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Los Angeles County Fire Capt. David Naranjo and his son, Bob, trudge through snow in Tujunga in January 1962.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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LA’s snow days

Freak snowstorms in 1932, ’49, ’62, and ’89 were shocking—and delightful

In January of 1962, a seven-year-old named Debbie Altieri was looking out the window of her family’s new home at Laurel Canyon and Riverside Drive. The family had recently moved from Pennsylvania, and little Debbie was shocked to see snowflakes falling from the land of sunshine’s sky.

“I yelled to my mom that it was snowing,” Altieri remembers. “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.”

Debbie and her mother were witnessing a freak storm of rain, sleet, and snow that would wreak havoc on Los Angeles County for three days, causing school and road closures. On January 22, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The first sizeable snowfall in the Los Angeles area in 13 years left as much as 3 inches of heavy wet snow in such unlikely places as Burbank, Studio City, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Woodland Hills, Northridge and Chatsworth. The snowfall closed Topanga Canyon Blvd. and Sepulveda Blvd. north of Mulholland

Drive for a time early today, and canyon roads in the Bel Air district were extremely dangerous to predawn motorists. The early morning snow topped a weekend of freakish weather that included just about everything from driving rain in most of the Los Angeles basin to a small twister in Lennox, sleet and hail in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County, to snow at Malibu.

At a parade in Sunland, gubernatorial candidate Richard Nixon, dressed in a light summer suit, was caught in a heavy snowfall while waving from an open convertible. Nixon had it better than the majorettes performing in the parade, who shivered in their shorts as they attempted to carry out their planned routines.

Snowfall in Pacoima in 1962.
Raymond J. Gannon

The 1962 storm would be the last time even a trace of snow would be reported as falling in Downtown Los Angeles.

Snowfall in Los Angeles often elicited extreme emotions in those fortunate enough to witness it. On January 16, 1932, some 500 students at Pasadena City College stormed out of their classrooms and lined each side of East Colorado Street to do battle, not with swords or sticks—but with an unfamiliar fine white powder that was falling from the California sky.

“Unable to contain themselves at the first and perhaps last chance to throw snowballs,” the overly excited youths engaged in an epic snowball fight, and in the process, “broke a streetcar window, smashed automobile windshields and ornamental light globes and tied up traffic on East Colorado Street.”

Injured, and just plain annoyed, motorists called the cops, and soon some of the Los Angeles Police Department’s finest were dodging snowballs packed with stones as they loaded up shotguns with gas canisters. The rioters were finally subdued when the college dean implored the students to remember that they were “Pasadena gentlemen,” but not before seven of the most disruptive students had been arrested.

The storm which caused all this ruckus hit on January 15th, during the depths of the Depression. It took sun-hardened Angelenos by surprise. It was a welcome diversion from the tough times the city (along with the rest of the country) was facing. The LA Times reported:

Los Angeles early yesterday morning was blanketed with snow when a storm swirled down the coast from the north and coated the environs with white. It was the first official snowfall recorded in the United States Weather Bureau’s fifty-four years of existence in the city. The storm was a genuine, old-fashioned Midwest snow flurry. It came shortly before 5 a.m., lasted two hours, clung to palm trees and lawns, coated the roofs with white and covered the walks …

Snow covers the grounds of UCLA on January 15, 1932.

That morning, Downtown Los Angeles received two inches of snow. While light flurries swirled around isolated areas of the city in the 1920s, snow around that time was most commonly brought to Los Angeles by pranksters.

The 1932 snow, however, was real and shocking. “It was reported that a conductor on a transcontinental train pulling into Los Angeles so far forgot himself that he opened the door and called out “Kansas City!”, the LA Times joked.

Once people got over their surprise, all over the Southland giddy Angelenos engaged in a day of whimsical winter pastimes, many for the first time:

Snowmen arose like magic on a thousand lawns. Sleds, brought out from the East and almost museum pieces in many garages, were given their first West Coast workout by enthusiastic children. There was a great rush for camera film and many stores soon were out of photo supplies…. Children slid down terraces or dodged slush flung from the wheels of automobiles…. Orange trees, golden with fruit, bent low in many yards with the extra burden of snow. Banana plants, their heavy leaves covered with white, were near breaking… Santa Monica children made snowmen and waged snow battles on their own front yard.

But not everyone was so delighted by this impromptu snow day. Albert Einstein’s wife, Elsa, who was staying with him in Pasadena during his stint as a visiting professor at Cal Tech, complained that they had left Germany for the sunshine. If they wanted snow, they would have stayed home.

The storm also sparked memories of snow days that had not made it into the official record. An old man named John McKay recalled that in 1882 his family had recently moved from Ireland to Los Angeles, where they lived on Aliso Street in Downtown. McKay had run away to go sledding, and he received a firm spanking when he was found. Historian Nathan Masters writes:

Atop a Spring Street jewelry store, someone gathered a 15-pound snowball (reports did not say how that ball was used), and a group of sport hunters suited up to track rabbits in the snow—covered countryside—only to watch the snow melt beneath their feet before reaching the rabbit grounds.

A home in North Hollywood, blanketed in snow amid a January 1949 storm that left more than half an inch of snow covering the Civic Center in Downtown Los Angeles. In the San Fernando Valley, almost a foot of snow accumulated over three days.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection
The original photograph caption, dated January 11, 1949, reads: “Les Koontz, left, and Doug Simpson push snowdrift off a car parked outside overnight. Hundreds of motorists had the same experience early today.”
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

But none of these storms could hold a candle to the three-day snowstorm that pelted Los Angeles County starting on January 10, 1949. When columnist Lee Shippey went outside the first morning of the snow, he found the neighborhood filled with enchanted (and mischievous) children.

“When they awoke Thursday, and saw all their world turned white it seemed like a miracle,” he wrote in the LA Times. “They dashed out into it with shouts just as I went by. But some atavistic instinct made them grab up handfuls of snow, press it into hard balls and sock me with them.”

“A veritable wonderland greeted residents of Glendale early January 11, 1949, when they looked out windows and wondered what happened.”
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

The snowfall, which dumped an inch on Downtown, and almost a foot in the Valley, was unlike anything any living Angelenos had ever seen. According to historian Cecilia Rasmussen:

The Rose Bowl was transformed into “a dishpan full of milk,” by one account. 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, Nev., sent L.A. a snow shovel ... Altadena residents turned their evergreen-lined Christmas Tree Lane on snow-swaddled Santa Rosa Avenue into a miniature ski run, and golfers swapped nine irons for snow skis…Other fun-seekers toted sleds, inner tubes—almost every imaginable means of transport on a coat of snow that fell soft as confectioner’s sugar as far away as Catalina.

Unlike previous snow storms, this weather event caused significant headaches. The movie industry was affected—one production scheduled to shoot a tropical scene at Bronson Caves was forced to shut down for the day as temperatures dipped into the 20s. Motorists with frozen engines were trapped in Laurel Canyon, and portions of PCH were closed.

“Snow heaped havoc on Southern California’s citrus growers, who fought day and night to keep their groves from freezing,” Rasmussen writes. “When the mercury fell below 28, juicy oranges turned dry and tasteless. When temperatures dipped to 22 for three days in a row, growers fired up smudge pots.” On Catalina Island, “the storm drove the resort land’s wildlife, including boar, goats, and buffalo, to shelter under scrub pines and in old Indian caves.”

Soon, the snow melted, and Angelenos went back to forgetting all about LA being a winter wonderland. However, rare snow flurries continued to occur in the San Fernando Valley and eastern portions of the county.

Bradley Fischer recalls that during a snowfall in North Hollywood in 1957 (which blanketed the San Fernando Valley), his family made a snowman. A young child at the time, he was thoroughly confused. As a SoCal kid, he had no idea what snow was.

Stephanie Riggio, center, “skiing” in Claremont in 1984.
Stephanie Riggio

LA native Stephanie Riggio remembers a snow flurry hitting her boarding school in Claremont in 1984. “When it snowed, we all rushed outside to see it,” she recalls. “One of the teachers busted out his skis to ‘ski’ across one of the sprawling lawns on campus.” Needless to say, the snow was little more than a bit of white on the ground.

On February 8, 1989, it snowed again in the Valley, dumping as much as five inches in places, including Westlake Village, Tarzana, and Calabasas—and even lightly dusting Palm Springs. Traffic was disrupted on the freeways, and schools were closed in some parts of the county.

Keith Hershey of Studio City says his mother let him come home from preschool early so that he could experience an honest-to-goodness “snow day.”

“I basically just played outside on my swing set,” he recalls. “There wasn’t actually enough snow to do anything so ‘sledding’ was basically going down a slide while there was a little bit of white on the ground.”

Mary Wang-Boucher, then a child of nine living in Van Nuys, recalls a similar scene. “There was a thin layer [of snow] in our front yard, not even a half inch. It was the most beautiful sight, our new street in white, it covering the grass and pavement,” she says. “I tried to make a snow angel because I saw it in a movie once. I laid down on the grass in our front yard, and the snow was already disintegrating.”

A snowball fight on Valley streets in January 1949.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

These memories may be all we modern-day Anglenos ever get of a snowbound Los Angeles. Random snow still occasionally falls (the San Fernando Valley and Malibu were lightly sprinkled in 2007), but LA is now on average 5 degrees warmer than it was a century ago, making snowfall increasingly unlikely.

But that’s not what we live here for, is it? Angelenos enjoy a sunny Christmas, New Year’s in flip-flops, and Valentine’s Day on the beach.

Still, one can’t help but be a little jealous of those who experienced the sight of snow dissolving into the ocean in Santa Monica or gracefully dusting City Hall’s dome in Downtown LA. “The spectacle of the city of our lady, queen of angels, clad in a mantle of white,” an observer wrote during the snow of ’49, “is assuredly a sight to remember.”

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