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Looking back at an unforgettable holiday – Denver’s Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1982

Monday, December 20th, 2010 5:00pm MDT
The Christmas Eve Blizzard of '82 buried Thornton and the Denver metro area under record-setting amounts of snow. (rjones0856 / Flickr)

The Christmas Eve Blizzard of ’82 buried Thornton and the Denver metro area under record-setting amounts of snow. Scroll down for a photo slideshow of the event. (rjones0856 / Flickr)

As Christmas approaches everyone reflects on the past and for longtime Denver residents that oftentimes means remembering one of the most significant winter storms in the Mile High City’s history – the Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1982.  This major winter storm has become the one by which all others are compared not only due to its record-setting impact but also due to its timing being near Christmas.

As Christmas 1982 approached, forecasters were predicting a white Christmas several days beforehand but most were expecting a moderate snowfall of 6 inches.  Two days before Christmas Eve though, the picture began to change.  On the 22nd a Pacific cold front came ashore in California bringing severe rain, high surf and even hurricane force winds.  As it moved east over higher terrain, it dumped 2 feet of snow in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City.

At about that same time, jet stream winds were forming a trough of low pressure over the southeastern plains of Colorado.  The counterclockwise motion of the trough began to pull moist air into the state.  Further east Kansas and Oklahoma experienced severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes.  The winds set the stage for strong upslope conditions along the Front Range.

  • Do you remember the Christmas Eve Blizzard of ’82?  Leave a comment below with your memories of this epic snowstorm.  If you have photos of the event email them to info@thorntonweather.com and we will add them to the slideshow.

Rain changed to snow on the plains and shortly before midnight on the 23rd, a full blown blizzard had developed.  Denver woke to snow on the ground the morning of Christmas Eve but the storm was just getting started.  Snowfall rates of 2 – 3 inches per hour were the norm during the day and winds screamed at 50mph causing wind chill temperatures to plummet to as low as -35 degrees.  As conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the day, the gravity of the situation began to be realized.

Cars are buried under the heavy snow in Denver.  Scroll down for a photo slideshow with more images. (Denver Public Library Digital Collection)

Cars are buried under the heavy snow in Denver. Scroll down for a photo slideshow with more images. (Denver Public Library Digital Collection)

Stapleton International Airport was forced closed at 9:30am on the 24th and remained closed for 33 hours and only limited operations were possible for days following the storm.  Thousands of travelers were left stranded in the airport and forced to spend their white Christmas on the concourses of the facility.

Last minute Christmas shoppers quickly found themselves wishing they hadn’t procrastinated.  Malls and shopping centers became refugee centers as the city shut down and roads became impassible.  Mall workers were unable to go anywhere so the mall restaurants stayed open providing food for those who were stuck.  For the first time in history the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News were unable to publish their newspapers.

4 – 10 foot snowdrifts covered many areas of the city, built by the extreme winds and snow.  Every mode of transportation was paralyzed and every highway into and out of the city of Denver was closed.  Many residents who were caught in the storm had to rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter or braved the blizzard trying to make their way home on foot.

The snow totals for the storm were nothing short of incredible.  Golden Gate Canyon to the west of the city received 48 inches, Thornton 34 inches, Littleton 29 inches and Denver had 25 inches.  Denver’s 24 hour total was a record which still stands to this day.  Colorado’s bizarre weather can truly be seen also when looking at the snow total for Greeley – a mere 45 miles north of Denver – where only 1 inch of snow fell!

Roads and highways became impassable in the aftermath of the blizzard. (NCAR/UCAR/NSF)

Roads and highways became impassable in the aftermath of the blizzard. Scroll down for a photo slideshow of the event. (NCAR/UCAR/NSF)

The aftermath of the storm took weeks to recover from and the toll was astounding.  Three people died as a direct result of the storm and there were many injuries from frostbite and falls.  Roofs collapsed across the city striking greenhouses especially hard whose damage alone was estimated at $5 million.  Fences and trees were downed and power outages were common.  The local economy took a tremendous hit as the second busiest shopping day of the year was a bust – it is estimated that area businesses lost $500 million in holiday sales.

The removal of that much snow proved to be a huge effort for residents and governments.  While children happily built snow forts and tunnels the adults labored for days digging out.

For Denver mayor Bill McNichols the storm proved to be disastrous to his re-election efforts the following May.  Millions of dollars was spent on snow removal but the city’s 45 snow plows simply were not capable of dealing with the sheer amount of snow.

A decision by McNichols to have trash trucks drive down the streets to compact the snow only added to the misery.  The compacted snow became riddled with “snow potholes” and ruts and was barely better than when buried under snow and residents were less than pleased.

To make matters worse, the misery of the storm was only prolonged by cold weather in late December and through January which left snow on the ground for 48 consecutive days – the third longest period on record.  The snow could easily have lasted longer except that perhaps mercifully, no significant snow fell for two months after the blizzard.

When the Denver mayoral elections came around the following May a young political new comer named Federico Pena defeated McNichols.  Voters indicated the response to the Christmas Eve Blizzard of ’82 was one of their biggest reasons for choosing a new mayor.

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22 Responses to “Looking back at an unforgettable holiday – Denver’s Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1982”

  1. Michelle Says:

    12/24/82 late PM my dad got a call from my cousin who lived off 120th and Washington. She was very sick, and the Dr. prescribed antibiotics for her, but she had no way of getting them (at a pharmacy that had employees stuck). Dad took off on one of his John Deere snow mobiles from 112th and Steele to get the prescription. No problem getting the medicine to her, but the machine got so stuck in the snow at my cousin’s house, that there was no way to get it out. Dad started off at 10pm from her house to make his way home for Christmas morning. He crawled, waded, and pulled himself across 2.8 miles of snow, and barely made it home by 7am Christmas morning. He said it was the oddest sound.. nothingness, until a lone ambulance on the road went blaring by with lights and sirens going. Once home, he called the police to let them know there was a machine still at home and they were more than welcome to come get it to use as needed if someone could make it into the neighborhood to get it. Many hours later he got a call back saying they weren’t able to make it after a few tries.
    Like in your blog, I remember making huge forts, and playing endlessly with my little best friends. I also remember watching Dad get up onto the roof with very little effort right off a snowbank.
    Thanks for the memories!

  2. Ruth Says:

    I was due to have my second baby and my husband was snowed in at work for the next week so I was alone with a 2 year old. Thankfully, I went past my due date and did not go into labor until the following week, but it was pretty scary!

  3. Pat Says:

    I was living in Colorado Springs, having moved there in the summer. I was single then. One of my friends called that afternoon and told me come over there before it was too late. I remember it was almost a total whiteout. I could not see the traffic lights and my car was dragging in the snow. As I got to my friend’s house I put on the brakes and slide into a huge snow bank. We spent the next day shoveling snow! Something new for an Alabama girl!!!

  4. Karin Says:

    I was in college back in 1982 and was home visiting my parents in Englewood. I remember this storm very well. We lost power for all of Christmas Eve and half of Christmas Day. Our heat and stove were also electric so we ate sandwiches for Christmas dinner. The snow drifts were so high that we couln’t open our front door and had to exit from a side entrance. Today, I’ve lived through the 2nd snowiest blizzard to hit the Chicago area, which is where I live now. Since I’m snowbound, I got on the internet to research articles about memorable snow storms and found this one.
    I think it’s time for me to move to Florida!

  5. Shane Says:

    For many years after I had my tee shirt, “I loved you in the blizzard of ’82”!!!! what a great time we had!!!

  6. Carolyn Deeming Says:

    My husband and I were living in a remote area in Franktown, CO, just East of Parker. We had planned a reunion for family members who flew in from all parts of the U.S. to celebrate Christmas together. There were 13 of us (including my niece who was only a few months old). We were snowed in for several days before my husband could shuttle families to the airport 25 miles away. The 1st trip took 7 hours and he turned around to take the next family. On a positive note – It was the 1st time my 5 yr old nephew had seen snow – my Sister got to ski down the middle of the road – we didn’t run out of food 🙂 AND best of all, we didn’t kill each other!lol

  7. John Heimburger Says:

    Got diverted to Grand Junction when the blizzard hit…for 2 days and nights. And by some coincidence was the first Frontier, actually the 1st flight back into Stapleton…RW 26L. The only RW open, I was asked for a braking action report. Because there had been radio traffic from tower to helicopters on the approach, I half-jokingly told the tower I’d give the braking report in exchange for a chopper ride home! The only clear-of-snow parking was at the end of the Frontier concourse, and guess what was also sitting there? Yup…a helicopter that was ferrying ATC tower guys to Buckley, Centennial, and other airports. But true to their word they ascended vertically, flew to a park on South Monaco near our condominium and dropped me off. The walk through the snowdrifts was the hardest part of the day, but never would have made it home without helicopter assistance. Thanks guys…20 years later!

  8. Bernie Viney Says:

    I was living in Aurora at the time and working for Western Airlines at Stapleton. Didn’t get to work until Sunday the 26th at about 3:30 PM, and didn’t get back home until Thursday sometime. Western ground handled American, Eastern, and Mexicana at the time, and Western and American put us up at airport hotels to keep us available. We worked 16 hours on and 8 off from Sunday through Thursday. By the way, I worked the ramp so you can only imagine how much fun that was. I do have to thank my wife, Teri, for being patient and caring for the family at home, and by the way, she was 8 months pregnant and delivered our youngest daughter 3 weeks later on January 16th, 1983. It is a snowstorm that I will alwayss remember.

  9. Paul Graven Says:

    I was a sophomore in college, and had met some high school friends for a week of skiing at Keystone. Two of us caught the morning shuttle on Christmas Eve so we wouldn’t get stuck on the mountain and miss our flights home to Minnesota that evening. The shuttle ride down was harrowing –tractor-trailers strewn on both sides of I70. There was a single lane going each way, and cars were just tracking the pair of grooves in the snow. The road was not visible. We witnessed several cars careening into the ditch and we were convinced that we were next –our driver was a maniac.

    He got us to Stapleton just as it was closing. We had to barrel through drifts to get to the terminal. Needless to say, our flights were cancelled. We ended up spending 48 hours at the airport and finally got home the evening of the day after Christmas (more later…)

  10. Jenn Longs Says:

    I moved to Denver in August of 1982 so this was my first winter there. I had flown to Seattle before Christmas and had a return flight back to Stapleton on the 27th – my flight was one of the first inbound, just after the airport reopened. I’ll never forget the scene at Stapleton when I arrived – the place was full of refugees, still waiting for flights out. Makeshift beds everywhere, the bathroom sinks turned into impromptu showers, kids climbing around on the baggage carousels since they had nothing else to do.

    With my car stuck in airport parking (buried so no one could even distinguish which were cars and which were drifts), I partnered up with 4 other people and we each paid $100 to a taxi driver to take us to our various homes in Denver. At one point the cab got stuck and a passing snowplow had to push us out. When we got to my street on the north part of town, the street itself was impassible so the cab had to drop me off 2 miles from my house and I had to slog through the 4-ft drifts hauling 2 suitcases. Ahhhh, what a welcome to the Colorado winter.

  11. Larry Says:

    WOW! What a trip down memory lane! Although I did not live in Thornton, I did however live in Northglenn. I was 13 years old at the time.

    Eight foot drifts up to the front door. The wind was so bad it was the first time I had ever seen it snow “sideways”

    It took 5 minutes to walk from the back door to the garage just about. That was just to get the snow shovel. Then the attack plan was just to get the front door scooped out to the sidewalk.

    During this time we had not heard from my dad. Little did we know he was stuck in Commerce City. His truck got stuck and he decided to walk the mile and a half in the snow with blue jeans on. (not exactly a “smart” move…but my dad was a stubborn guy) He “barely” made it to a friends house only a mile and a half away. He literally just about froze to death.

    Dad said that it took him 30 minutes by the time he got to the bottom of the driveway to get to the front door. We could have lost dad that year, and thankfully to God we did not.

    My mom, obviously worried sick. She pushed to get him home and pronto. Later that day my uncle (who worked for Peter Kewitt Construction company) and dad used a borrowed front end tractor with a bucket on the front and a hoe on the back and scooped out our monsterous driveway. I guess my dad wasn’t about scooping snow either…LOL. They tried to be very careful, but still hit the outside brick to the family room part of the house. Mom wasn’t happy about that.

    But at least dad and I didn’t have to do any harder work that day. (Score!)

    It definitely goes down in my history book as being the worst storm I had ever witnessed or been through to date.

    I remember seeing a t-shirt one time with a cartoon deer on the front, but the top of its antlers were only poking through the top of the snow. I believe it said, “I Survived the Colorado Blizzard of 82′” That cracked me up. Still does to this day. (Wish I still could find that t-shirt, I would consider buying one…lol)

    The icing on the cake that we still laugh about was that my sister had a friend that was from Florida. She had never seen snow before. We always gave her a hard time about it and said, “Are ya happy now?”

  12. Larry Says:

    I lived in Lakewood at the time. My sister was working at a dunkin donut shop and was able to get a ride home with some guys in a jeep. She left her car which we would have to dig out several days later. I delivered the Denver News by pulling my sled. I got the t-shirt “I delivered the News in the blizzard of 82”. The drifts were to our roof.

  13. Bob Haines Says:

    My significant other and I had just moved up in Coal Creek Canyon at about 8500′, about the last house before Golden Gate Canyon State park. Beautiful cabin. Luckily we had just stocked up at the store down in the ‘burbs’ and we’re nestled in for a Christmas holiday. The only thing was I still had a bunch of Christmas shopping to do (being a man, I put it off til the last second). Needless to say, I completed my shopping at the convenience store (the only store in Coal Creek Canyon except a bar). We got about 48″! To find our cars and created a path to them, we kept throwing dog biscuits out towards them and the dogs eventually made a path for us. Man, what a storm. I, too have lived through three other historical snow storms. One in Cleveland in 1978, one in Norfolk, Va (believe it or not) in 1980 and one in Kansas City on October 22nd, 1996, the ‘October Surprise”.

  14. Nancy Hicks Says:

    What a Christmas that was. As the snow kept falling we left Thornton, 120th and Colorado, for my sister’s apartment off 88th Ave, to bring her to our house for Christmas. Driving an oil field reject 3/4 ton Suburban with 4 wheel drive, it wasn’t too bad. Naturally, her apartment was at the bottom of a hill. We spent just a few minutes there and by the time we got back to the car, the hill was completely covered by cars that couldn’t get down the hill, much less up the hill. We spent the night on the floor of her one bedroom apartment; dug out numerous cars the next morning in order to make it up the hill, and then, got stopped 1/2 a block from our house due to the snow being above the bumper of this raised Suburban and having to dig into the driveway.
    A city snowplow didn’t show up until almost 8 days later.

  15. Stacey Weeaks Says:

    I was searching for pictures of this blizzard to tell a friend in OK about. I was 20 and my father got called in to work (he was in the national guard) to rescue people on I-70. The snow was so deep and the hill they live on was so steep, he had to walk about 1/2 to the main road so they could pick him up.

  16. Cindy Helmke Says:

    We had moved to Littleton in March of 1981, but by December 1982, we were being transferred back to our hometown. Since we would be going back in January, we decided to spend our last Colorado Christmas at home. I can remember the snow blowing wildly all day, but we lit the fireplace, turned on the Christmas tree, and had a nice dinner. Thankfully, the electricity stayed on. Despite the weather, it was probably one of the nicest Christmas memories that we have. We were safe and all together. I can remember that you weren’t allowed to be on the streets for what seemed like about 10 days, and then only with chains on your tires. It was more snow than I had ever seen in 24 hours to this day. We left Colorado at the end of January, but took lots of wonderful memories with us.

  17. jeff upton Says:

    i was nine yrs old and living in thornton (woodglenn) ill never forget the ferocity and the energy that storm had. it was the first and only time i have ever seen lightning in a snow storm. and equally amazing was the clear blue skies that greeted us that xmas morning. those were the days. those were the days. oh how im grateful to have lived to have seen those days.

  18. Mrs. Phyllis Bentley Says:

    I would like to confess that I am responsible for the Christmas Blizzard of 1982. Yes ! Me ! A Navy wife who’s family lived in southern California for 7 1/2 winterless years. OH ! The HORROR ! This was my backlogged Christmas Present ! How I missed the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and the lake effect snow that always came off the lakes. We had bought a little house that year on the corner of 13th and Alton in Aurora approximately 1 1/2 miles north of Lowry AFB where my husband taught at the Navy’s calibration school. The weather had been unseasonably warm for the last few days we were told, but weather-guessers were confident of a white Christmas ! I WAS EXSTATIC ! After picking up my in-laws from Atlanta at Stapleton we stopped for an early lunch around 10:30 on the 23rd on the way home. At 12:30 we stepped out into strong wind gusts and saw the most amazing sight ! A brown curtain covering the entire northern horizon. We saw flashes and heard thunder of all things and the fitfull liquid sunshine was now coming down Petrified in form ! SNOW ! Temperatures dropped 19 degrees in 21 minutes while I watched from my kitchen window at home. My two toddlers and their grandparents were amazed and well entertained those few days thank goodness. The spaniels were thrilled but the cats hid the whole time.
    I will never forget the block work parties and fellowship. We cleared sidewalks, roofs and driveways. Three 4WD owners and 2 with large pickups on our block set up relays for snow removal and volunteed services to the hospitals, fire departments, police and Red Cross. One of the retired fellas asked for absolutely nothing, not even gas money ! He was accused of trying to buy his way into Heaven by a little old lady (going for treatment at a hospital) who paid for his gas ($30+) when they stopped to fill up. People ‘accidently’ left a lot of money in his glove box. None of them asked for anything more than gas money, but ended up with much, much more than just that.
    What a week that was. I feel it must be noted that Sam Alred was working in Denver that year. A one-of-a-kind TRUE weather forecaster, extrordinair, was the only meterorologist who called this storm. It was one of his many career triumphs.
    God Bless All of You, Our Neighbors and Friends, who proved once again that the Human Heart is capable of so much more than we think possible when we are tested.
    Merry Christmas
    Remember. Jesus is the Reason for the Season !
    . . . And just between me and you Mother Nature is laughing at us over this weather phobia / money and power grab so many politicians have foisted on the world.
    God Help Us

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  20. Kevin Says:

    I was 19 years old and worked at the Dave Cook Sporting Goods store in Colorado Springs when the storm hit. I had a 4-wheel drive Ford Bronco so I shuttled several co-workers home before heading to my parents house after work. They were out of town so I stayed there alone while the storm passed through. It was beautiful and haunting at the same time. Everything was at a standstill. I spent Christmas Day inside and then went out the next day to pull cars out of snow drifts. Many people had just abandoned their cars in parking lots. It took several days to get the roads cleared. What a great memory!!

  21. Richard Highman Says:

    I remember that our kids toys were on layaway at Lowry AFB toyland on base. On the 24th the snow was really coming down and I got to the toyland at 8 am when it opened–A lady who worked there made it in and opened the store only to be told about 10 minutes later to close up and go home–she was able to get my kid’s toys for me and I loaded up my pick-up just in time. Talk about luck!! I remember feeling so blessed to have Christmas saved but wondered how many others didn’t make it that day. The storm really blew in and was totally unexpected to drop as much snow as it did. Our home was drifted up to the windows and in many spots over 6 feet deep! Luckily I had a Dodge 4×4 that helped but you couldn’t hardly get around for days–amazing how that lady made it in for only a few minutes–I will never forget that Christmas.

  22. my name is richarcd Says:

    me too!

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