to keep oriented, and I don't know what this works, but I had my window open, my side window open.
MB: Weren't you cold?
Well, you're dressed for winter. And the wind was blowing across the opposite direction of my window so the wind in to my window. Obviously it would have been closed. But yeah, you could just barely, barely see at that time. I was in first or second gear, just kind of crawling.
MB: Do you think Mom got nervous, you got home so late?
Yeah, yeah, I'm thinking she was and she was more nervous than that because all you guys were little babies at that time. And then, our electricity went out on our house.
MB: That would be very cold.
So after all that driving, after all that work to get back home, I get home and nobody's in my house. My wife and kids are gone. (Laughter.) So anyway, I made a phone call to some close friends that I suspected that you guys were probably staying there.
MB: And you had to drive all over there?
So then I drove over there. (Laughs) The other side of Lake Nebagamon.
MB: What about your dispatcher? Did he say anything about this one?
It was the talk. I don't know if you recall but it was over 3 feet of snow in Duluth. And so just kind of a fun and interesting thing—everybody who went to work that day at Gateway Foods got a sweatshirt from the company for free just as a thank you for coming to work and going through it all.
MB: Did the sweatshirt say anything on it?
Yep. 'Storm of the Century. Thank you for being there.' Something like that.
Cool. Well, I guess that's my interview. And that's the Halloween storm. Obviously the trick or treaters didn't have a very fun time. So, OK, there's my interview.