1955 CRASH and ABANDON
An unannounced snow that begins to fall during a work day may make mayhem on city streets as workers leave early but still too late. Such a snow visited Seattle mid-Thursday afternoon of November 17, 1955. More than 1000 vehicles had accidents alone or together. Twice six cars were involved in one crash. The fury of the storm surprised both the commuters and the Weather Bureau, and the latter was shamed for having only forecast flurries. Cars were abandoned and the drivers then either searched for hotels or braved a walk home sometimes arriving at their front door well past midnight. Seattle’s UFO fantasist-opportunists were not surprised to read that earlier this day one J. A Mapes saw 12 round, flat objects, silver on top and dark on the bottom, fly in 4-deep formation over St. Louis. Omen or coincidence, they wondered aloud. Before the snow a five day freeze, beginning Nov. 15, destroyed thousands of trees and shrubs.
1960 SLIPPERY SLOPES
This winter’s only noticeable snow came unusually late on the third of March. It began falling with the first morning light, around 6 am, and by noon had dropped about three inches. Municipal buses were pulled over and outfitted with chains. The worst traffic jams occurred on what were then the city’s two speedways: Aurora and the floating bridge to Mercer Island where spin-outs were frequent. Other “slippery slopes” of the year included the shooting down of U-2 spy Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, the Food and Drug Administration approval of the first birth control pill as safe for use, and a congressional hearing exposing a disk jockey payola scandal. Other sensations this year include Elvis joins the army, John Kennedy narrowly defeats Nixon, and University of California students are hosed and gassed as they protest the House Un- American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in San Francisco.
1964-65 WINTER WONDERLANDS
Other snows – the lesser ones — are tonic for child’s play. When a child wakes to a fresh snow of any depth it is like the Milky Way landed at night. Trees and bushes in the back yard sparkle and like stars are suggestive. A morning snow also brings the hope that school might not open. An adult revival of the child’s winter imagination is the picturesque prose that a morning snow may inspire. A good example is the description that accompanies Seattle Times’ photographer Josef Scaylea’s snowscape on the cover of the Northwest Pictorial for Nov. 24, 1963. It reads in part: “A fresh snowfall also brings a subtle change to the music of the woods . . . Now all sounds are muted, as if nature stands in awe of the great changes it has brought to the land. This is a time for the nature-lover to read the diary of the forest, for the snow is a page on which each passing animal inscribes its message.” That last line about animals writing is especially nice. In 1963 the peaks of the “Cascade curtain” as seen from Seattle turned suddenly white with the early storm of October 21.
More often newspaper reporting of Seattle snows is humdrum. However, when hopes are aroused by more than a dusting of fat flakes, a reporter may buckle his galoshes and sing “The sky became a seething mass of gray-black clouds, traffic was in a snarl, and by mid-afternoon the blizzard had tightened its grip over most of Western Washington.” These familiar phrases were used in a Seattle Times story on the snows of 1916 and 1950. It appeared as historical filler on the afternoon of one of the several December snows of 1964. High above, near this essay’s part on “Cherries of Many Sorts,” I described the first snow of 1964. It fell on Thanksgiving night. Through the rest of the year and into the first week of January Seattle was washed repeatedly by alternating snowfall and rain. In a Jan. 6, 1965 report a Times writer predicted “Years from now they will be telling tales about the past 27 days or so as the ‘winter of the big snow’ here.” Well they have not. The snow of 64-65 was like a bird with a chirp but no warble. It sang no big song. It was more a gargle. There was too much rain.
1967 SNOWBALLS & BARRICADES
Following the snow of January 5, 1967, police erected barricades on Queen Anne Hill, although residents kept sneaking around them, sometimes at their own peril. The youth of Renton raised their own barricade of snow, six feet high and three feet thick across southeast 88th Street, and another teen construction was piled in the center of the 4000 block of N.E. 85th Street. Slowed by the snarl, motorists were easy marks for snowballs citywide. For some reason incidents of snowball artillery proliferate in reports from the 1960s and ’70s. The favorite targets were city buses whose windows were easily penetrated by snowballs packed with nasty rock nuclei.
This nearly completes the list of the oversized snows and other oddities that have been dumped here since the Denny Party first distributed itself on Alki Beach in the fall of 1851. To the 19th century winters of 1861-62, 1880, and 1893 we have added the 20th century “Big Snows” of 1916 and 1950. Without the wind we would have dropped 1950 from the “big list” too. But now, somewhat timidly, or I confess for sentimental reasons, we will add to this list the snow of 1969 – or 1968-69, for the snow that earnestly fell upon the diapered baby sent on the first day of 1969, a Wednesday, covered snow left by the old man of 1968 when with the last swing of his scythe he first combed the ice from his beard and then fell over the hoary horizon late Tuesday night.
1968-69 PENULTIMATE BIG ONE, POLITICS, MORE SNOWBALLS
The 1968-69 winter season’s serious “episodes” began with a dangerous tease. On December 18, a Wednesday, the highest points of West Seattle got three inches of snowfall by 9 a.m. Downtown, however, it rained, and seriously. Through a 90-minute period in the early morning, .40 of an inch was measured. As of 8 a.m., the Seattle Times reported, “Seattle’s rainfall total stood at 44.63 inches, only 2.32 inches from 1950’s record 46.63 inches.” And there was more to come in ’68. The short days of December flirted with freezing and so made fools of drivers – fools and synchronized stunt men.
At one spot of black ice on the Seattle Freeway’s express lane, 10 vehicles went into a simultaneous slide. Through the night of December 18-19, where a tunnel opens to Mercer Street off the southbound side of 1-5, drivers hit ice. State troopers estimated that at least one of every three vehicles “fishtailed” against the guardrail. Early Thursday morning the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge was described as a “skating rink” waiting for Eastside commuters. That morning there was a five-degree difference in the temperatures registered at SeaTac and the Weather Service’s thermometer atop the old Federal Office Building at First and Madison. When the Times closed the paper’s weather door to new data for the Thursday edition, it was 27 at SeaTac, but downtown it was only 32 degrees. Still, that was the first freezing temperature recorded in the business district since January 30 of 1968. For the most part it had been another Mediterranean year.
It is generally appreciated that our bigger snows are especially useful for story telling and malingering. But all snows, especially the big ones, are also political. Of course, slush and snow do not divide along party lines, nor does the National Weather Service, for instance under a Republican administration, have a “southern strategy” that might use an early frost on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Kentucky to play upon inexperienced citizens’ fear of black ice and so keep them off the highways and perhaps also away from polling booths. We will agree that a low-pressure front off the coast may have foreign relations with a high-pressure system out of Canada, but the ordinary politics of snow is a mix of public service and resentment. Snows are good for complaining, much of it thrown at authorities. With any “act of god,” like a big snow, the buck it seems never reaches the divine but it will often make it to the mayor.
We will use Mayor James d’Orma “Dorm” Braman as an example. This Republican was elected mayor in a more-or-less Democratic town in 1965. By the time drivers got in line to fishtail into guardrails, as described above, Braman was bi-partisan. With the power of his office, he both made and helped make big things happen, like the first federal Model Cities grant directed to any city, and the local bond issues of Forward Thrust, a grand civic improvement initiative that perhaps only a Democrat could have named. Forward Thrust went after federal money for both cleaning up Lake Washington and building rapid transit through the city. That voters rejected the latter when asked to raise only 25 percent of the total bill was a great disappointment to Braman, whose ideology by then was more about progress than parsimony. With the voters’ moronic rejection, the financing went to Atlanta instead, and that was a southern strategy.
Rising on the morning of December 27, 1968, Braman felt the arctic front that had moved into town during the night. He probably shuddered with thoughts of what might be coming, and, indeed, soon learned that Seattle was almost surrounded. That morning it was snowing in both Hoquiam near the coast and in Bellingham. The Weather Service described what we know is the one-two punch behind most of Puget Sound’s big snows: arctic air from Canada mixing it up with a low-pressure center moving in from the coast. As TV’s Mr. Science explained it, drops released by moist air riding over cold air turn to snow. For two days cold prevailed over snow. The low temperature for the 29th was 13 degrees. More remarkably, the high temperature of 19 degrees was lower than the previous record low for that date: 21 degrees in 1927.
After the two-day stall, the snow started falling in “higher outlying areas” on the 30th and that evening began dumping enough on Seattle that the mayor and Lloyd F. Finney, then the superintendent for street maintenance, called on their “troops” to resist through the night, with 24 trucks spreading 327 tons of salt and an additional 17-1/2 tons of calcium chloride on critical spots in case the temperature dipped low enough to make even saltwater freeze.
In the morning, eight city snowplows and additional rented graders joined the resistance, concentrating on the city’s then 380 miles of arterial streets. Street Department employees and police rushed and stumbled to barricade steeper streets before drivers could try them. Still, by mid-morning several downtown intersections were plugged with stalled cars. When traffic jams were spotted, sand trucks were sent to help unsnarl them. With the city’s trucks busy spreading salt, the sand was being distributed by rented ones. Unlike salt, which “merely” polluted a snow’s runoff, sand had to be later cleaned up, and so was considerably more expensive. Earlier, Braman had avoided using sand for the snow of December 18, and he would like to have kept the sand in its box again, but could not.
This time the gripes were not about sand or salt, as they would be in 2008, but about the street department’s timing with the graders. Braman and Finney were criticized for waiting too long to call out the plows. The mayor’s response was both complex and instructive. Braman first conceded to the press and public that their ordinarily temperate city was at the mercy of heavy snows because “it would be financially unwise to have a large fleet of snow-removal equipment when big snows occur so seldom.”
He then added a description of the snow’s behavior that seems familiar and, I suspect, is also confirmed by the hazards endured during our recent Big Snow of 2008. The mayor, to quote the Times, “defended the absence of city plows from the streets last night and early today, saying that it was a matter of good judgment rather than negligence. He said maintenance crews did begin to plow but then found that traction was worse on the ice that the snow-removal crews uncovered.
The State Highway Department found this to be true on the freeway, too, Braman said.” Similarly for snow testers in 2008, it was easier to step through fresh snow than across snow flattened into ice by other feet. In this city of sporting hills, improvised toboggans also compressed snow. Similarly it is “financially unwise to have a large fleet” of sleds here when cardboard, trash can lids, and inner tubes will work fine.
While it may be said to have first hit Seattle on the last day of 1968, snow repeatedly jabbed through January. Seattle Times local humorist Byron Fish described how during the 1969 dumping he got a long-distance telephone call from a friend in Nome, Alaska, who felt deeply for Fish in his plight of having to walk three blocks through the snow for groceries.
On January 24, another “homie” – John Reddin, the often nostalgic Seattle Times columnist – complained, “This has to be some of Seattle’s worst weather. Last summer was miserable, fall was among the wettest and now a freezing winter with snow and still more snow – and it’s only January.” Three days later it drubbed again. Seattle schools were closed for the first time in 19 years – that is, since 1950. Seattle’s then-record 10-day continuous freeze ended on January 31, 1969. It beat by one day the previous record from January 1909.
I best remember the Big Snow of 1969 for the uncanny accuracy of my snowballing. At the time, I was on the staff of a weekly tabloid called the Helix. It is fair to think of the popular tabloid as a sort of hybrid of the then-soon-to-arrive Weekly and the distant Stranger. Our office was near the south end of the University Bridge, and just as important, near the Red Robin tavern, the old one, which was run by brothers Sam and Saul, but owned – and we did not know it at the time – by Ivar Haglund. At some point the snow effectively stopped all traffic. A few us then took a break from producing that week’s paper and decided to explore by foot together our snowbound city after first stopping at the Red Robin for a beer – or something.
I had read somewhere of a beer experiment at a country club in the south. The effects of small amounts of alcohol – only one beer was allowed – on physical coordination and concentration were studied. After nine holes, half of the club’s participating members were given a beer while the other half were not allowed any alcohol. After completing the 18-hole round and adding up their scores, those who drank the single beer performed better on the back nine than on the first, and they also performed better than those who had no drink at all. And now we were ready to test these effects with snow.
We started across the empty University Bridge and into what for the rest of that day, at least, was the University District Wonderland. With daylight the steel supports of the cantilever bridge were safe targets for our snowballing. We were too old to throw at one another, which was good, at least for the others, because, as noted, that afternoon I rarely missed a target I was challenged to hit.
Someone would instruct, “Hit the third steel strap down from the top of the fourth truss,” and so on, and I did. It was a rare glory day for me in winter sports. I could never afford skis. Of course without a set 18 holes – or targets and someone keeping score – we could not come to any conclusions about the general effects of beer on accuracy beyond the indisputable and yet incidental evidence that I was hot with my snowballs.