Remember That Time When Snow Pounded Los Angeles in 1949?
Although it had snowed before in sunny Los Angeles, the first recorded snowfall worth talking about was January 11, 1949. That one dropped enough of the white stuff to confound the city for three days.
To appreciate the impact of snow in Los Angeles, one has to understand that even light rain on the roads causes citywide gridlock from panicked drivers.
When the first showers of the year fall, some Angelenos don’t leave their houses simply because travel is such a pain. Never mind that most of them are transplants from more inclement states.
The folks of America’s second most populated city, aren’t strangers to snow around L.A. They see it cap the mountains to the northeast every winter. Sometimes Angelinos even pile into their vehicles and drive to those mountains to go snowboarding.
Occasionally, conditions provide for a frost or even a snowfall in Los Angeles proper, but none of them can match the snowfall from 1949.
Memorable Snow Storms
As many LA residents are escapees from snowier places, the sight of white flakes from the sky can come as a multilayered shock.
In one account from Curbed Los Angeles, a seven-year-old transplant from Pennsylvania in 1962 struggled to convince her mother that it was snowing. “I yelled to my mom that it was snowing,” said Debbie Altieri. “She yelled back that we were in California now, and it doesn’t snow [here]. I kept insisting. She finally looked out a window, then started crying.”
It’s a permanent snowbird’s worst nightmare: The snow followed us.
Similar the 1949 snowfall, the ’62 one kicked LA on its collective arse for three days with a mixture of snow, sleet, and cold water. Bad, yes, but the ’62 and ’49 snowfalls weren’t the earliest recorded snowfalls.
There was a bad one in ’21 too, when Los Angeles was but a dream of the metropolis it is today. A little over ten years after that, on January 16, 1932, enough snow fell in Pasadena for college students to engage in an impromptu snowball fight.
The exchange dovetailed into lobbing snowballs at moving cars, which prompted someone to call the fuzz. The event escalated into a battle between the LAPD and the students, who loaded up their snowballs with stones for the cops.
Seven students went to jail that day. In fairness, it was the Great Depression. People were restless, especially college students, and snow makes Angelinos crazy.
For three days, starting the early hours of January 11, the sky dumped snow on parts of Los Angeles. It wasn’t an even coating, a foot deep in some places, mere inches in others, but any was too much for LA.
Reactions to the white coating, when discovered at sun up, ranged from disbelief to enchantment. In a town where residents fill their radiators with water—not antifreeze—the simple act of turning over one’s engine was an impossible challenge.
A 1999 account by LA Times contributor and historian Cecilia Rasmussen describes an unbelievable version of the semitropical home of Hollywood. “The Rose Bowl was transformed into ‘a dishpan full of milk,’ by one account,” wrote Rasmussen. “An Alhambra hardware store put up a sign that said, ‘Snow Plows for Rent–Hurry!’ A snowman appeared in Eagle Rock, wearing a sombrero, and the city of Reno, Nevada, sent L.A. a snow shovel.”
Filming for movies that took places in tropical climes stopped until the snow cleared. Citrus farmers flew into a panic, firing up smudge pots to save their livelihoods.
Despite the best efforts of the ’62 storm, the ’49 blast remains the worst of them all.
It’s not that it couldn’t happen again, but the average temperature of Los Angeles is up five degrees from a century before. Those averages don’t appear to be cooling anytime soon, either.
There were two other noteworthy snow events in LA, one in 1984 and another in 1989. The latter dumped enough snow to make snowmen in the Valley and even coated the never-cold desert town of Palm Springs.
The last time it happened, in 2007, a sprinkling of snow fell in parts of the San Fernando Valley and Malibu, but nothing like the 1949 snowfall.
Unless the tide of rising temps recedes, it’s unlikely that Los Angeles will see any pile-ups of snow in the near future.
These days, Los Angeles should wish for snow. They have bigger problems with fire. Brush fires around Los Angeles County forced hundreds to evacuate in the largest fire in LA history December 2017.
The aftermath of those fires left huge swaths of LA scorched, unprepared to handle rain. In one case, the famous 101 freeway near Santa Barbara flooded with mud from the mounting conditions.
It all begs the question: How bad was the ’49 snowfall, really?