Photos from the Vault

1976 snow storm closed Highway 101 — and forced the Goodyear Blimp to land in SLO

Laura Peterson, left, and Brandee Leonhardt, both of Morro Bay have snowfight on Highway 46 six miles west of Cambria. Photo by Thom Halls. 3-3-1976
Laura Peterson, left, and Brandee Leonhardt, both of Morro Bay have snowfight on Highway 46 six miles west of Cambria. Photo by Thom Halls. 3-3-1976 Telegram-Tribune

Snow in San Luis Obispo County is unusual enough to be newsworthy.

There are photos of snow on the ground in San Luis Obispo, circa 1922.

On Feb. 24, 1944, local residents used some of their precious World War II gasoline rations to drive up Cuesta Grade and throw snowballs.

Shandon got almost 4 inches of snow on Dec. 19, 1967, when chains were required to drive between Morro Bay and Atascadero. And snow closed the Cuesta Grade north of San Luis Obispo was in March 1991.

One of the biggest March snow storms roared in like a lion in the bicentennial year.

Bruce Kyse wrote about it in the Telegram-Tribune on March 3, 1976:

Big storm ties county in a cold and snowy knot

A brief but furious storm blustered through San Luis Obispo County Tuesday and early today, dropping icy rains, hail and a creamy topping of snow on county hillsides.

Tuesday’s storm hit on and off with all the vigor and rage of a New England gale. It knocked out television broadcast stations, stopped Highway 101 traffic on the Cuesta Grade, forced two fisherman to beach their boat, flooded sections of San Luis Obispo and caused several accidents.

By dawn today, the storm had gone — almost as fast as it hit Tuesday morning — leaving bright but crisp sunshine to reflect from the white-headed hilltops.

The heavenly disturbance also hit other areas of the state, coating San Francisco Bay Area hillsides with snow and spreading fresh skiing powder in the Sierra Nevadas.

It will probably be another cold night, but don’t expect more snow. The weatherman says the sky should remain clear until Friday.

Lightning struck the Cuesta Grade shortly after noon Tuesday, damaging a Pacific Gas & Electric power house and severing electrical service to homes north of San Luis Obispo and to Santa Margarita.

The power outage also blackened television screens throughout the county. Cable KOR Cable Co., of Atascadero, suffered the worst damage. It was unable to restore service to Atascadero until 11:30 p.m.

Cable service also was out from noon to 6:30 p.m. in Los Osos and Cambria.

Cable service in San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, and the South County was also disrupted briefly Tuesday afternoon because of the lightning strike on Cuesta Grade.

San Luis Obispo television station KSBY was unable to broadcast until 6:30 p.m., and engineers were snowed in last night as they worked on equipment on Cuesta Grade.

“You needed chains to get in or out,” chief technician Ken Reed said today.

The Goodyear blimp, en route to San Francisco, was forced to land at San Luis Obispo Airport because of bad weather conditions.

The California Highway Patrol reported eight accidents during the 12-hours from 6 p.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. today. There were also numerous spinouts and reports of cars leaving the road, a spokesman said.

Ronna Wegner, 21, of Cayucos, was in satisfactory condition today after the van she was a passenger in was in a collision with a car out-of-control near the Men’s Colony on Highway 1.

Karen Robertson, 26, of Atascadero, said she lost control of her car and collided with the northbound van driven by Anthony McCall, 29, of Cayucos. McCall and Miss Robertson suffered minor injuries. They were treated and released.

Cuesta Grade was closed to through traffic for several night and early morning hours because of ice and snow on the road.

At different times today, three large trucks jackknifed and blocked traffic until wreckers could clear the roads.

David Romero, San Luis Obispo public services director, said Garden Street flooded when drains backed up and water seeped into an office building.

County crops and fruit trees appeared unaffected by freezing temperatures, ice and snow. South County citrus growers reported no damage, but they’re gearing up for a cold night and possible frost today.

In the North County, almond trees are already showing blossoms and are in the critical stage, according to ranchers. Heaters are being used in several orchards to ward off the cold.

It will probably be another cold night throughout the county, according to Wilbur Shigehara, frost forecaster for the weather service.

He said Shandon’s thermometers will drop to 32 degrees shortly after dark today and should skid to 22 or 23 degrees.

Coastal communities can expect a low of 26.

The storm drenched San Luis Obispo with 1.07 inches of rain and “you’ll have to guess the amount of snow,” the weatherman said.

The city’s rainfall total is at 9.48 inches for the season, compared to the normal of 14.67 for this date. Last year, it had rained 16.26 inches by the second day of March.

Snow covered most of the higher hills and mountains in the county. The coastal range from San Simeon down to the South county had several inches of powder, according to some residents.

Snow dusted the Santa Lucia Mountains east of San Luis Obispo, the hills behind Arroyo Grande and the mountains behind Hearst Castle.

A hint of snow brushed Bishop’s peak in San Luis Obispo and the Irish Hills, forming the southern border of the Los Osos Valley.

About noon Tuesday, heavy winds forced two fishermen, Arnold Moore of Morro Bay and a Canadian companion, to beach their rented skiff on a rugged section of the county coast.

The two wet fishermen tumbled their tiny skiff through the surf and reached shore somewhere between Avila Beach and Morro Bay after the motor fell off.

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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”