The first significant snow of the year draped a wet blanket across Maryland yesterday, slowing traffic and delaying flights but inspiring sledding and snowball throwing and hibernating by the glow of rented videotapes.
Snow fell up and down the East Coast, from Washington to Massachusetts, hitting Baltimore with about 3 inches. On its way east, the storm dumped up to a foot on Kentucky and West Virginia, where several tractor-trailers slid off highways.
The fast-moving weather system caused dozens of fender-benders and at least three serious accidents in Maryland. But police said traffic problems were minimal because the snow came on a weekend.
"It's the typical first snow of the year, and everybody is cheerful and upbeat," said Jeff Pratt, fourth-generation owner of Schneider's Hardware in North Baltimore, which sold about 50 sleds, 20 shovels and 25 bags of rock salt yesterday.
"We sold more sleds than shovels, which means that people are enjoying themselves and playing more than working," Pratt said.
Forecasters predicted that today and tomorrow will be sunny, with temperatures in the 40s and no more snowfall expected.
"We just got a little taste of winter," said meteorologist Chris Strong of the National Weather Service.
Snowplows rumbled through the streets yesterday, slinging salt and pushing sloppy piles.
Children careened down hills on plastic sleds. They whipped snowballs at each other and trudged through the moist mess, which was just deep enough to cover the toes of their boots.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley seemed to enjoy the snow as much as the kids.
At the city's storm center at 920 Fallsway around midday, O'Malley gawked at his latest high-tech toy: the Automated Vehicle Locating System.
The $800,000 gadget tracks snowplows and salt trucks on a huge screen as they circulate through city streets. The electronic display allows public works officials to make sure crews work efficiently and don't miss any streets.
"This is neat," O'Malley said, sitting on the edge of a conference table, swinging his legs.
The city equipped 75 trucks with the high-tech system this year to be able to better respond to weather-related emergencies, said Public Works Director George L. Winfield.
The 75 trucks were dispatched at 8:20 a.m. yesterday to clear the city's main corridors.
On the large overhead screen, truck license-plate numbers blinked along a large grid of the city, as green lines marked where salt had been applied. When an official selected one of the tag numbers, an information box popped up, showing greater detail about whether a truck's plow was up or down, or whether it was spreading salt.
O'Malley said Baltimore is one of only a few cities with such an extensive system.
"Pittsburgh wouldn't have anything like this," he said.
After watching the new system for about half an hour, O'Malley jumped into his sport utility vehicle and headed up those salted roads to today's playoff game between the Ravens and the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
"I'm more worried about the Ravens than I am about the roads," O'Malley confessed, zipping his Ravens jacket to the neck. "But if they play like they did last week, we'll have nothing to worry about."
Around the region, several community events were called off because of the snow. But many groups were undaunted by what they regarded as harmless and beautiful weather.
Westminster Church of Christ in Carroll County had scheduled a move to its new church on Littlestown Pike yesterday, and the snow did nothing to deter the volunteer movers.
"The main roads were fine and we had about 20 people waiting to help us," said Gary D. Pearson, evangelist to the 150-member congregation. He promised the church would be open today.
"We have a member with a snowplow," he said.
The sloppy streets also did not halt a $3 million project to raise a 120-foot-long footbridge over Northern Parkway, connecting the private Gilman and Bryn Mawr schools.
Roland Avenue will be closed from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. today while a second span is erected to link Roland Park Country School with the other two schools.
"This project is hugely important to the safety of all our students," said Nancy Mugele, director of communications at Roland Park Country School. "We coordinate classes and have students walking between schools."
Video stores throughout the region experienced a surge in business yesterday morning.
At Blockbuster Video in Columbia, a line snaked around the store as it opened at 10 a.m. and customers quickly grabbed tapes - an average of three apiece, said Linsey Holton, a store employee.
"We are usually only about half this busy on a Saturday morning," Holton said.
For the most part, police officers and public works crews around the region deemed yesterday a fairly easy day - downright mild compared to the blizzard of pre-snow hype.
Save for a few fender-benders, the season's first significant snowfall proved surprisingly crisis-free, they said.