Signal 100 | Talking about the weather — Part 1

No. 36 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

By John Boston

Special to The Signal

You can endorse the wrong candidate. You can come out on the wrong side of the Second, First, Fourth — pick a number — Amendment to the Constitution. You can be cursed and called dumber than a bag of White House correspondents on abortion, taxation, size of government or the infield fly rule. But as a newspaper, the No. 1 Thing You May Never Do is get the weather wrong.

Readers, rightly so, figure if you’re not smart enough to stick your head outside to ascertain whether it’s raining, snowing or 314 in the shade, then you have no right operating a newspaper.

For our 100 years in existence, The Signal has dutifully reported what’s going on in our atmosphere, and there have been times when we’ve had some fun with the subject.

I suppose no better anecdote about the Santa Clarita Valley’s oddball meteorological peculiarities was printed the second week of World War II.

Immediately, hundreds of troops were stationed here in early December 1941. Signal Editor Fred Trueblood quipped that the poor troops on guard duty didn’t know whether they should be wearing an Alaskan fur coat or tennis shorts. That’s December in the SCV. It can be single digits with pipes bursting at night, or the daytime highs can reach triple digits.

If you can’t stand the heat

The SCV can just be a meteorological yo-yo. June can be cool and gloomy. But in 1953, our sixth month rocketed from a daytime high of 65 to 103 — in three days. Same thing happened in 1971, only in reverse. It was September 1971, and we plunged from 116 to 72 — in just TWO DAYS.

One of the worst summer weeks on record struck the valley in August 1933. Temperatures hovered over 110 with thick humidity. Before the sultry days and nights hit, we had a hot, dry spell where two small cyclones touched down in town. One wrecked the local machine shop, tearing the roof off. The other bounced down the main street and tore out a full-grown tree. Locals were all complaining that it was too hot to stay indoors and too hot to stay outdoors. My all-time favorite local weather quote came from Trueblood in 1942. He reported that a local cowboy had sworn it was so hot, he spotted a coyote chasing a jackrabbit — and both were walking.

Mind you, summer is not a new invention. But air conditioning is. Prior to the 1960s, most homes, businesses and cars did not have this blessed invention. People had screened-in porches and families slept on them at night when it was too hot.

In 1955, we were primarily an agricultural village. People and livestock suffered terribly during heat waves. We were one of California’s biggest producers of chickens and eggs. That summer, the mercury bubbled for 24 straight days in mid-August to September. The lowest temperature was 107. Unofficially, in Canyon Country, the temperature hit 135. The Signal reported that chickens by the thousands died here. Our poor little food source has a natural temperature of 105. Chickens have no way to cool themselves off and perish when temps hit 105.1. Farmers added the chore of hosing off the poultry to their already busy things-to-do lists.

I can’t call this suffering, but in 1978, I remember a heat wave at the ranch. We had to buy a half-ton of ice blocks from Newhall Ice to put in the Olympic-sized pool. Gasp, it was too hot to use, except to make soup.

In January 1949, the SCV looked more like Montana than our normal high desert selves. This is the front of Hart Park. An epic snowstorm lingered here for nearly a week. It even snowed in Malibu.
Courtesy photo

The Signal’s sense of snow

Frozen precipitation is not a frequent visitor to our valley. It only snowed a few times in the entire 20th century. I can recall a few snow flurries in upper Castaic about a decade ago.

Funny the timing of this. We had a decent snowfall in the decades ending with “7.” It snowed here in 1927, 1947, 1957 and 1967. Oddly enough, that last storm ended in tragedy. A Boy Scout troop from Hawthorne thought April would be safe for a campout here. They had no winter gear and were caught in a surprise blizzard. The scoutmaster left them at the campground to get help. When he returned, one of the boys had died.

The Mother of All SCV Snowstorms hit here in January 1949. It was the longest snowfall of about the last 200 years here.

The Signal noted the thermometer hit a low of 13 and for three straight days, light snow fell on the Santa Clarita — more than 3 feet in some of the higher inland canyons and 20 inches downtown. Yes. Twenty inches, on the ground, in Newhall. Actually, in 1932, more snow fell in one night — a full foot in Newhall proper. But that was a storm that came and went quickly. The strange thing about the ’49 storm was that very little snow fell on the Ridge Route, Castaic and Saugus. The snow caused a run on everything from tire chains to gloves for snowball fights and snowman making. Film sold out immediately. Hart High had to cancel a basketball game for the first and only time because of snow. Another weird thing? It also snowed on the beaches in Malibu and Santa Monica. The NEXT January, 1950, we had five major snowstorms hit this valley in a row.

This paper noted that the Christmas Eve blizzard of 1970 closed all the roads in and out of the SCV. Thousands were stranded in the San Fernando Valley at Roxford. Hundreds of oaks lost limbs and newly planted eucalyptus trees fell over from the weight of the snow. Squadrons of helicopters made emergency landings and deliveries in Saugus and Canyon Country and there were 10-foot-high snowbanks in some of the new housing projects.

For decades, the SCV was predominantly an agricultural community. Late snows could ruin a farmer or rancher, especially because blizzards aren’t usually a common occurrence at the 900-foot elevation. Sometimes, ranchers would have to shoot part of their herd when these surprise late-spring storms paid a visit. A Saugus herd wanders through the frozen tundra in 1955.
Courtesy photo

The winter of 1962 also brought the Arctic Express all the way down to our valley, leaving a YARD of snow in some of the canyons. The Mighty Signal covered all these storms, snapping pictures of cattle chest-high, snowmen in the high desert and kids tobogganing down snow-covered hills or having snowball fights.

I love the nomenclature of simpler times. The Signal noted in covering a February 1922 blizzard that “… 5,000 auto-mobile machines were stranded in Lebec for five days.” One group of men hiked through the snowstorm to a ranger’s station and gratefully slept on the floor. After the road opened, it took them 12 hours to drive — downhill — from Frazier Park to Newhall.

When some of these freak snowstorms hit, they often weren’t in winter. We’ve had big snows in May and June and, a few times at higher elevations, as late as early July. These storms positively wrecked agriculture here — destroying vegetable and citrus crops.

World record for the latest snowfall IN Downtown Newhall?

May 30, 1924.

Rain, rain, go away

Long before there was climate change and El Niño, locals called it winter. One of our wettest years, The Signal noted long after the event, was in 1857. It rained most of January and nearly all of February. The SCV was a series of lakes. Of course, just four years later, the SCV felt more like a Brazilian rainforest. The year 1861 was our wettest — with about 100 inches in one year. Rain doesn’t always visit in the cold months.

The Mighty Signal covered a freak afternoon cloudburst in October 1932. Black clouds marched with dread intent into the northern end of the valley, knocking out 30 miles of tracks and 19 trestles from Soledad to the Antelope Valley. The old Weldon Canyon Road (today, Interstate 5), was rerouted to the coast route. Twenty-foot walls of water poured from the canyons. Entire trains were buried in mud and the water formed a temporary lake in Canyon Country that measured 1 mile by 3 miles in area.

Then there were the Old Testament rains of 1938. One front came in, dropping 4 inches of hail. Five miles of railroad were washed out in upper Soledad. During that storm, Roy Lyon met his Maker. Roy, descendent of one of the famed twin Lyon brothers (after whom Lyons Avenue was named) climbed a ladder trying to reconnect the electricity to his Pico Canyon home. It was your Worst Case Scenario Bug Zapper. Roy was fried when he grabbed hold of a 6,000-volt live wire.

Those storms of ’38 closed Highway 99 for two months. One resident commented that the valley looked like Yosemite because of all the waterfalls.

Word had gotten out what a winter water wonderland our farming community had become. It became quite the tourist attraction. A squadron of lookie-loos motored to San Francisquito Canyon for a weekend drive next to the river. This was long before satellite weather tracking, mind you, and the tourists had no idea an El Niño event was bearing down. The squall hit, dumping a quick 5 inches in local canyons, and 50 tourists were trapped. Many lost their cars to the raging torrents. A mounted posse came in and dragged them out by rope. The out-of-towners were divided up at local ranches and had to sit out the storm for nearly a week before they could get out.

But perhaps the single most tragic SCV rain death on record — and a double one at that — occurred during a 1930s downpour. A young housewife was driving out of Placerita Canyon, back when the road was dirt and next to the creek. It was night. The tragedy was, this particular storm was little more than a shower. For whatever reason, the woman swerved off the road and landed upside down in the creek. Days later, when they found her, authorities pieced together the horrible scenario. Although she had no serious injuries, the young lady had been pinned, upside down in a few inches of water. As the rainfall continued, the creek slowly rose and she drowned. They ascertained this because of the scratch marks on the side of the car and black paint under her fingernails.

Through fire stations and amateur meteorologists/farmers, we’ve been counting rain totals for well over a century.

In 1884, the Santa Clara River didn’t run bank to bank — it ran foothill to foothill. While we have no definitive local Rain Bible — YET — a figure quoted from the storms of 1982-’83 (which totaled at 38.77 inches) said that 1982-’83 was the seventh-wettest since local records of 1927. Where are those records? Who knows. The top five local rainy seasons, best as I’ve come up with so far —  were: 1968-’69 (51 inches); 1977-’78 (49.38 inches); 1884-’85 (46.8 inches); 1940-’41 (44.65 inches); and 1982-’83 (38.77 inches).

Ah, 1968-’69. The Mother of Rainfall. Besides that epic 51-inch year, ’68-’69 held the wettest single-month total (30 inches in February!) and a frightening one-day total of …

Please. Sit down.

On Jan. 26, 1969, 16 inches of rain fell here.

In one day.

Come back next Saturday. We’ve got more Old Testament Signal rain stories plus all sorts of other strange weather phenomenon in Part II.

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 37 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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