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FLASHBACK: ‘Saving the frozen river for posterity’

TODAY’S FLASHBACK COLUMN gives a final nod to winters past as meteorological spring approaches.


Sylvia Fisher, who lives in King George, shared these snapshots, taken of the frozen Rappahannock River at the Fredericksburg City Dock in 1990.“It looked like it was frozen in waves,” she said of the nearly immobilized river. “I’d never seen anything like it before.”

Even when she’d lived in upstate New York, she’d seen nothing that would compare, she said in a recent interview.

The Jan. 4, 1990, Free Lance–Star editorial commented on the steady stream of spectators at the river’s edge, gazing “at the jumbled chunks of snow-covered ice stretching from shore to shore.”

According to the editorial, “such scenes occur so infrequently in Virginia that they are a spectacle. Many people have taken pictures of the ice jam or filmed it with their video cassette cameras. They are saving the frozen river for posterity.

“The Rappahannock at Fredericksburg freezes every winter, but usually there is only a thin coat of smooth ice. This week, the ice was thick and irregular and littered with tree trunks and other debris torn from the river’s edge by the power of ice on the move.”

A news article the same day, by staff writer Jim Toler, reported that the massive frozen floe, 4 to 6 feet thick, extended from just below the U. S. 1 bridge at Falmouth to a point about six miles downstream.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team flew to town to assess the situation, and determined there was no immediate threat of flooding. River levels had dropped by 6 to 7 feet, lessening the chance for damaging high water.

This month’s Flashback columns have focused on winter photos shared by readers—and sparked other readers’ wintertime memories.


Flashback photos of a 1966 snowstorm reminded Nancy Barnes of the January day she will never forget.

Snow had fallen most of the weekend, starting Saturday, Jan. 29, 1966, when 15 inches covered old snow, leaving approximately 21 inches on the ground.

Barnes and and her husband, David, were expecting their first child—actually, they’d been expecting most of January, but the baby was taking his time. By 2 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 30, it was time, never mind the impassable roads, including the 15 miles or so on U. S. 1 between their North Stafford home and Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg.

Barnes’ husband flagged a state snow removal truck, which just happened to be passing by during those dark early-morning hours. A tow line was rigged to pull the snowbound family car out of the driveway, then, gingerly, the couple made the car trip to the hospital for the 8 a.m. birth of their first child, Darryl. The hospital was having its own snowbound drama, with staff unable to leave after their shifts, and other staff unable to arrive for theirs. Happily, for baby Barnes’ mom, her doctor, Lee Earnhardt, had stayed through the storm and was there for the birth.

This wasn’t the first snowy milestone for the Barnes. The couple had been married during another snowstorm, Dec. 29, 1962. Their second child, Debra Barnes Milligan, spared them any more snow drama. She has an Aug. 7 birthday. All still live in Stafford County.


Carl Newton, who lives on Hornets Nest Lane just off U.S. 17 in southern Stafford, remembered another snowstorm from the 1960s. He doesn’t remember the exact year, but he figures it was in the middle of the decade since he was driving a 1961 Chevy truck he’d bought used.

In a recent telephone interview, he recounted how a snowstorm had left him with no electricity. Cabin fever struck after four days, and he decided he had to get out.

He put chains on the truck with the idea he’d drive a track down the driveway, which stretched the length of a football field.

He’d drive forward, then backward, attempting to make that track, and in short order, snow had piled over the bumper, over the hood, then finally past the windshield to the point he couldn’t see at all. He finally did drive to the road, but he and the truck sank again in a “dip like.”

He got out of the truck and walked ahead of it to make his own tracks with his feet, shod in hip boots. The snow filled the boots.

“That’s how deep it was,” he recalled.

Newton did not give up. He completed his track, collected his wife, Grace Lou, and the two drove down U. S. 17 to U. S. 1 to Ralph’s Grill for the first hot meal they’d had in days. (The grill, now gone, was across from what is now Drew Middle School).

Told of Fisher’s memories of ice on the Rappahannock, he recounted his memory of ice so thick on Potomac Creek that he could drive an 8n Ford tractor 100 yards to pull boats that had broken free of their posts.

His grandparents told how they would cut thick ice blocks from Potomac Creek at Belle Plains, wrap them in a blanket, tuck them in a straw stack in a field and have ice to use until July.

Meteorological spring starts March 1. The Flashback column will feature photos of baseball and the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, among its treasure trove of memories in coming months.

Readers may want to remember the icy times when summer heat bores down—as it did in 1953 when the July 31 Free Lance–Star reported the temperature as “a searing 104 degrees.”

Jennifer Strobel: 540/374-5432



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