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1936: Worst weather for election in Cincinnati history

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Posted at 4:46 PM, Nov 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-08 16:54:18-05

Election Day, Nov. 3, 1936 - Cincinnati: Franklin D. Roosevelt was on the brink of winning the election in a landslide to rival Alf Landon, Republican governor of Kansas at that time. That year we were in the midst of the Great Depression, the United States totaled only 48, gas was 10 cents a gallon and Adolf Hitler had just formed an alliance with Italy and the Empire of Japan.

This election year was incredibly important for the country, but Cincinnatians would likely remember it for another reason entirely.

Front page of the Nov. 3, 1936 Cincinnati newspaper. It was the day of the presidential election, but a surprise record snowstorm was heading towards the Tri-State as ballots were being counted.

Here in the Tri-State, the weather 80 years ago was eerily similar to what we’ve got in the forecast this year, with high temperatures approaching the 70-degree mark and rain set to move in, mostly through the afternoon and evening hours.

The Weather Bureau, the name for the National Weather Service prior to 1970, had a forecast sent in the day prior to election day, Nov. 2nd. It was sent from the regional Washington D.C. office -- the closest of 4 total at that time, which read:

“Rain Tuesday; mild temperature Tuesday forenoon; colder in the afternoon; decidedly colder Tuesday night; Wednesday generally fair and continued cold preceded by snow flurries in the East.”

Forecasting technology in the 1930s was extremely primitive, as Doppler radar wouldn’t come into existence until after World War II, by happenstance. Radio technology was just emerging at the time in newly invented radiosondes, which were attached to weather balloons and sent the measurements and readings back to the ground via radio waves and converted to Morse code, making them easier to interpret.

U.S. sailors launching a radiosonde during World War II.

As Cincinnatians went outside to vote that Tuesday, they ran into rain and unseasonably warm temperatures, but had little warning about what would head their way later that night and impact them in the days to follow.

A large storm system was sweeping into the Midwest, dragging a potent cold front with it. The day before Election Day, a record high of 72 degrees was recorded. On Election Day, the recorded high temperature was 70 degrees -- just after midnight, before temperatures plummeted all day long. Temps fell almost 35 degrees, back into the mid- to upper-30s as votes were being counted late that night.

Front page of the Nov. 4, 1936 newspaper.

As temperatures continued to drop below the freezing point into Wednesday, Nov. 4, 1936, the rain changed over to snow. Remember, the forecast at that time from Washington came in a day late, so the newspaper, with a headline “ROOSEVELT LEADS IN 45 STATES,” ran this forecast:

“Generally fair and slightly colder in the west, and cloudy and colder; probably snow flurries in the east Wednesday; Thursday fair and warmer.” 

Cincinnati saw its largest November snow that day, nearly 9 inches of “flurries.”

The weather made the front page the following day, Nov. 5, 1936. The headline read: “HEAVY SNOW – Pulls Down Wires – Disrupts Traffic, Snarls Police Radio System – Nine-inch Fall Sets November Record – Telephone Crews Fix 2,000 Broken Lines – Zoo Closes For First Time in 60 Years.”

The headline of the Nov. 5, 1936 Cincinnati newspaper, one full day after the record snow fell.

The paper reported that the nine-hour storm crushed trees and shrubbery in the heavy, wet snow. Officially, Cincinnati reported 8.9 inches of snow. That was 2.1 inches more snow in one day than we had seen TOTAL for any November prior, according to junior weather observer Earl McLaughlin. The highest prior to that was 6.8 inches for the entire month of November in 1858. It is still the most snow for any one November day in Cincinnati.

Trees and tower on a hillside in Avondale touched up with snow. Even the oil pits of a filling station become things of beauty.

Cincinnati Bell Telephone reported one of its busiest phone traffic days of all time, with more than 1.5 million calls made. Many were attributed to the election, though most were to report power failures and transportation problems. The Cincinnati streetcar system of the 1930s was badly delayed from ice on the wires and downed trees.

This photo proves that it was a field day for others than photographers. Nina Jo Goodall, 2513 Stanton Ave. (left) and Billie Berger, 705 East McMillan St. (right), roll the winter’s first snowballs.

The Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company, now Duke Energy, received more trouble calls through the snowstorm than any other day in its history up to that point. Even the prized “George Washington Bicentennial Tree,” a Japanese maple, couldn’t stand up to the heavy snow, collapsing just four years after being planted in the City Workhouse yard.

While Cincinnati saw record-crushing snow, the streets of Columbus were merely turned into “rivers of slush” when an inch of snowfall quickly melted.

In the many election years to follow, we’ve had our ups and downs, weather-wise. Some rain here, some frigid temperatures there, but everything pales in comparison to the storm that we saw through the 1936 presidential election and the few days to follow.

A collection of photos from the record November snowfall the day of and in the days to follow the 1936 presidential election.

Fast-forward 80 years, and while we are expecting warm temperatures and rain for our Election Day in the Tri-State, I can assure you that we will not have to worry about plummeting temperatures or record-breaking snowfall tomorrow or even for the remainder of the 9 First Warning Forecast for that matter.