Sunday, January 16, 2022

Snow's Not the Reason Syracuse is Salt City

The snow forecast for Syracuse, NY, over the next two days calls for 10-12 inches, a mere dusting in Syracusian terms. Syracuse, after all, is the snowiest city in America, averaging 128 inches a year.  

Having spent an academic year in Syracuse earning a master’s in newspaper journalism back in 1971-72, I am well acquainted with the city’s less than ideal weather, if you’re a snow hater like me. Snow is one manifestation of Syracuse’s climate. Indeed, the city averages just 163 days of sunshine a year compared to the national average of 205 days.

Snow is such an expected part of the city that it is not uncommon for a radio station to provide a prize to the person who predicts the first date a measurable amount of flakes hits the ground. A day in mid October won the year I was there. That year it snowed 133.7 inches.

With lake-effect frosty stuff all around, Syracuse has a well deserved reputation for knowing how to deal with snow.

Syracuse’s nickname is Salt City. I assumed the moniker came from the liberal spreading of salt on city streets to clear the snow. Actually, it derived from nearby salt mines. I had no idea there were salt mines until I heard a story on the radio explaining the origin of the nickname during my last week in Syracuse. 

Over Thanksgiving weekend 1971, a pounding blizzard struck New York State. The National Weather Service describes the storm thusly: 

“Heavy snow in Catskills and across the Upper Hudson Valley. This heavy snow began on the day before Thanksgiving and continued into Thanksgiving day. Albany picked up 22.5 inches with amounts up to 30” reported elsewhere. This storm turned the busiest travel day of the year into a nightmare, with many stranded travelers not making it to their destinations on Thanksgiving.  This storm was the greatest November snowstorm on record and one of the greatest ever.”  

With all highway traffic shut down, I was forced to to wait until Monday to return to school from my parents’ home in Brooklyn. Roads were still barely plowed in New York City, but as I got closer to Syracuse the highways were almost totally clear. Even city streets were passable. I remarked to myself that Syracuse sure knew how to handle snow. I further wondered what all the fuss was about, why travel had been restricted on Sunday.

I parked in front of the gingerbread-style, three-story house on East Genesee Street where my studio apartment occupied part of the top floor. As soon as I stepped out of the car the extent of the snowfall became apparent. Snow engulfed my legs up to my hips. I struggled to reach the front stairs, then made my way up to the third floor.

I opened the door to find half my apartment covered in snow. The roof had caved in under the weight of the snow. It took several days for the landlord to repair the roof.

The rest of the winter passed without incident, though I was nervous each time I ventured out driving in the snow. My red with black vinyl top Buick Skylark weathered the winter with no dents, no fender bender, no scratches.

On a bright, warm early June day, diploma in hand, I packed the Buick up in the driveway shared with the house next door. My getaway was a few moments away. As I bent into the car to reposition my stereo, I looked out the passenger side window and saw another student’s car backing up, slowly, inexorably, toward me. I screamed, “Stop!” I waved my hands. To no avail.

Thunk! Broadsided in sunny, summer daylight in my passenger side door. I shook my head in disgust. So close to escaping Syracuse intact.