The legendary blizzard of 1956

I stumbled today onto this story in the The Courier of Montgomery County, Texas, about a freak blizzard that struck the Plains of New Mexico and Texas on Feb. 4, 1956.

The storm blanketed snow from Amarillo to the north, Tucumcari, N.M., to the west, and Wink to the south. Even El Paso got 5 inches of snow. But here’s the excerpt that made me gasp:

At first light on Feb. 5, the snow was 14 inches deep in Amarillo, but Texas’ northernmost city had gotten off light compared to nearby Vega. The small community halfway between Amarillo and the New Mexico line was buried beneath an unbelievable 61 inches – a state record that stands to this day.

I can’t even comprehend that much snow in the Plains. Last year about this time, portions of the Grand Lake area of northeastern Oklahoma experienced 50 inches of snow. But that accumulated over several successive storms — not in one shot like Vega’s.

The next time you’re in Vega, you ought to ask old-timers about that storm. I bet you’ll hear a few interesting stories.

The NOAA’s Monthly Weather Review published a story a few weeks later about the storm. You can read a PDF of the article here. It contains a lot of material that’s interesting mostly to meteorology geeks. But this except tells how historic the storm truly was:

The snow depth broke records of 50 years duration, and the combination of snow, cold, and winds caused blizzard conditions and considerable hardship. At least 18 deaths were attributed directly to the storm. The normal life of  the area was completely paralyzed during the storm and there were still transportation difficulties up through February 14. Highway travel was stopped as drifts blocked the roads and even intercity buses suspended operations after several buses were stranded and the passengers rescued by tractor.

The Courier also told this stirring story that involved the border town of Glenrio, Texas, now a ghost town:

Early in the morning of Feb. 5, Continental Trailways driver John Hearon pulled out of the Amarillo bus station with 16 passengers, two children and 14 adults, and headed west in the blinding blizzard toward Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Less than 10 miles from the Texas-New Mexico boundary, the bus slipped off the icy asphalt and into a snow-filled ditch. Presuming it was only a matter of time until help arrived from Tucumcari, the driver stayed with his worried passengers.

At half past two that afternoon, Hearon decided he had no choice but to go for help. That meant walking eight miles through waist-deep snow to tiny Glenrio on the New Mexico side of the state line.

“I fell down at least three times but I knew I had to get up and go on,” Hearon later said from a hospital bed. “I was afraid to stop because I knew I would never start again.” […]

It was 11 o’clock that night, when Hearon at last saw the lights of Glenrio. Exhausted, snow-blind in one eye and nearly delirious, he collapsed 200 yards from his destination.

The only thing John Hearon could think to do was to whistle. Off in the distance, someone heard his distress call and within minutes his ordeal was over.

Three “Land of Enchantment” highway patrol cars followed a road grader to the stranded bus. The anxious passengers were cold and very hungry after their 21-hour wait, but they were alive thanks to their dedicated driver.


6 thoughts on “The legendary blizzard of 1956

  1. Bus driver John Hearon deserves to have a monument erected. Those 21 people probably would have died but for his heroic act. It’s amazing that he could continue to walk in the right direction.

  2. Also, this past Jan. 26th marked the 45th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’67 that shut down Chicago for a week.

    I didn’t know it, but evidently, people in Chicago referred to it as the Snowstorm or great Snowsorm of ’67. Those of us in the Chicago suburbs called it the Blizzard of ’67.

    Bob Stroud did his Jan. 29th Rock and Roll Roots show on songs playing on the radio during that time. Brought back some memories. You can see the list at Go to On Air, scroll to Bob Stroud.


    1. I was so happy to come across your comments regarding your father. I agree he deserves some sort of memorial for his incredible walk to save his passengers. And my place is the perfect place as I own the Diner and Texaco station where your father whistled for help. My father Joe Brownlee owned them at that time and he is the one who put chains on his commando vehicle , Leaping Lena, and was able to push through the drifts and reach the bus. What a story and legacy our families have!

    1. John David Hearon was the oldest son of William Bascom and Ethel (Hooks) Hearon.
      The oldest brother of my mother Roseleen (Hearon) Sharp.
      He was a very softspoken man who loved his family very much.
      He had been in the Army, so I am sure he felt like he should protect his passengers like he had protected his fellow service men.
      He was a hero to the families of his passengers just like we all felt like he was a super hero to us.
      Rest in Peace – Uncle JD, we all miss you!

      Dale (Sharp) Rhodes

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.